Magic Johnson on Larry Bird: 'I like him now'
In the middle of a small town with no place to go, Magic Johnson ate with the enemy.
He had already expressed reluctance about doing a Converse commercial with arch-rival Larry Bird, but, as detailed in Jackie MacMullan's book, "When the Game Was Ours," both players' representatives convinced them that it' would be a good idea in marketing their brand. So there Johnson stood on a basketball court on Sept. 12, 1985, in Frenchlick, Ind., reciting lines and playing basketball with Bird without even saying hi to him. But neither Johnson nor Bird could maintain their reticence any longer.
A producer informed Johnson during the crew's lunch break that his meal was at Bird's house, which was close to the shoot. That's when Johnson, who recalled having a "real dislike for Larry" because of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, began wondering about the ulterior motive behind the invitation.
"I'm thinking, really, what's going to happen when I get up to the house?" Johnson recalled in a one-on-one conversation with Times columnist Bill Plaschke. "Here is a black man in the middle of the corn fields, and I can't go nowhere."
Nothing bad happened. As soon as Johnson arrived at Bird's house, his mother, Georgia, greeted him with a hug and then offered him a home-cooked meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn. Eventually, Johnson and Bird opened up with each other, admiring each other's Midwestern roots and humble origins.
As Johnson later recalled, the commercial shoot and the lunch "turned the relationship around." But the rivalry still remained heated as Johnson's Lakers earned a 2-1 edge over Bird's Celtics in the NBA Championship series.
"I just hate anybody in green, whether it was Larry, Kevin McHale," Johnson said. "You had to hate the Celtics to beat them."
But now that their playing careers are over, it's a much different story. Their respectful relationship is the subject of MacMullan's book. They are also the subject of a Broadway play that Johnson says will open in late March or early April of 2012.
Said Johnson: "I like him now."
-- Mark Medina
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