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It all started in 1979 when Larry Bird of Indiana State played against Earvin "Magic" Johnson of Michigan State in the NCAA championship game. Michigan won the state 75-64 and one of NBA's biggest rivalry was brewing.
College basketball was flourishing and tv ratings were at all time high, but the NBA was crumbling. The NBA was troubled by low levels of crowds and reduced fan interest. There was a growing belief that the League in the late 1970's, had become "too black a league". This discouraged a lot of white fans from coming to watch NBA games. People also complained about the style of play; every player wanted to be the guy and nobody played a team game. The League was losing money and teams had no sponsors. The NBA was on the deathbed.
Larry Bird was drafted by Boston Celtics in 1978 (6th pick overall but did not sign immediately and played the aforementioned NCAA tournament before playing his first Celtics game) and was considered to be The Great White Hope. Bird did not disappoint. He carried the Celtics from being a 29-53 team to a 61-21 team. Larry Bird was not only a talented player, he had a lot of fight in him.
The following season, Lakers drafted Magic Johnson #1 overall. From the day he arrived, he became the prince of the city. He was playing alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers were a force again.
Magic Johnson won the NBA championship in 1980 (against Philadelphia 76ers) but Larry Bird was voted Rookie Of The Year and it wasn't even close. (Bird had 63 votes and Magic got merely 3 votes)
After the 1981 season, the NBA came up with a plan to revive itself. The League portrayed them as arch-rivals. We had the outspoken African American vs the shy white guy and the plan worked. The Lakers and Celtics renewed their rivalry and reached the Finals the next season. Bird got his revenge and the Celtics were world champions that season. But it was just the beginning of the saga that unfolded over the decade.
The investment paid its dividend. TV ratings shot up and the two young guns attracted huge crowds. The two rivals did commercials together and became celebrities in their own rights. The NBA was back at the top. NBA basketball got its lifeline. NBA continued to prosper over the years and has become the biggest pro league in sports.
Larry Legend and Magic Johnson had saved the League.