Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010) dir. Ezra Edelman
By Alan Bacchus
The NBA Finals have begun and with rivals teams Lakers and Celtics vying for the trophy HBO couldn’t have timed the release of their fantastic new sports documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals any better.
In fact, it’s one of two new feature length sports documentaries airing now (including Broad Street Bullies, documenting the Philadelphia Flyers’ great teams of the 1970’s – again GREAT timing). Perhaps its the success of ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30 series, which featured fine documentaries on Wayne Gretzky and Reggie Miller to name a few, which helped greenlit these film. Either way, it's a welcomed trend.
The inherent conflict involved in sport, the visual spectacle of the action and the emotional drama makes for good cinema plain and simple. And when you show sports with the highest production value and attention to detail through which a feature documentary can give its more than worthy of the cinematic experience.
Magic and Bird is a wonderful film, which captures the intense rivalry between two of Basketball’s best players and pop culture icons. The rivalry couldn’t have been scripted any better. Filmmaker Ezra Edelman goes back and charts the rise of each player from humble working class beginnings to the top of the game in the pros. While the playing styles of each player complimented each other well, it’s personality differences which heightened their rivalry. Interviews with fellow players and coaches reveal Larry Bird as an introverted and severely intense workhorse who rarely showed emotion and never ever showed camaraderie with other teams. Magic, on the hand, was the opposite, a Hollywood celeb, a free spirit, and someone who just wanted to get along with everybody, including Larry Bird.
As history has told us already, the competition between the two started in college when the pair faced off against each other at the NCAA championships, with Magic’s Michigan State coming out on top. Later in the pros, Bird would top Magic for rookie of the year honours and three championship rings and three MVP trophies before Magic equaled his three trophies later in the decade to go with five Championships. And on the court we watch Bird face Magic three times in the finals in the 1980’s.
With all available TV coverage, and the most insider sports personnel to comment, we are brought back into this age with the convenience of a time machine. Edelman broadens the effect of their rivalry beyond the court, showing us how they single handedly revived the sagging NBA TV ratings and even resparked some latent racial tension between black and whites. Having grown up in the 80’s, I can say that none of Edelman’s insights are embellished. He captures the flavour and feeling of that era with 100% accuracy.
Edelman’s even finds common ground in the final act of each of the players, a 'downfall' for both players who both succumbed to the intensity of sport and celebrity. Of course, for Magic his womanizing Hollywood lifestyle led to his contracting HIV and quitting prematurely; and for Bird, his physical, no holds barred play led to a severe back injury and like Magic premature retirement.
The mirror between Bird and Magic and the intensity of sports coalesces into a near perfect portrait of athletes, celebrities and regular people who lead extraordinary lives in the spotlight.