When David Stern, a former New York law firm shark, became NBA Commissioner in 1984, he stumbled into a league that had star individual talents but lacked the ability to catalyze ideas. By the time Stern was sworn in, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were already NBA champions, and Michael Jordan was just drafted. The success of those three propelled the NBA into another stratosphere, but under Stern’s early guidance, the league began to change its marketing M.O.
Instead of “Watch the Celtics play the Lakers tonight,” advertisers would exclaim, “Don’t miss Larry Bird and the Celtics take on Magic Johnson and the Lakers.” Catch the difference? Individual player rivalries—the stacking of a star power against that of another star until one tower toppled—became standard. It put the spotlight on players, with teams being secondary to the rivalry narrative.
Thankfully, Bird, Magic, and Jordan were smart—dynamic personalities with a will to win matched only by their pop culture relevance. They won championships, played up their rivalries to the joy of fans, and dragged the NBA to international importance. From Magic vs. Bird to LeBron vs. Durant, these are The Greatest One-on-One Rivalries in NBA History.