For 'Two on Two,' it's all Bird

Originally Published: June 9, 2004
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

KNIGHTSTOWN, Ind. -- Larry Bird got visibly embarrassed when the other guys talked about his greatness, then made the stunning disclosure that nothing in basketball offended him more than being guarded by another white guy.

LeBron James started out shy, referring to Larry Legend as Mr. Bird, before gradually speaking with as much conviction as the vets, eventually referring to him simply as Bird.

Magic Johnson predictably did more talking than the three guys to his left, when he wasn't smiling that smile, and Magic even did some of the asking, because he can't stop himself from running everything, even in an interview setting.

Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, was probably the quietest guy in the foursome, but 'Melo still managed to make a rather memorable promise when he conceded that he and LeBron "don't have stories like these two have stories yet ... but we're gonna get there one day."

Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James talk with Jim Gray during 2-on-2 taping. The show airs on ESPN Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.

'Bron and 'Melo have great stories to tell now, actually, and you'll have the opportunity to see why Thursday night before Game 3 of the NBA Finals. That's when ESPN airs an unprecedented summit called "Two on Two," which brought James and Anthony together with the storied rivals who preceded them by 25 years.

Throughout their shared rookie season, these kids were billed as a modern-day Magic and Bird, ready or not. ESPN's Jim Gray managed to get them all together for the first time, in the jump circle of the famed Hoosier Gym that served as Hickory High's home court in "Hoosiers." What ensued was a wide-ranging discussion, and an experience for 'Bron and 'Melo -- all four, really -- to pass on to their kids.

And a quote for everyone to remember.

"The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA," Bird said, "was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me. I still don't understand why."

The Scene

On the eve of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, the four guests were summoned to this historic spot in the basketball heartland, some 30 miles outside Indianapolis. The setting alone got them juiced.

Bird is accustomed to bleacher-lined gyms like this, having grown up in the heartland, but everyone in the tiny building (capacity: 650) seemed excited to be on Gene Hackman's hardwood. Magic spoke of breaking into similarly tiny gyms in his youth.

"We used to just jimmy that lock and just come on in ... or break the little glass and use a hanger and hit that latch," he said.

Anthony spotted a side basket hanging by wire from the ceiling, and couldn't stop looking at it.

"When I walked in this gym, and I looked at that ball rack, I wanted to shoot one in that hoop," he said. "But I was afraid it might fall."

James beat Anthony to Knightstown by almost an hour, thanks to 'Melo's travel delays from Denver, and right away he spotted up in the corner. Not to mimic Jimmy Chitwood, though. LBJ was pretending to be Bird, showing two traveling pals how well he could copy Bird's behind-the-head release. Like a wannabe musician playing air guitar, James was lofting imaginary jumpers.

The Interaction

James and Anthony, not surprisingly, knew Magic well before the sitdown. LeBron jumped on him immediately, jokingly calling him "Jeff Gordon" in reference to Magic's increasing business presence on the NASCAR circuit. James and Anthony, of course, had no hesitation needling each other -- LeBron predicted his buddy's tardy arrival, saying, "He's always late, running in with his braids flopping."

The surprise? Neither James nor Anthony had spent much time in Bird's presence until now. Combine that with Bird's reluctance in recent years to discuss his playing days on TV, and you can understand why Magic was even more excited than normal for the opportunity.

For James, it was his very first introduction to Mr. Bird. The Pacers' president tried to keep things light, though. After their handshake, Bird quipped: "Don't worry. I've seen him play a few times." Later he asked James, struggling to keep a straight face: "So, what do you think of this NBA stuff?"

Anthony's only previous encounter with Bird came the previous July, at summer league. So he knew what to expect. At a magazine shoot later in the day, perhaps identifying with Bird's understated manner, Anthony knew that it required some arm-twisting to convene all four of them for a chat.

"Bird's bashful," Melo said.

The Revelation

Gray opened proceedings by telling the invitees why they were summoned to such a remote location.

"We're here because you guys are all linked," Gray said. "You're linked together. When you say Magic, people think of Bird. When you say Carmelo, what comes in someone's head? It's LeBron."

As a group, they went on to discuss the genesis and current state of their rivalries, the pressures of leadership and the importance of stamping a career with an NBA championship. Magic also gave LeBron a lecture, on and off camera, about taking an active role in USA Basketball's attempt to assemble a roster for the Athens Olympics.

"I know you're young, but I want you to do this," Magic said. "Pick up the phone, call the guys that you want to play with. Call them up personally. That's what I did. I made (Bird) play. ... Michael Jordan wasn't gonna play, (so) I was calling him, bugging him. ... If you want Shaq, pick up the phone and call him and put pressure on him."

Yet the undisputed highlight came when Bird -- after Magic scolded Larry for inferring that "he's not in that same breath as Michael and myself" -- introduced race into the conversation.

Earlier, Bird crossed into some sensitive territory when he said the league needed more white superstars.

The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me. I still don't understand why. A white guy would come out (and) I would always ask him: 'What, do you have a problem with your coach? Did your coach do this to you?'
Larry Bird
"I think it's good for a fan base, because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America," Bird said. "And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man's game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American."

Bird was just warming up.

"The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me," Bird said. "I still don't understand why. A white guy would come out (and) I would always ask him: 'What, do you have a problem with your coach? Did your coach do this to you?' And he'd go, 'No,' and I'd say, 'Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.' For some reason, that always bothered me when I was playing against a white guy."

"Disrespect," Magic said.

Said Bird: "Yeah, disrespect."

The Conclusion

Big surprise: It was the point guard who insisted that the four of them belonged together, in spite of the protests heard during the season that the rookies were being rushed into the same sentence.

It was Magic who pointed out how LeBron and 'Melo even have their own Outgoing vs. Soft-Spoken dynamic.

"It's funny because, I'm just sitting here, and we've spent time together, but not this much time," Magic said. "If you look at all four of us, personality-wise, we're close (Magic and LeBron) and they're close (Bird and Anthony). It's really funny. They're quiet, and we like to talk. So I'm sitting here saying (that) we mirror each other. So I see now why you sat us all down together, because we are definitely like each other in so many different ways."

You can judge for yourself Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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