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APRIL 9, 1978
Lexington, Kentucky The errant shot came off the glass at a sharp angle, but Larry Bird, charting the flight of the ball, pulled down the rebound and advanced without hesitation, swiveling his head as he examined his options.
Earvin Johnson had already begun to head down the court the moment the ball was in flight. He’d been playing with Bird for only six days on a team of college All-Stars in this international roundrobin competition, yet already Johnson had determined that Bird was the most resourceful rebounder they had.
Bird filled the center lane, and Magic streaked down the right side, calling for the ball, but the forward looked away, as if he had pressing matters elsewhere. For one brief instant, Magic was disappointed. “I guess he’s not going to give it to me,” he murmured.
And that’s when it came: a behind-the-back missile that landed directly on Magic’s right palm. It remained there just long enough for Johnson to disarm defender Andrei Lapatov with a crossover dribble, then sling it back over his shoulder with a no-look feed to Bird.
Indiana State’s star barely aligned the seams before his touch pass was back to Magic, leaving no time for the overmatched Soviet player to react. As Johnson banked in the lay-up, the crowd at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, roared with delight.
Magic turned and charged toward Bird to offer him his signature high-five. Bird slapped the teenager’s hand, and the two jogged back down the floor, side by side, one skipping, clapping, and celebrating as he went, the other, head down, expressionless, as if nothing remarkable had occurred.
The intertwined basketball journey of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry “Joe” Bird had officially begun — as teammates.
Johnson had never met Bird before the tournament. He was stunned at how well the forward passed the ball, and when Bird fed him the no-look pass, Magic told himself, “I’m not going to let this guy upstage me.”
“It was an incredible three seconds of basketball,” Magic said. “It was boom, boom, boom! I’m thinking, ‘Man, I love playing with this guy!’ And believe me, the crowd loved it too.”
Some thirty years after that collaborative transition basket, executed against the Soviet Union’s national team when Magic was just 18 years old and Bird only 21, both remember the play with startling clarity.
“The defender was stumbling to keep up with us,” Bird recalled. “We were coming at him so fast that his head was going around and around, and he ended up in a circle. I was sort of laughing, because the poor kid didn’t have a clue.”
He wasn’t the only one. No one thought to chronicle the footage of Bird and Magic’s wizardry in the open floor. There were no breathless descriptions of the artful passers in the morning papers. In 1978, though both had displayed a developing basketball pedigree, they were not widely recognized as elite players. At that juncture, neither had won an NBA championship, a league MVP, or, for that matter, an NCAA title. The irony of Bird and Magic commencing their storied relationship as teammates did not register because their parallel careers had not yet evolved into one of the compelling rivalries in basketball history.
“They were certainly good,” noted Michael O’Koren, their tournament teammate, “but they weren’t Magic and Larry — not yet.”
Instead, Johnson and Bird were second-stringers on an amateur basketball team participating in an international round-robin competition called the World Invitational Tournament, or WIT, attempting in vain to prove to the coach, Joe B. Hall, they were worthy of prime-time minutes.
Although Bird and Magic occasionally shared knowing glances when the two of them outwitted the starters in practice, Bird revealed little of himself to Johnson. He was a young man of few words — until he went back home to French Lick, Indiana, and tracked down his brother, Mark Bird.
“I’ve just seen the best player in college basketball,” Larry gushed. “It’s Magic Johnson.” ### The World Invitational Tournament was a whirlwind, made-for-television event that assembled a group of top college players and held three games in five days against the Soviets, Cuba, and Yugoslavia at rotating venues: the Omni in Atlanta, Carmichael Auditorium on the campus of North Carolina, and Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Bird had just completed his junior season at Indiana State as a first-team All-America selection who would be drafted by the Boston Celtics within the next three months. Magic had just finished his first year at Michigan State, a third-team All-America pick who had dazzled the Big Ten with his array of no-look feeds, alley-oops, and backdoor bounce passes.
Yet, on the World Invitational team, also known as the Converse Cup, Johnson and Bird were afterthoughts. The headliners were Joe B. Hall and his Kentucky Wildcats, who had beaten Duke 94– 88 the previous week to capture the NCAA championship. Coach Hall placed five of his guys on the WIT roster: swingman Jack “Goose” Givens, who had poured in 41 points in the title game against Duke; Rick Robey, their rugged big man; point guard Kyle Macy; lefty forward James Lee; and guard Jay Shidler.
Givens, Macy, and Robey garnered most of the minutes in the tournament even though the second team, anchored by Johnson and Bird, dominated them in practice. Privately, both players fumed as they sat and watched inferior players gobble up their minutes.
“There were the Kentucky players, and the rest of us were fillers,” Bird said. “Hall wanted to go around the country and show off his guys.”
Bird and Magic spent a total of eight days together during the WIT. They engaged in no more than four or five conversations, even though they ate together, practiced together, and rode the bus together. While Magic hobnobbed with Arkansas star Sidney Moncrief, blasting his boom box and jiving to the beat of the Ohio Players, Bird remained largely to himself, surveying the Kentucky scenery out the bus window while Magic’s music — and personality — overtook the team.
“Magic was nonstop chatter,” said Rutgers star James Bailey. “And Larry said zero. It was ‘Good morning,’ and don’t expect a lot more.”
The World Invitational Tournament was the concoction of television executive Eddie Einhorn. While professional basketball in the 1970s produced dismal ratings, the colleges, provided the matchups had some national appeal, were proving to be a market with potential.
Einhorn had already successfully televised exhibition games against Russians and felt that a competition with some international flavor would prove to be successful. Thus, the WIT was born.
Einhorn enlisted the help of Brandeis athletic director Dick Rodis and Providence College basketball coach Dave Gavitt, prominent members of the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States (later renamed USA Basketball), to fill out the roster around the Kentucky players.
“At that time, I really didn’t even know who Magic and Larry were,” Einhorn admitted. “I would venture to say most other people didn’t either.”
Gavitt was painfully aware of the abilities of Michigan State’s imposing point guard. Just weeks earlier, Magic and his Spartans had steamrolled Gavitt’s Providence Friars in the opening round of the 1978 NCAA Mideast Regional in Indianapolis. Magic scored 14 points and dished out 7 assists, but his ability to push tempo and provide his teammates with high-percentage shots (Michigan State hit 61 percent of its field goals) was what caught Gavit