In the ’80s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird highlighted the NBA and saved the league from bankruptcy. Two superstars who represented two-storied franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, were the most entertaining show in basketball.
It was also the best opportunity for former NBA commissioner David Stern to change the marketing strategy of the NBA. He did so by focusing on a skill that made both Magic and Bird the best players in basketball.
Their unselfish desire to pass the basketball
Between the breathtaking game-winners in pressure situations, ability to score in multiple ways, and leading their team to victory day in and day out, Stern wanted to emphasize Magic and Bird’s passing skills that seemed to resonate with most with their fans and teammates.
The commissioner made sure to clip all of Magic and Larry’s spectacular passing highlights and broadcast it on national television to captivate its audience. This helped boost the NBA’s brand and made the Bird-Johnson rivalry a must-see TV.
“To me, that was sort of the apex of NBA fandom in my lifetime,” Steve Kerr told Jackie MacMullan on The Icons podcast. “That’s when it just became this must-see spectacle. And so Stern deserves a lot of credit. Bird and Magic, you started seeing them in commercials watching a football game. Magic Johnson and Bird come on a Converse commercial, that was new, that was different,” Kerr added.
The pass-first mentality of both Johnson and Bird was what set them apart from the previous superstars that ruled the NBA. Before both superstars stepped foot in the NBA, the game emphasized players who could dunk ferociously, score, and chase the scoring title.
Johnson and Bird’s common passing ingredient in their games was a refreshing sight that changed not only the game but also the NBA’s strategic marketing direction.
A tradition that lives on
Credit goes to Stern for changing the league’s marketing strategy direction by emphasizing Bird and Johnson’s passing skills. Until today, we see this kind of pass-first, shoot-later approach mentality being recognized in superstars like LeBron James or even Luka Doncic — the past and present face of the NBA.
There are a ton of NBA highlights broadcast daily focused on just passing and other facets of the game that don’t involve scoring. All of which makes the viewing experience better and help people appreciate the beauty of the sport more.
Both Johnson and Bird set the footprint for the next generation’s best passers, and Stern did a brilliant job using this to elevate and change the NBA for good.