Book Review: When The Game Was Ours

I did my first review back in January (A Song Of Fire And Ice) and I’m just getting around to my 2nd review of the Magic and Bird biography written by Jackie MacMullan which I finished a few weeks ago.

2nd book – When The Game Was Ours

Written by Jackie MacMullan

This is a must read for any Boston or LA sports fan, or even just a Magic and/or Larry fan in general.  I was born in 1981 and Bird was a broken down player by time I knew what I was watching as a basketball fan and obvious my most vivid recollection of Magic was “The Announcement” when I was 11 years old.  Also the Olympics which were recanted with some great stories in this book but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

When you start reading the book and it chronicles Bird and Magic playing together as back-ups on a college national team it hits you (at least if you weren’t around for the start of their rivalry) that these guys had been going at it since they were basically out of high school.  They were two kids recruited by some of the same schools, played against each other in the finals of the NCAA tournament and then were each drafted to long time rivals on either side of the United States and proceeded to help build simultaneous dynasties that faced each other in 3 championship series.  They also had their last hurrahs (save a forgettable 1996 Magic comeback) at the 1992 Olympics with the Dream Team in Barcelona.  They should have gone into the Hall of Fame together and the would have had Magic not come back to play for the Lakers in 1996.

As people probably know Magic and Larry didn’t have much of a relationship in their early days playing each other.  While Magic was easy going Bird was rigid and an intense competitor and Magic was put off by Bird’s attitude.  Bird didn’t want to know Magic, he didn’t want to be friends with him and Magic took that personal but it wasn’t personal to Larry, it was just they way he thought it should be.  The two didn’t become friends until they got together for a Converse commercial at Bird’s ranch in Indiana.  The commercial almost didn’t take place as the two players kept making outlandish requests in order to facilitate the deal.  Bird requested that the commercial be filmed at his place in Indiana convinced that Magic would reject.  Magic broke the stalemate by agreeing to do the commercial in Indiana, much to the surprise of Bird and the chagrin of the Lakers faithful and in particular his head coach Pat Riley.  While filming the commercial Bird and Magic spent quality time together and the rest, as they say, was history.

As a Celtics fan this book is especially enjoyable because of the stories that Bird shares about his time in Boston.  Bird wasn’t exactly a media sweetheart during his playing career so it was cool to hear him kick back and tells some stories about the good ole’ days.  Two stories stuck out the most, both of them occurring the night of two of Larry’s three championship wins.  The first was in 1984 after the Celtics had just beaten the Lakers.  Bird and fellow Celtic Quinn Buckner were in a van trying to get back to their cars at Hellenic College in Brookline to drive them back downtown for a post-game celebration at a bar called Chelsea’s in Faneuil Hall.  While they sat in gridlock traffic Bird decided that he was sick of waiting and they would get the cars later.  He and Buckner exited the van and started walking back towards downtown on Storrow Drive.  Some fans noticed them and stopped and yelled at Larry Legend.  He told them to keep quiet and asked for a ride back to Faneuil Hall.  The bewildered fans drove Bird and Buckner back downtown and the driver asked if they could join them in the bar.  “Sorry, champions only” was Bird’s response.  The second story is from 1986, after Bird’s 3rd championship.  His back had begun to act up by then and he was older and been through it before so he went home early after a short night of celebrating.  His teammate and one of his closest friends on the team, Bill Walton, showed up at Bird’s house to celebrate.  Larry told him he was going to sleep but Walton said that he didn’t care, that he just wanted to sit in Larry’s kitchen and listen to the Grateful Dead all night.  Sure enough Bird woke up the next morning and when he went downstairs he found Bill Walton, alone in his kitchen, listening to the Grateful Dead with an almost-empty bottle of Wild Turkey on the table in front of him.

The announcement section was an interesting part as well but that stuff has been re-hashed over and over again.  A few of the interesting facts that the book gives you from Bird’s perspective – Bird said he had never not wanted to play a game until the one after Magic’s announcement.  It was the only game in his career that his heart wasn’t in.  The other was that Bird said he was as devastated when he heard the news about Magic’s HIV as he was when he first found out that his father had committed suicide back when he was in high school.  That illustrates just how close they had become.

Another great part of the book is the chapter that chronicled the Olympics.  Magic soaked up the spotlight while Larry tried to stay out of it.  He would sneak out the side door of the hotel and travel incognito to go watch the Team USA baseball games.  They chronicled the intense debates of basketball supremacy between Bird, Magic, and Michael Jordan and how Bird would tell Charles Barkley and the others to shut up when they tried to interject because they’d never won a championship.  One other popular theory among basketball fans, particularly ones from Boston in the 80’s, that is basically validated by both Bird and Johnson in the book is that Isaiah Thomas was indeed one hell of an asshole.  It’s actually what cost him a shot at being on the Dream Team.

This book is really a must for everyone who was caught up in the rivalry between the C’s and the Lakers in the 80’s.  It gives you a behind the scenes look at two of the most iconic athletes of the era and outlines a relationship that you will likely never see again in sports.  If you a reader and you like sports go out of your way to get this one.

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