To say I am disappointed with the direction of the NBA and it's player base in the past decade to decade and a half is the understatement of the century. Growing up, I felt pride following my local team, the Portland Trail Blazers. I closely followed every game and never felt anger towards the team, despite never managing to take the title, losing to Detroit in 1990 and the legendary Bulls in 1992. The team played their hearts out and even though we had one of the greatest players to step on the court, Clyde "The Glide" Drexler, the focus was always on teamwork. Cliff Robinson, Terry Porter, the late Kevin Duckworth, and Jerome Kersey were just a few names that made the Blazers a team to love. They were as far as my memory serves consummate professionals who put the game first.
Then things took a turn for the worse, players left and retired, and a new breed of athlete emerged. Loud and abrasive, the Blazers begin to be more known for the off court, often-criminal antics of certain key players. The nickname "Jail Blazers" was a mark of shame for Portland and I had bailed on the team and the sport in general long before things sunk to the lowest point. Maybe it began with Michael Jordan years prior, but the shift from following a great team to focusing on a great player just didn't make things fun. Egos were out of control and the good old days seemed like a distant memory.
While no one will deny ego was involved, the rivalry of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird, represents the height of fun in the NBA. While the heyday of the Bird/Magic competition and to a larger effect, the Celtics/Lakers rivalry, all occurred prior to my birth and finished just as I began to follow my home team, reading about it and hearing how it all went down puts a smile on my face and lets me escape back to the carefree years of when basketball was fun. HBO hits nothing but net, takes it to the hole, dunks with authority, take your pick of any corny basketball pun, with "Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals." Serving as a threefold look at the lives and career of Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson, their personal rivalry and eventual friendship, and the exciting but often racially charged team feud.
Running only 90 minutes, "Magic and Bird," which I'll refer to from this point forward as "M&B" doesn't waste a second, painting a beautiful portrait of skill, friendship, and ultimately humanity. The first third takes the time to give viewers a look at just who Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird are, going back to the beginning, showing the parallels and differences of both, culminating in the birth of the rivalry at the NCAA Finals in 1979, were a fairly confident Bird was soundly defeated by Johnson's powerhouse Michigan State team. For Bird, the game had begun and Magic was up one point. What followed over the course of just over a decade was a cat and mouse game of one-upmanship, but never came at the cost of the team.
"M&B" benefits immensely from getting Larry and Earvin (the film makes an important distinction between Earvin the man and "Magic" the character) to sit down for interviews, with Earvin being open and candid from the get go, while the historically shy and reserved Larry, keeps things mostly professional, always focusing on the game as he always had on the court. The insights from both men when it comes to the racially backed (by many fans) feud of the "White" Celtics and the Black "Lakers" serves as an important historical perspective from the men caught in the middle; for them it was always about playing to the best of their ability and the feud between them was a byproduct of doing the most to lead the team to victory. What is so captivating though is Earvin's desire to be friends with Larry, and Larry's dislike of Magic.
Midway through the program and midway through the feud itself, Larry and Earvin meet on the set of a Converse commercial filmed at Larry's house. It's here were the difference between the flashy and loveable Magic and the loveable and humble Earvin is most apparent. When Larry finally gets to "meet" Earvin, the friendship is formed and it's crystal clear that Larry's shy nature compounded with his intense desire to succeed is what clashes so much with Magic. For the remainder of the documentary, Larry remains very adamant that he didn't like Magic and always wanted to one-up him, but his love for Earvin is impossible to hide. When Earvin is diagnosed with HIV, things get very real, with Earvin getting emotional on camera recounting how much a call from Larry meant. Likewise, Larry is at his most vulnerable when he more or less says hearing his friend was diagnosed with a deadly disease was only second in worst days to his own father's suicide. It's the pinnacle of the complex level of humanity between these two men and what a tremendous asset they were to the sport.
These ideals are all supported by those close to the two men, namely Larry's brother and Earvin's close friend, Arsenio Hall. These secondary participants often provide viewers insight into the lives of Bird and Johnson and sing amazing praises of their personal victories on the court and how they contributed to the team as a whole. Neither man takes credit for leading their team to victory and it's bittersweet to see such humility, with the only grandstanding being their rivalry against each other. When the time comes for their careers to end, basketball fans are forced to face the reality of the present day game, where such larger than life men don't exist anymore. If memory serves, Bryant Gumble states in the final moments that Magic and Bird saved the NBA from viewer disinterest with their professionalism and skill, but history credits Michael Jordon, who epitomizes the focus on the player first, team second philosophy, and who recently exhibited behavior at a Hall of Fame induction that shows he may be a great athlete, but is nowhere near as professional as Larry or Earvin. Their heyday may be long over, but we are still fortunate they played the game.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is frustratingly interlaced, but still sports a solid level of detail. Color levels are all over the place when it comes to stock footage, while interview segments are mostly life like, with a few skin tones looking too red. There are some compression artifacts noticeable on strong primary colors, but this is mostly when vintage photos are blown up as backdrops.
The English 2.0 audio track is perfect for a dialogue driven documentary. All participants are clearly understandable, with Liev Schreiber's narration mixed well along with a low-key supporting score. A Spanish 2.0 track is also included.
"Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals" is a truly great experience. For the hardcore basketball fan it's a dream come true, for everyone else it's still a worthy personal and professional portrait of two men, who are among the greatest players to ever play the game and the friendship that was born off the court. For that crowd however, it's a one and done show, an essential rental. Recommended.