TV on DVD Review: Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals

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Whether he was given the title he disliked as “the great white hope” in an era of prejudice that found its way into professional sports or known as his self-described “hick from French Lick [Indiana],” Larry Bird played the game of basketball as if everyone was against him.

While some players struggle to maintain focus if their mind is aggravated or clouded with other thoughts, Bird thrived on the chaos inside, working himself up mentally before he set foot on the court since he was one of the precious few who played better angry.

A shy, polite, quiet Midwesterner, Larry Bird lived and breathed the game but loathed making small talk about current events or answering reporter's questions, preferring to keep the media attention away from his family and self. As far as Bird was concerned, basketball was a game after all and his play in the paint was where it mattered.

Yet whereas Larry Bird avoided the spotlight, his chief professional rival Earvin “Magic” Johson thrived in the limelight. From his teen years being bussed to a predominantly white Michigan high school where he chose to embrace integration rather than follow the racial behavioral pattern of whites hanging with the whites and blacks with the blacks, it's only fitting that a reporter would dub him “magic” during this time as sure enough he magically brought people together both on and off the court.

With his megawatt, beaming smile, natural charisma and movie star presence, Magic brought a new zest for life and a joyfulness to his seemingly effortless style of play that helped change the NBA forever following a tumultuous beginning for the unpopular league after it merged with the ABA.

Yet despite the fact that the two ran parallel lives from their Midwestern roots through high school stardom before first meeting competitively on the floor during a college championship game, Magic and Bird did not initially click the way fans may have expected.

With Bird's in-the-moment mindset proving a stark contrast to Magic's ability to be friends with someone off the court and then take them on in the paint, it took a few years for the men to form the beginning of a friendship that has lasted long past their retirement from the game.

Emphasizing differences rather than their kindhearted similarities whether superficially in a black vs. white approach, psychologically given their personalities or the fact that they played on opposite coasts as Johnson elevated the Lakers franchise to its godly contemporary proportions, the media consistently added fuel to the fire of their rivalry by playing their games back-to-back and comparing their stats from every pass to every shot.

And while they do candidly admit looking back that they were wrapped up in their own hectic lives, both Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson freely acknowledge that they were constantly aware of one another, checking the scores, noticing the accolades and attention as though they were inexplicably always linked whether or not they were even in the same time zone.

It's this unbreakable bond that has only strengthened over the years that is explored in great detail in HBO's historically fascinating, emotionally revealing and compelling sports documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, which was directed by Ezra Edelman.

Ironically, given the intimate analysis of not only the men's relationship but also their background, on the surface, Courtship is exactly the type of documentary that Bird probably would've tried to escape in the early 1980s, but it's precisely this example of how the men have evolved that makes the film so worthwhile.

Furthermore, since so much time has passed between their heyday and now, the two revered athletes are able to pontificate more on each other's lives in addition to of course, sharing their own feelings on various turning points in their own journeys taken on the court and off.

While game footage is utilized throughout, lovers of the sport will undoubtedly be disappointed by the fact that the DVD in question offers zero special features since a highlight reel at least would've proved an added bonus for those who've already seen the film.

Nonetheless by incorporating insights by friends, relatives, coaches and teammates to add greater understanding of their ups and downs in the feature film, Courtship rivets us while illuminating the prejudice, locker room gossip and judgments that landed on Magic after he revealed his HIV positive status.

And throughout the roughly ninety minute succinct work, frequently what we thought we already knew about their lives is enriched with new information that further enables us to transcend both the nicknames and snippets we saw in magazines and courtside interviews by instead offering us a more complex portrait of two wise and articulate men.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.