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Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (DVD Review)

11 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Not rated.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber.

You couldn’t invent all the differentials that defined the NBA’s definitive pair of professional doppelgangers, of which race (black vs. white) was merely one. There was also Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s upbringing in state capital (in fact, industrial state capital) Lansing, Mich. — vs. Larry Bird’s in French Lick, IN, a town of less than 2000 situated in Klan country. Then there were Johnson’s formative years (humble but solid) — vs. something close to abject poverty for Bird. An obvious one was the geographical contrast of their respective teams — plus, of course, Johnson’s famously outgoing personality to contrast with Bird’s introversion.

So, OK, let’s complicate it some more. Johnson had two personalities: the Earvin (“down-home” and full of love for mom) vs. the Magic side (hey, let’s go to the Playboy Mansion). So how did the former L.A. Laker and former Boston Celtic get to be friends after years of antagonism — dating back when they played in the NCAA’s 1979 National Championship Game, respectively representing Michigan State and Indiana State?

Well, it took years, and there’s even been a book about it: When the Game Was Ours, co-written by the principals with veteran sportswriter Jackie MacMullan, who is also interviewed extensively in this documentary, one of the best ever made on sports. Before that, the two superstars had tracked each other on Sports Illustrated covers and, of course, played each other in the pros. But they weren’t much for soulful exchanges, and there was never a whole lot of love lost between the Lakers and the Celtics in the first place. (A couple court confrontations here are almost as sizzling as the clips of game action, of which is there is plenty).

Of all things, a Converse shoe commercial featuring both players broke the ice — a spot filmed at Bird’s insistence the French Lick home he bought for his mother (though, as you might guess, one with a basketball court out back where he did most of his at-home prep). Intending to go to his trailer during the lunch break, Johnson was instead invited up to the house for eats. He and Bird’s mother hit it off, the two players began to chat, and when the season resumed … well, Bird was no more outgoing. A pro is a pro.

But friendship would come, and today it is one of those where both of these now early middle-agers can go a year or two without seeing each other and then pick it up on a dime. The bond was solidified when the dreadful announcement came that Johnson had tested HIV-positive and had to retire from the game (interviewed Arsenio Hall, a great friend of Johnson’s, makes a powerful subject in this part of a 90-minute portrait). Without getting too clinical, the documentary is fairly upfront about Johnson’s onetime sexual habits, which could include up to six women at a time (though Johnson notes, as many others have before, that you could spend a lot of time at the Playboy Mansion just watching movies). Another uncomfortable situation Rivals addresses is the rap that the Celtics (Bird notwithstanding) were otherwise “too black” for Boston fans, some of whom openly rooted for the Lakers during the team’s many championship confrontations.

The result is a totally consuming mix of clips and interview subjects that include lots of reflection by the principals themselves — plus writers, other players and coaches if not family members. (How is that you can see former Lakers coach Pat Riley photographed in a tight shot and still know he’s a snappy dresser?) I used to think that 1995’s Frank and Ollie (about longtime Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston) was probably the most affecting documentary I’ve ever seen on enduring male buddy-dom. But I don’t know: this one is right up there.

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