'Magic & Bird' doc spotlights hoop legends' humanity

It's pretty weird to watch a movie on a basketball court. Especially when the court is in a giant arena, the movie is being projected onto a massive screen hung from the rafters surrounded by championship banners, and you're watching alongside the likes of Paul Pierce(notes), Nate Robinson(notes), key members of the Boston Celtics front office and the president of HBO Sports. And especially without popcorn.

But when the movie's a documentary intended as the grand treatise about the rivalry and eventual friendship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, two of the most iconic figures in American sports history and the guys who are popularly credited with saving the NBA in the 1980s, you just kind of accept that everything that's happening is bigger than you and deal with it. (Still could've used that popcorn, though.)

Slated to debut nationally on Saturday, March 6, at 8 p.m., the HBO documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals features plenty of amazing basketball and insights on the Magic/Bird relationship from former teammates (Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell and Michael Cooper), family members (Bird's brother Mark and Magic's sister Evelyn), longtime friends (Arsenio Hall), cultural commentators (Chuck Klosterman) and sports journalists, including ex-Boston Globe scribe Jackie MacMullan, whose recent book on the rivalry was cited by HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg as "an inspiration" for the project during the film's Boston premiere, held Monday night at the TD Garden.

For hardcore hoops fans, there's not much new on-court material in the 90-minute production — you've probably already seen just about all the relevant game footage from Magic and Bird's run of dominance, with the possible exception of some awesome tape of them playing together on the U.S. national team during the 1978 World Invitational Tournament — but that's OK. We could all use a refresher course in excellence, right?

Plus, the off-court stuff is pretty great. Among other gems, we're treated to family photos of Bird and Magic growing up, a hilarious montage of Magic's seemingly innumerable and now cringe-worthy 1980s advertisements, and a great clip of Bird, ever the straight shooter, telling Boston fans where they stood with him during a post-championship victory parade: "There's only one place I'd rather be. French Lick."

(That totally cracked up NateRob, who joined fellow newest Celtic Marcus Landry(notes) in the second row of the reserved center section of seating. Those dudes got popcorn delivered to them during the movie. I'm guessing it wasn't Dale and Thomas brand.)

The documentary offers a remarkable level of personal insight into its subjects. Johnson and others talk at length about the division between "Earvin" and "Magic," the nickname given to him by a high school hoops reporter back in Lansing, Mich., that would eventually grow into an all-encompassing persona.

Evelyn Johnson says she thinks her brother "felt compelled to live up to that nickname ... He had to look the part, play the part." Boston Globe Sunday Magazine writer and explosive Simmons hater Charles P. Pierce says he thinks Earvin, "the smiling kid from East Lansing ... died about 25 minutes after" Johnson's Michigan State University Spartans beat Bird's Indiana State University Sycamores in the 1979 NCAA title game. (For his own part, Johnson seems at peace with the sublimation: "That's probably true, that the Magic ego swallowed Earvin a bit. But that's OK, because I couldn't have won five championships without it.")

Magic's openness is welcome, but also somewhat expected; after all, the man did host a late-night talk show. Bird, though, surprises by shining throughout the documentary, cutting an on-screen figure that stands in stark contrast to the familiar "Magic is the glitz and glamour, Bird is the ... other thing" refrain of the career-long juxtaposition that baselines the film.

"You will hear Larry Bird as you've never heard him before," HBO's Greenburg promised during his introductory remarks, and while that's true, it's not quite in the way you might expect.

While he never fully sheds the reserved persona he's cultivated over the past 30 years, Bird does loosen up a bit, and to great effect. He repeatedly scores laughs with caustic lines — asked how he thought Magic felt after his Lakers fell to Bird's Celtics in the 1984 NBA Finals, Bird deadpans, "I hope he was hurt; I hope it killed him" — and curt observations about the nature of his competitive drive, noting that nearly as important as defeating an opponent is "knowing the other guy's suffering."

Even adjusting for home-court advantage (because you're unlikely to find a more decidedly pro-Legend crowd than the invite-only throng that gathered in Sections 5 through 8 off the Garden parquet on Monday), Bird was impressive. But that he can be gut-laugh funny and has the charisma to command attention, even without a basketball in his hand, didn't feel revelatory — whenever you hear him speak, especially post-retirement, he always seems to come across as a smart, sharp guy, and you've got to figure that a person who has remained famous and commercially viable for several consecutive decades must possess something that continues to draw people.

What does feel new, though, is the glimpse of Bird's raw emotions late in the documentary, during the inevitably wrought discussion of the 1991 diagnosis and subsequent announcement that Johnson had contracted HIV.

Bird starts to talk about how he feels, even now, nearly 20 years after the fact, about learning that Magic was HIV-positive. The look in his eyes makes it seems like he's on the verge of actual disclosure, not the clipped shorthand of barbs filtered through the prism of traditional male emotional responses that he's displayed thus far, even in discussing his father's suicide ("I was mad when I heard about, and I was madder after the funeral. Because I thought he cut out on us in a tough time").

But then, as quickly as he started, he stops. Takes a beat to compose himself. Says, "I don't know." Takes another beat. Continues in a monotone: "I wanted to hear it from him. I probably didn't believe it myself." Then, silence.

It's a jarring sequence, and one of the film's most resonant moments; in a 25-second span, we see a clearer picture of how much Bird cares for Magic — of how deeply their relationship affects him, and of how his own identity would never allow its true depths to be broadcast publicly — than we did in the entire preceding 75 minutes.

Johnson's own discussion of that transformational moment is, obviously, gripping in its own right; the recounting of his phone call with Bird just before announcing his immediate retirement is downright hard to watch.

"You know, when something happens to you, then you find out who really your friends are and the people who really care about you," says a tearful Magic. "You figure, all those battles, all those things we had to go through as warriors, as competitors, as men ... that was the greatest moment for me, too, to have him check on me, to make sure I was OK."

In moments like these, legends cease to be inscrutable mythology. They become three-dimensional, even when projected on a giant screen hanging beneath championship banners from the rafters of a giant arena. They become human, and not only do we learn why they matter to one another; we learn why they affect us so much.

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