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By 1984, when Stern took over the NBA, Magic and Bird had already saved the league. The new model was set — get the superstar, find a supporting player or two, and launch the dynasty
When David Stern, the former commissioner of the National Basketball Association, died on New Year's Day, the generous tributes credited him with rescuing the NBA from 1970s decline and expanding the NBA's footprint around the world. For Canadians who in 2019 enjoyed their best basketball year ever, Stern's commissionership would be fondly remembered. His push for an international presence led in the 1990s first to the NBA "dream team" at the Barcelona Olympics (1992) and then to two Canadian basketball franchises, in Vancouver and Toronto (1995).
Stern lasted as commissioner for 30 years, 1984 to 2014, an impressive run by any standard. Yet whatever the influence of the 5-foot-9 executive it was the footprints of two 6-foot-9 players that really saved the NBA and created the league in which Kawhi Leonard could win a championship in San Antonio in 2014, Toronto in 2019 and perhaps Los Angeles later this year.
Three days before Stern died, the NBA marked the 40th anniversary of the first time that Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers) and Larry Bird (Boston Celtics) played against each other in the NBA. I love anniversaries, and reach for them more often than most columnists, but even I thought the 40th of Magic-Bird was a little contrived, with the long profiles plowing well-tilled soil.
It was the footprints of two 6-foot-9 players that really saved the NBA
Then Stern died and attention was refocused on the sorry shape the NBA was in during the 1970s in contrast to the booming league today. Without diminishing Stern's role, it is more plausible to draw a line from Magic-Bird in 1979 to the delirious Raptors championship run of 2019.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird first played against each other for the NCAA college basketball championship in March 1979. It remains the most-watched college championship 40 years later. In the dwindling December days of that year, Boston would travel to Los Angeles for their first professional meeting. Forty years ago this January in Boston was the first of a career's worth of rematches.
The great rivalry was born. When the NBA released its schedule, Magic would immediately circle the two-regular season games with Boston on the 82-game calendar. The rest of schedule became the "other 80" games.
Magic and Bird played against each other 37 times from 1979 to 1992, 18 times in the regular season and 19 times in the NBA finals. During basketball's best-ever decade, 1980 to 1989, Magic's Lakers were in the finals eight times, winning five. Bird's Celtics went to the finals five times, winning three. In the 1984, 1985 and 1987 finals, Magic and Bird faced each other; Bird won the first time, Magic the final two.
More important, the three contests drove interest in the NBA to new heights. It was the high-glamour "showtime" fast-break offence of the Lakers vs. the working-class half-court offence of the Celtics. It was Hollywood vs. the "hick from French Lick." It was black vs. white. It was West Coast vs. East Coast.
By 1984, when Stern took over, Magic and Bird had saved the league. Stern was also clever enough to become commissioner in Michael Jordan's rookie season.
Stern was clever enough to become commissioner in Michael Jordan's rookie season
Those three players changed the league. Basketball is a team game. No one player, no matter how good, can win a championship by himself. But in basketball, with only five players on the court, and 12 on the roster, a superstar needs a limited supporting cast to win.
Magic, remember, joined the best player in the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James Worthy would come along later. Bird had Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Magic and Bird demonstrated that a championship team, even a dynasty, could be built around one dominant player. While Magic and Bird played their entire careers for one team, they pointed toward an era that would follow. The superstar was a force of his own, who would land where he pleased.
Michael Jordan picked up the championship torch following Magic and Bird in the 1990s, winning six championships in eight seasons, taking a two-year break between three-peats to try his hand at baseball. The new model was set — get the superstar, find a supporting player or two, and launch the dynasty.
We thus have the NBA of today, where the league is dominated by a handful of superstars of immense popularity who move around as they will. Magic and Bird were one-team players, as was Jordan (until a forgettable epilogue with the Washington Wizards), but they set the stage for today's mobile superstars. One-man brands of enormous marketing potential, the superstar moves and the championship team follows. Toronto, say hello and goodbye to Kawhi Leonard.
Stern had an enormous indirect influence on the NHL. His senior vice-president at the NBA in the 1980s was another diminutive New York lawyer, Gary Bettman. After Stern — and Magic and Bird and Jordan — saved the NBA, Bettman was appointed NHL commissioner in 1993. He may one day exceed his mentor's record for longevity, but he will never get the love Stern did in office, in retirement and now in death.