Review first published 01/06/12
From the moment these two players took the court on opposing sides, they engaged in a fierce physical and psychological battle. Their uncommonly competitive relationship came to symbolize the most compelling rivalry in the NBA. These were the basketball epics of the 1980s — Celtics vs Lakers, East vs West, physical vs finesse, Old School vs Showtime, even white vs black. Each pushed the other to greatness — together Bird and Johnson collected eight NBA Championships, six MVP awards and helped save the floundering NBA at its most critical time. When it started they were bitter rivals, but along the way they became lifelong friends.
With intimate, fly-on-the-wall detail, When the Game Was Ours transports readers to this electric era of basketball and reveals for the first time the inner workings of two players dead set on besting one another. From the heady days of trading championships to the darker days of injury and illness, we come to understand Larry’s obsessive devotion to winning and how his demons drove him on the court. We hear him talk with candor about playing through chronic pain and its truly exacting toll. In Magic we see a young, invincible star struggle with the sting of defeat, not just as a player but as a team leader. We are there the moment he learns he’s contracted HIV and hear in his own words how that devastating news impacted his relationships in basketball and beyond. But always, in both cases, we see them prevail.
A compelling, up-close-and-personal portrait of basketball’s most inimitable duo, When the Game Was Ours is a reevaluation of three decades in counterpoint. It is also a rollicking ride through professional basketball’s best times.
I’ve been an armchair basketball fan for 25 years on and off – mostly off as of late because watching the games in the UK can be only seen through the ESPN channel which involves additional expense, but that’s by the by. The era that is interest to me is that when I was in my late teens to my mid-to-late twenties in the eighties and nineties and three particular players dominated the landscape of the time – Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
In 2009, Bird and Johnson alongside Jackie MacMullan, sports journalist and regular contributor to the ESPN programme “Around The Horn”, decided to lift the lid on their basketball journeys from childhood, through their college and celebrated NBA careers, to their respective retirements – Bird through congenital spinal problems which were exacerbated by his hard nosed brand of play and Johnson due to his acquiring HIV.
I have seen video documentaries with Larry (“A Basketball Legend”) and Magic (“Always Showtime”) and whilst I liked them, they were pretty safe and didn’t delve too far into the men behind the legends. This book is totally different in so much that Bird and Johnson write about themselves and each other, in a third person documentary style, warts and all. You get a deep sense of Bird being the quiet man off the court, yet competitive man on the court, whose life revolved around playing basketball (in his words “The Hick from French Lick”), whilst Magic, who also played for the love of the game, is a man who courted the Hollywood lifestyle right from his arrival with his infectious smile, “Showtime” personality and a high basketball intelligence matched only by his rival.
This book really gets to the guts of the rivalry which was initially riddled with misunderstandings and competitive personas which led to a period of bitterness, bordering on emnity, in the early parts of their careers, which later gave way to a mutual respect which started with the filming of an advertisement for their sports shoe sponsor, and, finally, a deep friendship between the two as they acknowledged that they were on a parallel career alongside each other, bordering on being two sides of the same coin.
It also speaks of the changing landscape of the NBA – from a sports product in decline in the late 1970’s due to money troubles and the spectre of drug use, through the revitalisation of the NBA through the intense rivalry that Larry and Magic brought into it, through the handing over of the torch to Michael Jordan – most significantly at the Barcelona Olympics and the coming of the “new guard”, specifically the new Lakers and Celtics teams that have contested for NBA titles.
I’ve read a few sporting biogs and this is the most intense and personal one that I’ve read. You really get a sense of getting into the head of these two basketball phenoms as they lay their respective thoughts bare about how they approached the game of basketball and life in general along with how they felt about each other and their respective basketball franchises throughout their careers.
If you’re a Lakers or Celtics fan and you haven’t read this book, you owe it to yourself to read it as you will gain a personal insight in the two men who have become synonymous with the Lakers and Celtics franchises.
If you’re a basketball fan in general or a general sports fan, you may also gain something from this as it’s a well written depiction on the nature of sporting rivalry.