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Jackie MacMullan’s When the Game was Ours is the story of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. The story starts with Bird’s and Johnson’s appearance at the April 1978 World Invitational Tournament in Kentucky, an electrifying few seconds in which the two future superstars and Hall of Famers hit each other with a series of gorgeous passes before Johnson laid it in. The history then takes the two players through their college years, culminating with Johnson’s Michagan State Spartans beating Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the national championship.
MacMullan covers both players’ journey through the NBA (which they basically saved from bankruptcy), spending the bulk of pages on the three Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals in 1984, 85 and 87. She concludes with Magic’s HIV diagnosis, retirement and education, Bird’s back injury and retirement, and both players ultimately stepping aside for Michael Jordon, as symbolized by a playful argument during the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Along the way, MacMullan analyzes how and why Bird and Johnson became such good friends despite their fiercely competitive natures. Though the ending lacks punch, the journey more than makes up for it.
Time for some honesty: I have a giant journalistic crush on Jackie MacMullan, former Boston Globe Celtics writer and current ESPN columnist. She is the best basketball writer in the country. I learn something new every time I read her, because she backs up her substantial writing talent with a wealth of basketball knowledge. Want to know how you can tell when a writer really knows his or her stuff? He or she doesn’t spend the whole column trying to convince you of it. MacMullan writes with what I call “gentle intelligence.” She teaches without beating you over the head. Her analysis shows off how deeply she understands basketball, and she does a fantastic job pairing her words with the words of Bird, Johnson and their teammates. Her writing, her reporting, her interviewing: they’re all top notch.
The classic challenge to writing long-form journalism is maintaining a narrative that keeps moving forward while successfully flashing back often enough to give background without losing the forward flow. MacMullan pulls it off almost flawlessly. The best example is her story of the famous 1985 Converse sneakers commercial, in which Johnson pulls up to Bird’s home in French Lick, Indiana, the two exchange some words, and start a game of 1-on-1.
MacMullan has Johnson and Bird go into Bird’s basement to relax between takes, then devotes 10 pages to Bird’s and Johnson’s upbringing and high school years. MacMullan parallels the two players so well that, when she has the players come out of the basement 10 pages later, it’s obvious why they bonded and wound up friends once their NBA careers were over.
MacMullan pulls off the flashbacks without a problem. Occasionally she opts to instead flash forward, and that’s much harder to do. In the midst of the Converse commercial section, it’s mentioned that Bird’s mother was a fan of Isaiah Thomas since his days at Indiana. MacMullan then briefly flashes to Thomas’s disparaging anti-Bird remarks after the Celtics beat his Detroit Pistons in the 1987 conference finals, a series highlighted by Bird’s iconic steal of Thomas’s inbound pass in Game Five. Granted, any real Celtics historian would instantly know what this play is. I’m not such a historian, having been only 3 when Bird won his last championship, and with Milwaukee-born parents interested only in football (and maybe the Milwaukee Braves, in my dad’s case). I’ve seen the steal dozens of times, but I never learned who it was against or when. So I was confused, and I didn’t learn what she was talking about for 41 pages.
But these flash-forwarding missteps are the outliers, not the norm. Even the most knowledgeable Celtics and Lakers fans will learn something knew about their favorite teams. Kevin McHale and Bird so respected each other’s differing playing mentality (McHale never had Bird’s killer instinct) that they only talked to each other on the court through Danny Ainge. Cedric Maxwell, no matter how good a color commentator he might now be, became an absolute clubhouse cancer in his final seasons, preferring to brag about his contracts and joke about wanting to get injured rather than trying. Johnson gave Jordon a far harder time than Bird about Jordon’s place as the best in the game.
Ultimately, Johnson might go down as the slightly better all-around player, helped out by his five rings to Bird’s three. Bird will always be the better clutch-shooter, especially before the 1986-87 season, when the decline of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced Johnson to become a Bird-like scorer. Without a doubt, both players look back on their careers with both satisfaction and regret.
The 1980s were a golden age of basketball, in which the two biggest stars played on the two greatest franchises. The NBA has never been the same.