The NBA went Hollywood on Monday night, mixing basketball legends with a star-studded list of presenters including Samuel L. Jackson, Tiffany Haddish and “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley at the 2019 NBA Awards. Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal hosted the third annual award show, which aired live on TNT, kicking things off with a surprise rap performance before honoring the top players in the game. But the spotlight was on Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, famously longtime rivals on the court, who accepted their honor together. “Lifetime achievement award — that means you’ve been around a long time,” Bird quipped onstage, addressing the audience first.
“I think we pushed each other to greatness,” Johnson remarked during his speech, turning to Bird. “I always wanted to be just where you were. Thank you for pushing me and I hope I did the same for you.”
For more than a decade, Johnson and Bird were best-known as two of the NBA’s top talents, true rivals, and the faces of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. So, the two legends receiving the lifetime achievement award together on Monday night was fitting, as their paths have moved in a parallel way for the entirety of their careers, including playing against each other in college and serving as co-captains of the 1992 Olympics Dream Team (which was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2010).
“Their careers since college have been so intertwined with each other that, you know, like peanut butter and jelly, they go together,” former Detroit Pistons star (and another rival) Isiah Thomas told Variety on the red carpet. “I get to observe again another special moment for those two. It’s been a great journey for me — I was just watching their competitiveness and also watching their love affair with the game and with the NBA.”
While the rivalry was focused on the court for Bird and Johnson, it also extended to the fans and the basketball culture at large.
“I grew up a Magic fan and hated Larry Bird,” “Stumptown” actor Michael Ealy joked. “Then I saw the documentary that came out about Magic and Bird and realized how important it was that they had each other and how much they kind of helped raise their game. And I feel like, as an actor you can only get better by playing somebody who’s better than you, somebody that raises your game.”
“They didn’t just play…they brought a certain character to the game — personality. And they also like made their teams iconic,” comedian Amanda Seales explained. “And I think also the fact that here’s a white guy, here’s a black guy and they have a sportsmanship and camaraderie. And we’re in a country that continues to just try to push this racism thing through the door. But we’ve always seen that like sports a lot of times can be the equalizer.”
Among the NBA stars awarded during the gala celebration were Luka Dončić (Rookie of the Year), Mike Budenholzer (Coach of the Year), and NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who accepted with a tearful speech. Sportscaster turned “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts received the Craig Sager Award, presented by WNBA star Candace Parker and “Insecure” actress and creator Issa Rae, which comes in the form of a bold jacket designed after Sager’s trademark style.
“I’m honored and grateful for this recognition. The words often associated with this award – courage, faith, compassion and grace are a perfect description of Craig Sager,” Roberts began, remembering her late friend and colleague. “We were both inducted into the sports broadcasting hall of fame the same year and I was really looking forward to seeing Craig that night, but he was too ill to attend and we were so devastated when he passed away in the very next day.”
Sager and Roberts worked alongside each other as sports reporters in the early days of their careers and maintained a friendship that continued until Sager’s death in 2016 after a battle with leukemia. The legendary broadcaster was just 65 years old. Roberts fought and won battles with both breast cancer and the bone marrow disease MDS, bravely sharing the realities of each disease with her television audiences. Roberts’ speech centered on her mother’s advice to “make your mess your message” and how she’s worked to inspire and encourage others in their own battles with these diseases, as well as creating awareness for life-saving initiatives like the bone marrow registry.
“You never know what someone is going through. I urge you not to compare your despair,” Roberts concluded, preaching a message of compassion. “Extend to that person everything that you’ve got — all the kindness, love and understand you can. And why not do it like Craig did – with absolute joy, because he came at you strong…Sager Strong.”