Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bird & Magic: To See The Other Sides

Inspired by the passionate thoughts of my friend over at North Station Sports, Nick Gelso.
Even if you knew 99% of what happened in this film, that other 1% is worth your time. -- Red's Army
I saw the Magic-Bird documentary a few nights ago. I saw Earvin and Larry relive their relationship --  even more so their individualized friendship -- and I saw Magic and Bird extoll their storied rivalry of extreme competition and unmatched edginess that was felt between the two of them on the court.

Last night, I saw the many different perceptions of Bird and Magic spawned by reporters of the era, and the difference in opinion between the players, the close friends and family, and those who merely watched greatness from the confines of their television screen. I saw the difference between those interviewed who wanted not just to meet Bird and Magic, but to have friendships with them, who desperately wanted to see them open up about the ups and downs between their lives on, and off, the court. But in addition, I saw something a little bit more specified, that being those who wanted to be the ones to ask them the questions, instead of offering their own opinion during their responses to questions. I also recognized those who realized that after fully being able to see the true Larry's and Bird's, and the true Earvin's and Magic's, they were comfortably admiring them from a distance.

On the other hand, I had my own experience last night. I truly, in their emotional, physical, and tolling state, witnessed the Magic and Bird rivalry. I sat amazed as I looked back at the rebirth of basketball, the importance of paving the way from Elgin, West, Robertson, and Russell; Julius, Kareem, and Walton; Bird and Magic; and THEN Jordan, Isiah (despite playing at the same time), Pippen, Rodman, Barkley, Hakeem, and the greats of the '90s. Magic and Bird artistically carved the true meaning of specifying parts of their game to help their team win on certain nights. They mastered the craft of exerting themselves in narrowed styles, in an effort to push their team over the top in categories that on various nights were essential to win.

They were the pioneers of the '80s, bringing back the teachings and the examples of basketball heroes in the past. Think about it: Bird in Larry were revolutionary players, not just in their position, but how to rise to greatness in the proper way.

Isiah Thomas, for example, went down in history as one of the most talented guards who can dish out assists and get other guys involved. A harrowing performance with him was game 6 of the 1988 Finals, with Thomas being able to rise up in score 43 points in a crucial match, on a badly twisted ankle. It had Bird and Magic all over it. He also went on a 14-point spurt after the Lakes went up by eight in the third (and eventually rampaged the entire Los Angeles team by dropping 25 in the entire third, something that, while you would be shell-shocked nonetheless, over time became something expected of Magic and Bird). Bird and Magic were just unimaginable to watch, precisely the reason I mentioned that game Isiah had. They were always playing with, as Bill Simmons likes to describe it, a "There's no way we're not walking out of here without a win" face on.

Isiah probably had it in him all along. Heck, he ended up being one of those "Just watch me and you'll become better" players anyway. But just the mere presence of Bird, and the excellence they displayed so easily that inspired players to put on such performances is the reason basketball is where it is today (or at least the reason we have basketball greats that are knowledgeable enough to satisfy the fans and their teammates with proper team-oriented and dominant play). There's just no way that Magic's phenomenal inspiration he provided for the league, as well as Bird's, didn't put Isiah or any other star of that generation on the fast-track.

Bird and Magic were measuring sticks. Players didn't want to just be at their level, but they wanted to have the same impact as them. They wanted to literally light a match to the crowd's energy, either positively or negatively, with a simple salvaged loose ball or a precise pass leading to a thunderous dunk or finish that would deflate the opposing team. They yearned for that bone-crunching shot, that heart-stopping finish in the paint, that blood-chilling defensive presence, or that disturbing competitive edge. It was almost unnatural for any other player to have it. Only Bird and Magic could let it flow the way they did. It couldn't be imitated. It wasn't a gimmick. It was just Bird and Magic.

Going back to their inspirational play, let's visit some other greats... maybe that stamped greatness on the records of the '90s with their own Bird and Magic exhibits?

Pippen and Jordan were pissed-off matadors from the beginning, fighting to prove themselves worthy of the status they were building off of those who had watched them. But again, who do you think they looked to for advice, or maybe just example?

Pippen and Jordan played like warriors, bloodied by their critics, by their adversities, and never lost their drive. They never relinquished their aggressiveness along the way to fame, and always kept basketball as their number one priority. Perhaps Pippen and Jordan were the greatest unintentional students of Bird and Magic, meaning that they learned so much, constructed their game styles and demeanors on and off the court when playing with the paradigms attained from Bird and Magic.

Bird and Magic knew how to win in a way only the greatest successors not just in sports, but in life, could comprehend. They performed in ways that words couldn't do justice for. They made everyone seem better, and knew how to balance feeding off of others energy and game techniques and creating for themselves.

And I can say that from the other night's documentary, I was able to wholeheartedly grasp what all the excitement that was hyped around Bird and Magic was. I'll be honest with you, I narrowly missed seeing Bird and Magic grace the court. The only memories I had of them were, sadly, YouTube videos and flashbacks of their battles on CBS and other major networks. But I couldn't quite see for myself where the greatness glowed from them. In my mind, sure, they both played like top 10 players.

But where was that unique personality? The superiority MJ steered the reigns of his team with for so long; the sheer arrogance that for some reason we put up with during the Kobe era because he played so terrifyingly; the humor Shaq and Walton gives/gave us; or even the aura of winning that steams off of Bill Russell and Robert Horry? Well, I found out where it lied last night.

I saw the grit of Bird and the gentleness of Magic. I saw how nothing got to Bird, and how a lot of things could easily affect Magic. I relived the awe-inspiring understanding of the game Bird possessed and the riveting feel of the game that Magic let explode on the court. I finally realized that Larry couldn't have been nearly as good a player as he was if he wasn't such a prick -- and didn't have a black hole inside his heart and mind that could suck up all distracting emotions when he needed to focus -- and I realized that Magic wouldn't have came close to his ceiling as he did in the career we watched him play had he not had an itching for fame.

I couldn't help but admire Bird's passion for work and near-disgust with the spotlight and Magic's hunger for another "front door," as they referred to it in the documentary.

But all in all, I saw the two of them becoming mirror images of each other as they took their places on the floor that was equally as special to them, despite their polar-opposite personas. I saw how amazing it was to see them take form as they transformed from their personalities off the court to fire-breathing dragons on the court -- one graceful and one scrappy. I saw the surreality of the two of their styles that I hadn't nearly captured before. So maybe I didn't see them play. But I saw a documentary that gave me the next best thing.

That's good enough for me.

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