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Larry Bird reflects on how he, Magic Johnson impacted the NBA

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson

Indiana Pacers icon Larry Bird recently joined Marc Spears of The Undefeated for a wide-ranging interview. Amid their discussion, Bird was asked to comment on the impact he and Magic Johnson had on the NBA.

Bird and Johnson are two of the NBA’s most recognizable figures, and to many, their rivalry transformed the league. In the years before them, players would often shy away from the spotlight. With Bird and Magic, though, fans began to see personality on the court. A certain flare was evident in their style of play.

Bird acknowledges the fact that he and Magic changed the game, but he says they didn’t do it alone:

Marc Spears: Looking back to you and Magic entering the NBA in 1979, do you think people still talk enough about how you both helped the game?

Larry Bird: It’s funny, all through my career they always say, ‘You helped save the NBA.’ But there’s a lot of people who helped save this NBA, it didn’t start with us. Maybe we helped in some way as far as the competition we had in college and going against one another. But I do think we brought a different aspect to the game when we came in.

We both liked to pass the ball. We liked to try to make other guys better. And then we were winners, there was no question about that. Not that there wasn’t a lot of winners before us. But just how we played the game and approached the game, I think, made a big impact throughout the league as far as watching the game.

The league was facing several issues when Bird and Magic came onto the scene, including drug use and racial inequalities. In the seasons that followed, however, several new stars began to rise:

Spears: What was the NBA like when you guys came into the league?

Bird: You got to remember, when I came into the league they had cocaine problems. … So, there was a lot of drug use. I can remember David Stern saying in 1981 he had to give away tickets for people to come to the All-Star Game. But once ’84 hit you could tell it was a shift in the feelings of the NBA and how it was perceived. And then you got to remember Isiah [Thomas] came in, and Jordan came in, and Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone. You can keep naming them. A group of guys that came into our league and just took it to another level.

Spears: But that being said, you and Magic were the foundation of that …

Bird: Well, we were first. But I don’t want to say that we changed anything. But we made people take a look at the NBA the way we played. You got to remember at that time satellite dishes were just coming out and we were getting into more homes. …

And it goes back to college. We played against one another in the finals [in college]. And they say it’s still one of the highest-rated basketball games ever. So, obviously we had an impact. But we didn’t change this league.

Separately, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson claimed eight NBA championships throughout their playing careers. And whether they’re willing to admit it or not, they did change the game of basketball forever.