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Brady-Manning is fine, but it’s no Bird-Magic

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The buzz generated by a Larry Bird-Magic Johnson showdown was truly something special.The New York Times

You want to talk individual rivalries in professional sports, you start with Wilt and Russ. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell played against each other 142 times, not counting exhibitions.


They went from friendship to an enemy status and back to close friendship. Russell wept when he heard of Chamberlain's untimely death at age 63 in 1999. As he later explained, a club with a membership of two had been reduced to one.

You can't forget Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. They battled 80 times.

And around here we talk about another rivalry with great fondness. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played against each other 37 times as professionals and once in the most-watched NCAA championship game of all time. (There were eight Celtics-Lakers games in their time in which one played and the other didn't, plus one in which neither one participated.)


One of those games produced a particularly intriguing moment in the rivalry. On Feb. 11, 1981, Magic was unable to play in a home game against the Celtics. Before the game, Magic recalls, Larry approached him. "He said, 'Earvin' — he never calls me Magic — 'sit back and enjoy the show.' "

And was it ever one. It was one of Bird's greatest regular-season games, a 36-point, 21-rebound, 6-assist masterpiece in which he also stopped two or three three-on-one LA fast breaks by making someone do what he didn't want to do with the basketball.

So be careful when evaluating Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who will be on opposite sides for the 17th time Sunday afternoon. Theirs is a far more manufactured "rivalry."

Football is just different; that's all. Quarterbacks and pitchers may have counterparts on a particular day, but they are charting parallel courses. It is simply not the same. They both play offense. Neither plays defense. Game flows are entirely different.


It was different with Russell and Chamberlain. That's for sure.

"After I played him for the first time," Russell explained in a 1999 interview, "I said, 'Let's see. He's 4 or 5 inches taller. He's 40 or 50 pounds heavier. His vertical leap is at least as good as mine. He can get up and down the floor as well as I can. And he's smart.' The real problem with all this is that I have to show up!"

Bill Russell (right) and Wilt Chamberlain squared off 142 times.Globe Photo by Dick Raphael

We all know that Russell figured it out. No one would ever bother Wilt the way Russ did.

"People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they've ever seen," Russell declared.

It's hard to argue with that. But No. 2 in NBA annals was very definitely Larry and Magic.

Remember, they came into the NBA the same year. They were fresh off a ballyhooed NCAA final. Better yet, they went to iconic franchises. The NBA could not have had it come out any better: Magic to Los Angeles and Larry to Boston. This added an extra layer to the rivalry. Or was it vice versa?

We don't have that extra buzz with Brady and Manning. Boston, OK, sure. People have strong national sports feelings about Boston, pro or con.

But Indianapolis? Really? No offense to the city I wish had been given every NCAA Final Four and in which I have had many good times, but there is no cachet there. Well, yes, there is the Indy 500, and a reputation for great high school and college basketball interest, but it doesn't make blood pressures rise or fists clench to hear the word "Indianapolis."


Boston does.

Same with Denver. Who cares? Boston vs. Indianapolis or Boston vs. Denver does not resonate in the manner of "Boston vs. LA." It just doesn't.

We also know for a fact that Larry and Magic took this rivalry thing very seriously. Speaking about Michael Jordan, Magic once said, "He knows he has no one to measure himself against. Larry and I always had each other.

"Athletes live to get up so that they can't sleep two or three days before competition. Nobody did that to me except Larry Bird. The only time in my life I've ever been scared about a game was the NCAA final and those Celtic games.

"After God and my father, I respect Larry Bird more than anyone."

Said Bird upon retirement, "I can still see him in my head, coming up short, faking right, faking left, then pulling it back and laying it in. Still pisses me off."

Magic was a point guard and Larry a forward, so they did not ordinarily guard each other. But each initiated his team's offense. And there would be times when Magic would be switched up on Larry.

"He'd be on me," Larry explained, "and I'd say, 'Hey, I got a little one.' ''

"Always," confirmed Magic. "He'd say, 'Bring it here. I've got this little one on me.' "


No chance for anything like that Sunday afternoon. Look, Tom and Peyton profess to be friendly and they clearly respect each other. By NFL standards, their 17 meetings are as good as it gets. I'm not knocking it. We're all looking forward to the QB subplot. But Wilt-Russ and Larry-Magic were special in a way Tom-Peyton could never be.

What really matters is that we, Boston, have been involved in all three. I mean, it's ridiculous how sports-blessed we are. No wonder everyone hates us.

Brady vs. Manning: One last showdown?

Dan Shaughnessy reflects on the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning rivalry, and what could be the final chapter. (Video by Taylor DeLench and Scott LaPierre)

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBobRyan.