Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

Another one of those scintillating documentaries that give grown men an excuse to cry.

larry bird, magic johnson

Thanks, HBO Sports, for another one of those scintillating documentaries that give grown men an excuse to cry, if only in the safety of their living rooms. “Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals” is a walk down memory lane with two basketball legends, sure, but it’s simultaneously a look at an unlikely friendship between two guys who couldn’t be more different, except for their extraordinary skills on the court. Teeming with carefully selected clips and interviews — and welcome insight into the sociology of the NBA and indeed America in the 1980s — for hoops aficionados, it’s fan-tastic.

The introductions to “a rivalry that transformed a sport, and intertwined two legacies” go back to Larry Bird’s youth as a painfully shy kid whose father committed suicide, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s as a gregarious sort who naturally gravitated toward the spotlight. They faced off in the 1979 NCAA championship game, then took their ongoing battle to the NBA, where Bird was affixed with a tag he didn’t care for as the mostly African-American league’s “great white hope.” (Even Johnson, reminiscing about playing with Bird in an all-star game in the ’70s, describes him as “the baddest white dude I’ve ever seen in my life.”)

The next half-hour or so is sheer sports-fan nirvana, tracing the epic history of the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers matchups in the 1980s — as well as its part in race relations, given Boston’s uneasy racial history and Bird’s prominence as the town’s marquee player.

The last segment, however, might be the most moving, chronicling how the two bitter on-court rivals gradually became friends, beginning during time they spent together shooting a shoe commercial. During that encounter, Bird discovered, “I like Earvin a lot better than Magic.” And Johnson tears up when he relates how Bird was among the first to call when the Lakers star announced that he had contracted HIV and would be retiring from basketball.

In addition to tying in with a related book, “When the Game Was Ours,” the timing could hardly be better, coming as a sort of tip-off to the NCAA basketball tournament.

These HBO docs have become one of TV’s most reliable pleasures — and a rare bastion of sobriety in a cable-verse where sports analysts always seem to be shouting at the top of their lungs. By contrast, Liev Schrieber’s narration is as soothing as a warm blanket, and for those who grew up or grew old watching these dazzling talents trade baskets and no-look passes, don’t be surprised if there’s a bit of furtive dabbing at the eyes before the buzzer sounds.

Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

Docu; HBO, Sat. March 6, 8 p.m.

  • Production: Produced by HBO Sports. Executive producers, Ross Greenburg, Rick Bernstein; producer, Ezra Edelman; senior producer, Joe Lavine; writers, Aaron Cohen, Eric Drath; editor, Charlie Olivier; music, Gary Lionelli. 90 MIN. Narrator: Liev Schrieber.