Larry Bird was of sound mind but not sound body when he came to his senses and walked away from the NBA in 1992. He had back problems for years. His slow feet became slower at age 35. He had problems getting up and down the court and could no longer defend or create the way he did in his prime.
It was frustrating for Bird, but his health didn’t force him into retirement so much as HIV did. Magic Johnson contracted the virus that causes AIDS and left the game a year earlier. Bird was devastated knowing the game had been stolen from Johnson, his friend. Bird also knew his primary source of motivation was stolen from him.
And when Johnson left, he took Bird’s desire with him.
Bird and Magic had one of the great rivalries in sports history, but not until years later did they reveal the profound impact each had on the other. Bird was obsessed with winning a championship after Johnson won one. Johnson needed an MVP trophy after Bird won one. They quietly pushed each other from afar for their entire careers.
It’s how rivalries work.
It’s why rivalries work.
For Bird and Magic, their rivalry wasn’t a burden. It was a necessity, a reason to work harder and reach higher, feeding the desire to compete on the highest level. It wasn’t about winning but not losing. And that’s why Sunday afternoon games between the Celts and Lakers in the 1980s were so entertaining.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning share a similar relationship as they prepare for the AFC Championship Game, the next chapter in their long, fascinating history together. They’ll say all the right things about respect and admiration. They’ll remind us that it’s not Brady vs. Manning because they’re not on the field at the same time.
It’s true to a degree. Brady and Manning aren’t going to be on the field at the same time, the way Bird and Magic were. Brady isn’t going to sack Manning, for example, and Manning isn’t going to intercept Brady. There are other players who could have an equal or greater impact on the outcome Sunday.
But the essence of their rivalry is the same. Let’s not shy away from the obvious. No matter how the game shakes out, Brady and Manning will be judged as the winner or loser. In team sports, fair or not, it always comes back to the most important position on the field. It’s the same way with pitchers and goaltenders.
Years from now, don’t be surprised if Manning acknowledges that his return to football two years ago after serious neck problems was driven by Brady’s success. You may hear Brady someday say his commitment to preparation, the countless hours poring over video and his attention to detail, was motivated by Manning.
Nothing feeds a rivalry more than genuine disdain, but it’s not required. Sometimes, it’s more intense between cities, New York and Boston, than the teams representing them, the Yankees and Red Sox. Pure, unadulterated hatred makes sports more compelling, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Magic and Bird had a chilly relationship early in their careers but became great friends. Martina Navratilova met Chris Evert 22 times in Grand Slams alone, and the winner was often left consoling the loser. Jim Kelly and Dan Marino met three times in the postseason, all won by the Bills. They’re great friends.
The distance between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson is more of a personality clash than a competitive one. Mickelson is one of the great players of his generation, but he’s overmatched against Woods. Tiger has won 37 more PGA events and four more majors than Mickelson. They’ve never been paired in the final round of a major.
Wilt Chamberlain was a more dominant player than Bill Russell, but Russell played on much better teams while winning 11 titles in 13 seasons with the Celtics. Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were friends, then rivals, then enemies. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have no relationship. They’re not rivals but contemporaries.
John McEnroe despised Jimmy Connors back in the day, but didn’t everybody?
The best rivalries require good players competing for high stakes like Bird and Magic did with the Celtics and Lakers, with both taking turns winning, like Martina and Chris and Frazier and Ali. It becomes special over time, after they build a history together.
And that’s what we have with two heavyweights, Brady and Manning. They’re the two best quarterbacks of their time and first-ballot Hall of Famers, consummate professionals and competitors. It marks the fourth time Brady and Manning will play one another in a postseason game, including the third AFC title game.
Arguments will be waged at kitchen tables and water coolers and taverns all week about which quarterback is better. Manning is coming off the best season for any passer in NFL history. He had more talent around him than Brady did this season, just as Brady had more talent around him than Manning did earlier in their careers.
Brady has a 10-4 record over Manning in the regular season and a 2-1 advantage in the postseason. Brady completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 613 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions in their three postseason matchups. Manning completed 63.9 percent for 824 yards, two TDs and six INTs. He threw four picks in their first meeting.
Each has beaten the other once for a conference title.
Manning has played 47 more games and thrown for 64,964 yards, 491 touchdowns and 219 interceptions. Brady has thrown for 49,149 yards, 359 TDs and 134 INTs. Brady has a 25-17 record in the playoffs but is 3-5 since his last Super Bowl. Manning has a 10-11 record in the playoffs and is 3-5 since his last Super Bowl.
Brady has won three of his five Super Bowls and was most valuable player in two of them. Manning won the award after his only Super Bowl title, and he lost the other one. Manning has been named the NFL’s most valuable player four times and Brady twice. Obviously, both have had terrific careers.
Like Bird and Magic, they thrived off one another. Who’s better? Take your pick, like you would with Bird and Magic. You can’t be wrong.