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How the NBA Tapped Into the Bird and Magic Machine

A young David Stern utilized the stars’ exhilarating style of play, and the tensions around their rivalry, to market the league like never before

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.

Here’s an excerpt from Episode 3, which details how a young David Stern leveraged the budding rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to market the game.

By the start of the 1983-84 season, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had been in the NBA for four years and established themselves as two of the most compelling players in the game.

Their flair for the dramatic—notching game-winners in pressure situations—was part of it, but their unselfishness and desire to pass the ball resonated with fans and teammates alike, along with the new commissioner, David Stern.

Stern made sure that clips of Magic’s and Bird’s ingenious assists led the national NBA broadcasts.

Their pass-first, shoot-later approach was a notable departure from some of the previous stars, who hunted stats and chased scoring titles. It spawned a gorgeous era of basketball that piqued the interest of teenagers like Steve Kerr, who would go on to win five championships as a player and three more as coach of the Golden State Warriors.

To me, that was sort of the apex of NBA fandom in my lifetime,” Kerr says. “That’s when it just became this must-see spectacle. And so Stern deserves a lot of credit. Bird and Magic, you started seeing them in commercials watching a football game. Magic Johnson and Bird come on a Converse commercial, that was new, that was different.”

The head-to-head Finals battle that Bird and Magic craved still eluded them. But Stern recognized the league could capitalize on the rivalry between the glib, charismatic star in Los Angeles and the stoic, trash-talking star in Boston.

So, Stern issued a decree: No more Lakers vs. Celtics. Make it Magic vs. Larry!

The league’s PR machine was delighted to saturate the market with their intersecting story lines.

Stern OK’d putting their faces on the cover of the NBA register—a prestigious honor usually reserved for veterans with multiple All-Star nods. There had never been two players featured before, let alone players who were still on the rise.

“Let’s not focus on what we always did in the past,’’ Stern was fond of saying. “Let’s focus on what we’ll do in the future.’’

Spencer Haywood knows progress when he sees it. His lawsuit eliminated the four-year college requirement to play in the NBA, opening the floodgates for players like Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant to jump directly from high school to the pros.

Haywood recognized Stern’s marketing play as a sign that new seeds of legitimacy had been planted.

“Oh, it definitely was a turning point,” Haywood says. “David Stern, he changed the game. He changed the whole marketing perception and the whole idea that the individual is, because before we were just robotic kinda team guys.’’

Haywood explains that individuality was rare for pro basketball players in the ‘70s, right down to their attire:

“We went to the ’72 All-Star Game, or ’73, and everybody was ordering this suit from the King Size store in Boston,” he says. “And so, we get to the dinner and like six guys had on the same suits.’’

In 1983, before he became commissioner, Stern negotiated a pivotal agreement between the owners and players that instituted revenue sharing—and a salary cap—providing incentives for both players and owners to work together to increase league revenue.

In essence, they became partners. The players agreed to it because they maintained their rights to free agency, and were guaranteed 53 percent of the gross revenue. The owners signed off because it controlled spiking salaries, but also required the less lucrative franchises to spend money on player contracts.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss declared that without the agreement, the league would have been out of business in two to three years.

Stern was a details man, right down to the positioning of the silverware at the staff luncheons. He canvassed players and discovered they detested the pre–All-Star Game banquet, so he scrapped it and created a private function room in which a buffet would be served and players and their families could come and go.

Recalling the popularity of the slam dunk competition in the ABA, Stern and marketing whiz Rick Welts added it to the All-Star Game in 1984, and then convinced companies like Schick, American Airlines, and a small sports drink company from Indiana called Gatorade to buy in.

Stern also set out to eradicate the use of drugs, which had corroded the league’s image in the ’70s. He contacted law enforcement officials in each NBA city, attempting to track down who was selling drugs to the players. He set up free counseling and treatment centers. And, when that didn’t work, he implemented a strict substance misuse policy that banned repeat offenders for life.

“So that was like the beginning of the new era of basketball because prior to that, to be honest, we had decay in the NBA, decay in a sense that we had been infested by drugs,” Haywood says. “I was a victim of it. We had gotten stale. It was just—it was not a good look for basketball, it was not a good thing.”

Stern’s plan for a new NBA produced astounding results. In 1979, the NBA’s four-year deal with CBS was worth $74 million. By 2002, the league had inked six-year deals with ABC, ESPN, and TNT valued at over $4.6 billion.

“David knew as much about TV, as much about advertising, as much about the other aspects that go into the game, other than the playing, as anybody who ran those companies did,” says Rod Thorn, a former player, coach, and executive who eventually became president of basketball operations for the NBA. “He knew everything about everything, that guy.”

The networks were amenable to promoting the NBA, in large part, because of the appeal of the rivalry between Magic and Larry. It was East Coast vs. West Coast, Showtime fastbreak basketball vs. blue-collar lunch-pail basketball.

There was also another component that was impossible to ignore: Black vs. white. While Magic and Larry were aware of the racial narrative surrounding them, they were more engrossed with amassing championships.

Still, racial strife was a given in the NBA. And some cities, like Boston, had a reputation that preceded them.

The Celtics organization was one of the most progressive in sports history. They drafted the first Black player, rolled out the first all-Black starting five, and hired the first Black head coach.

But the city of Boston’s deplorable behavior in the ’70s, when violence erupted over forced busing, left a shameful mark. Black players on the Celtics learned to walk a fine line.

We knew where we were,” says M.L. Carr, who joined the Celtics in 1979. “But we knew there could be changes.”

Byron Scott told me he hated playing in Boston more than any other place. The Lakers were on high alert when they went out to dinner, because they were concerned for their safety.

At that particular time in the ’80s, nobody wanted to talk about the racial tension that was going on, but we all knew it was there,” Scott says. “You guys, as writers, knew it was there.’’

Indeed, as a young reporter for The Boston Globe in the mid-’80s, I listened while Lakers players recounted incidents of being harassed with racial slurs from ignorant fans in the stands—and on the streets. Lakers players told me that when they went to baggage claim at Logan Airport to pick up their luggage, they discovered missing items or defaced personal effects. Scott confirms this was an issue.

I think it was Coop’s bag that got kind of vandalized at one time,” he says, “and we were like, ‘Only here. Only here.’”

During the 1996-97 season, Carr served as both general manager and coach of the Celtics, the first to hold both jobs for the franchise since the legendary Red Auerbach. Carr figures that while the fans loved him, they weren’t ready for a Black man wielding so much power in the franchise. The team won just 15 games and was clearly tanking in hopes of securing the rights to Tim Duncan.

The goodwill for Carr evaporated as the Celtics continued to stumble.

Carr tells me he became so concerned for his safety that he bought a gun and carried it into the arena on game days.

“I did bring the gun with me on many occasions, when it got to the point when I was getting death threats all the time,” he says. “And interesting enough, in a city that actually loved me in a lot of ways, and a city I forever loved, I didn’t feel safe.”

I’m not saying racism was confined to Boston. It’s not. But its NBA team happened to highlight a white player, while L.A.’s was led by a Black player, and the battle lines were drawn by some based simply on that.