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.")