johnlink ranks MAGIC & BIRD: A COURTSHIP OF RIVALS (2010)

While football is my sports passion as an adult, I grew up on Celtics basketball. I learned math through box scores and I played basketball in the family room with my brothers using trash cans and rolled up socks. We would stop to record stats (rebounds, assists, shots made and missed) on a notebook which had been marked out with the names of our Celtics and those of the team we would subconsciously rig to lose. I don’t come to a Bird & Magic documentary subjectively, but then we don’t ever come to any movie subjectively.


I watched MAGIC & BIRD: A COURTSHIP OF RIVALS (2010) on 5.16.15. It was my first viewing of the film.

Larry Bird, all time Boston Celtic great, was a basketball savant. He could pass like he had a sixth sense. He could shoot from anywhere on the court (including, as my youthful memories remind me, over the backboard from the baseline). He made everyone around him better. He was a quiet kid who played basketball like a pitbull.

Ervin Johnson, all time Los Angeles Laker great, was a basketball savant. He made the basketball look like a rabbit pulled from a hat. His shots might be passes aborted mid thought. His smile would entice even the road crowd as his intensity stifled his opposition. He made everyone around him better. He was the loud kid who liked coming through the crowd. A cynic might say he was inflating his own ego. But that cynic would be ignoring that he made everyone in the room brighter and happier.

In 2010, Ezra Edelman made an HBO made a documentary about the relationship between Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Larry Bird. Amazingly, their paths crossed early in college when they played on the same USA basketball team. They then competed in an NCAA Championship which saw Magic on the winning side. The documentary tells us about their battles in the 80s as Magic won 5 Championships and Bird won 3. Each got the better of the other at least once.

But, truly, this is a movie about friendship. In fashion that is true to form, Bird and Magic never sit together. We hear about their thoughts in singular talking-head interviews and through the thoughts of their teammates and the reporters who covered them. We learn that these two rivals hated each other for years before a Converse commercial at the home of Bird’s mother brought them together. We learn of the devastation of Magic’s HIV diagnosis and how it may have made Bird more upset than Magic (a man who admirably never felt like the diagnosis was a death sentence).

And the HIV angle cannot be understated even if the documentary is more sport than life: Magic Johnson is the reason HIV is no longer the stigma it was. Magic was the everyman who’s lifestyle made him a victim. He suffered through teammates and fans turning their back on him. But that struggle wasn’t for naught. He is the poster child, sad as it may be, for a person who is HIV positive and lives a life as near normal as any of us do. Bird’s reaction, revealing the soft human behind all the trash talk, speaks to his own deep love for Johnson and to his own goodness.

Race is a major factor in this story as well. Magic seems more aware than Bird, who would much rather let others talk race than he does. His singular drive to win would be something that might be condemned by modern sports (I think of Bill Belichick saying some of the things Bird did and how he would be vilified and called a horrible person), but there is no denying his virtue when watching this documentary and seeing how he negates any reporter who tries to make race the story.

This documentary is narrowly focused on their relationship, so we don’t get to see many of their otherwise vast highlights. At 90 minutes, these two guys could fill a 10 hour documentary series if one was so inclined. Instead, A COURTSHIP OF RIVALS sometime feels like it is merely scratching the surface. We are told some wonderful stories and we get to know some of the internal thoughts about each other. But, in the end, this movie doesn’t go as far as it could. Why DON’T we ever get to see these guys together? Where is the moment where Magic had the Celtics shirt under his Lakers jersey? What is their friendship like now – decades after they both stopped playing?

Ultimately, though, while this isn’t any sort of amazing documentary, if you like either one of these guys – or are interested in sporting rivalry at all – this is a worthy watch which sees its 90 minute run time zip by in what feels like half the time.


When scoring a documentary, the category ‘acting’ is replaced by ‘effect’, which scores how well the film succeeded in relaying its message.



FINAL SCORE: 5.75 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on May 16, 2015.

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