The NBA today is somewhat of a juggernaut. Even as viewership has been on the decline over the past few years, revenues continue to climb. There was a point in time, however, where the NBA was struggling: the 1970’s. That all changed in the 1980s and it was because of two men.
A Little Background
The NBA of the 1970s was a very different game. For starters, the Nuggets, Pacers, Nets, and Spurs were not in the NBA during the early 1970’s. They competed in the newly founded ABA, which remained its own league until a merger after the 1976 season. After this merger, the NBA borrowed a concept from the ABA: a three-point line. The dominant team coming into 1970 was the Boston Celtics, who won 11 of the prior 13 championships. Even with these factors, the NBA’s struggles came from other places. You would think with the NBA starting the decade of the ’70s with an epic 7 game NBA finals series with the Knicks beating the lakers and the emergence of Kareem Abdul Jabbar that the league would have been popular, but that was simply not the case.
Why the NBA Needed a Change
The 1970s were the NBA’s lowest point. Of the top ten basketball games in terms of viewership, the NBA appears once, at number nine. This was the 1974 NBA Finals, which featured the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks in a classic 7 game series. College basketball was much more popular than the NBA during the decade. What were the reasons for the lack of love for the NBA during this time? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for this.
The 1970s saw a major spike in cocaine use among NBA players. According to a Washington Post article from 1980, cocaine use in the NBA ranged from 40% to 75% of players. While this is a very large range, 40% is still a concerning number. As more NBA players turned to cocaine, more fans turned away from the league. While some viewers turned away from the league due to the drug use, some didn’t even give it a chance for other reasons, some of those reasons are hideous but those were the times.
At this time, the NBA was thought of as a “black league.” Even though under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed, this did not fix the issues facing America, look at the riots that occurred in the late 60s and you know race relations were highly volatile still in this country. These were great next steps and should be viewed as hallmarks of what America could be. However, there is a difference between a law being passed and changing the mindset of why that law was needed. The fact the NBA was viewed as a “black league” made it harder to gain traction in predominantly white communities. These two issues culminated in the NBA’s viewership issues. Two men coming out of the midwest would change all of that. The NBA Finals were often shown on a tape-delayed basis at 11:30 at night after your late local news. Actually, all NBA Finals were not broadcast live until the 1983 Finals between the Lakers and the 76ers. Those two men out of the midwest would change all of that.
The 1979 NCAA Championship Game
The most-viewed basketball game in the 1970s was the 1979 NCAA Championship. This game was a matchup between the 25-6 Michigan State Spartans and the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. Michigan State won 75-64, with the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament being Earvin “Magic” Johnson. After this game, Magic would go first overall during the 1979 NBA Draft to the Lakers. With Magic leading Michigan State to the finals, how did the Sycamores get there? Larry Bird, that’s how. After being selected 6th overall by the Celtic’s in 1978, Bird did not sign a contract and returned to Indiana State for his senior year. Even after the Spartan’s victory, this was only the beginning for these two. That 1979 Final Four will go down as the most iconic in the history of March Madness, you did not just have Bird and magic but you also had DePaul with the iconic and loveable Ray Meyer from Chicago and the other participant was one of the biggest Cinderella’s to ever make the Final 4 in the Penn Quakers who scored upset after upset before being bludgeoned on the Final 4 by Magic and the Spartans. DePaul would lose a closely contested game to Bird and the Sycamores.
The Players On the Court
Anyone who knows NBA history knows about Magic and Bird. To make a long story short: they were amazing. Magic and Bird spent their entire careers with their respective teams, and had their jerseys retired. Listing out all of their accomplishments would take too long. Over their careers, they combined for 8 Finals wins, 5 finals MVPs, 6 NBA MVPs, 24 All-Star Appearances, and 20 All-NBA teams. They also both won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics on the Dream Team. While their accolades on the court helped draw in viewers, the NBA had great players before. It was who they were in their personal lives that saved the NBA.
Bird and Magic Off the Court
Larry and Earvin were polar opposites. Black versus white, night versus day, Batman versus Super… wrong genre. Magic was a charismatic man, who liked being in the spotlight and talking to people. People were drawn to Magic due to that charisma and big smile. This was evident in Lansing, where Magic’s school had recently integrated when Magic got to high school. This caused tensions to be high. However, according to Magic’s principal, everyone loved Magic. This was a far cry from how most African-Americans were treated at the time of busing. While Magic was beloved by all who crossed him, Bird was the complete opposite.
The bird came from a small, predominantly white town in rural Indiana. His nickname actually came from his town’s name: “The Hick from French Lick.” His entire life, Larry Bird lived and breathed basketball. His former teammate, Cedric Maxwell, recalled he wouldn’t talk politics or pop culture; only basketball. While Magic was living it up in LA, Bird hid from the spotlight. He didn’t do much, with one of his few “public appearances” being when he would cut his lawn every Saturday. Magic was the clear choice to be the face of the NBA, but how Bird saved the NBA with Magic is an interesting story.
How it Happened
Magic’s charisma and skill on the court made him a phenomenon. In the media, Magic was a poster child: he didn’t do drugs, was a public figure, and was featured in many ad campaigns. While he liked women maybe a little too much, it didn’t impact his play, and it wasn’t drugs. This was a huge departure from what the NBA’s reputation had been in the 1970s. However, even though he was so charismatic and beloved, the Lakers were still viewed as a “black team.” This is where Larry Bird came in.
Another nickname of Bird’s was “The Great White Hope.” On a team with Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale, the Celtics were viewed as a “white team.” This caused black many fans in Boston to actively root for the Lakers because they didn’t want the white team to win. However, there was an upside to this: having a white superstar helped the NBA lose its stigma of being a “black league.” These two came together to show the world that the NBA was not the league they thought it was. So the next time anybody starts to talk about who was greater Lebron or MJ, or maybe Kobe, remember without Bird and Magic nobody would even care. Bird and magic saved a dying NBA and were apart of a rivalry that is probably only paralleled by Ali and Frazier.