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From 1979 to 1991, there was no more compelling rivalry in sports than the one between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Johnson was the ebullient point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird was the reticent country boy who returned the Boston Celtics to glory. Together, they saved the National Basketball Association after a dismal decade.
What began as the loathing of competitors turned to admiration and finally to an enduring friendship that reached its emotional peak when Johnson retired after he contracted the HIV virus. Months later, Bird’s bad back sent him to retirement.
Their relationship is the backbone of Magic/Bird, the second Broadway “sports play” by the creative team of playwright Eric Simonson and director Thomas Kail, and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo. Their first, Lombardi, with Dan Lauria as the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, ran for 244 performances.
The arc of the play takes the two men -- Johnson, played by Kevin Daniels, and Bird, played by Tug Coker -- from their teams’ meeting in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball final, through the eight NBA titles their teams won, Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991, and their athletic farewells with the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Notably, there will be a large LED screen on the back wall of the theatre -- as well as projections on additional surfaces -- displaying significant highlights throughout the show.
Kirmser conceived of following Lombardi with Magic/Bird. “I was in a store and saw a picture of Larry and Magic and immediately thought of my childhood watching them play,” he says. “It was so stunning to watch them play -- and looking at what they’ve become as people off the court is equally stunning.”
Having succeeded with a sports-themed play like Lombardi, the producers are even more comfortable that Magic/Bird will find an audience among theatergoers.
“Good storytelling is good storytelling,” says Ponturo. “Whether it’s a sports story about what it took for a coach to be successful, or what it took for these two amazing athletes to deliver that promise every day on that court -- people want to be moved.”
Although Simonson had a wealth of information to draw from about Bird and Johnson, he interviewed them extensively. One version of Simonson’s script had a scene in which Celtics general manager Red Auerbach (Peter Scolari) hands someone a drink.
“Larry said, ‘Red doesn’t drink,’ so now he offers someone a Shasta,” Kirmser said. “Things like that are invaluable.” Johnson also attended a reading of the play in Los Angeles and a rehearsal in New York, where he worked with Daniels on his embodiment of Magic.
Much like Lombardi, there will be limited athletic action in the play. Still, Coker and Daniels do play basketball and have been practicing at places like the Reebok Club.
“Some basketball moments will start and then the video takes over,” says Kirmser. As part of the deal that brought the N.B.A. into Magic/Bird as a producer, the league is providing archival video and marketing support, which the N.F.L. also did for Lombardi.
In tracing Bird and Johnson’s friendship, the play captures them separately and together onstage. A critical scene takes place in French Lick, Indiana, where Bird grew up. In it, he and Johnson are still suspicious of each other but are filming a Converse sneaker commercial at Bird’s spread. Then, they sit down to lunch with his loquacious mother.
Georgia Bird (Deirdre O’Connell, who plays two other roles) breaks the ice between them, treating Magic as one of her own while teasing her son. She lets them discover that the duo’s blue-collar roots made them more alike than different -- and declares that her favorite players are Johnson and Isiah Thomas, the great Detroit Piston.
Ponturo makes clear that Magic/Bird wouldn’t have been done without the title characters’ support. Both will help promote the show, although Johnson, the effusive one, is likely to do more. Concludes Ponturo: “You want their endorsement to say, ‘Yes, they came to us, and yes, we trust them to tell our story well.’ That was very much our priority.”
Magic/Bird is playing at the Longacre Theatre, 200 W. 48th St. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or click here.
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