Chapter 5: The Myth of the Amateurs, March 26, 1979 (Taste)

“Their lives had become intertwined, like vines from an old tree that had crossed paths so many times they were permanently entangled.”—Jackie MacMullan

[. . .]

In the wake of political independence in the nineteenth century, newly formed Latin American nations were often fractured by civil war. In that context, popular romance novels served to galvanize diverse populations around national identities by portraying star-crossed lovers as representative of contending races, classes, regions and/or ethnicities. By prompting readers to invest emotionally in the marriage of these protagonists, the novelists prepared the emotional ground for the possibility of a harmoniously unified nation. The myth of the amateurs functioned similarly with respect to racial divisions that had the modern basketball state on the brink of disaster when Johnson and Bird arrived on the scene in 1979. And, like Latin America’s “foundational fictions,” it did so by emphasizing emotion.

The importance of the emotional dimension of the Bird-Johnson pairing had already been underscored symbolically by the point of origin of their rivalry, in a college basketball championship game the emotional intensity of which could be contrasted with the perceived flatness of the NBA in the late 1970s. True amateurs, Bird and Johnson shared a love of the sport and its competitive aspects. But as their careers and lives progressed, this component came to take on added dimensions to the point that, by the time of their retirements from the league, their mutual love, despite—even because of—their differences, appeared as the most profoundly enduring legacy of their rivalry.

A key episode in constituting the centrality of emotion to the myth, included in almost every version, recounts the first time that Bird and Johnson actually spent time together off the court, in the course of shooting a television commercial for Converse basketball shoes in the summer of 1984. The Celtics had just defeated the Lakers in a seven-game finals series and Bird had corralled the league’s MVP award. The commercial itself aimed to profit off their divergent images by staging a one-on-one game between them: “the Bird shoe, the Magic shoe,” its narrator sternly commanded: “Choose your weapon!”

magic_birdHowever, the dramatization of an armed duel notwithstanding, what endures from this commercial in the myth of the amateurs is that it represents the moment that an off-court friendship added dimension to their on-court rivalry. During down-time during the commercial shoot, the story goes, Magic and Bird, aided by the folksy hospitality of Bird’s mother and grandmother, discovered how much they had in common. This discovery required both men to lower their guards, allowing the other to see what is characterized as their deeper personalities. Magic discovered Bird’s sense of humor. Bird discovered “Earvin,” the Midwestern boy hidden beneath the glitzy persona of “Magic.” As Johnson put it, despite the superficial appearance of contrasts, “we’re both a couple of small-town boys. We’re still close to our families, our teachers, our former coaches, and the people we grew up with.” If, as Magic claims, the new friendship added a layer of “warmth that made our competition fun,” it’s also true that it allowed for the consummation of the foundational romance plot required by the myth of the amateurs. Now we could see that the differences of outward personality, franchises and—literally superficially—skin color were just that: surface differences whose sharply contrasting edges were blunted by the deeper, human similarities revealed through vulnerability. And these similarities were themselves firmly rooted in emotion, specifically, in the warmth of shared love: love of home, love of family (especially of mothers), love of basketball, and, eventually, love of one another.

[. . .]

The term “amateur” derives from the Latin word amator, meaning “lover.” And it was, the myth of the amateurs maintains, as “lovers,” amateurs in a deep and encompassing sense of the word, that Bird and Magic saved the NBA through what one documentarian referred to as “a courtship of rivals” and Magic himself described as a “marriage.” Through their love Bird-Magic stoked our desire to get close to them by setting aside our shameful attachment to irrelevant, superficial racial differences and tapping instead into our own deep love, our investment in the deep values of the game, which the duo embodied. Their emotional bond helped to cement the superficial contrasts into the image of a single, perfect, multi-racial basketball persona capable of healing the stylistic, cultural and racial rifts that had riven the modern basketball state over the course of the preceding three decades. Of course, we might still have preferences, even strong ones: darker or lighter skin, west coast or east coast, cheerful or grouchy. But within the regime of the myth of the amateurs, the differences between them did not threaten the unity of the modern basketball state: either way, the myth reassured us, we’d be getting competitive intensity, a reliable winner, unselfishness, team play, effort, and stylistic flair. And, in all of this, “the amateurs” not only saved the game but they prepared us (and primed the pump) for Michael Jordan’s basketball empire.

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