Eric Simonson, writer, left, and Thomas Kail, director, of the new play… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK—The American theater regularly portrays outsized figures we know from history. ESPN routinely packages narratives of athletes we know from sports broadcasts.
Rarely, however, does one production seek to do both.
Like its subjects, "Magic/Bird," a new Broadway show about the basketball icons, is the most unlikely of pairings. It combines traditional stage drama with slick sports multimedia — all in the service of an intimate story about that most complex of sports rivalries and friendships, the one between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
"On one level this is a story of two guys who hate each other and then grow to like each other. But it's also two people who are so different that in some ways they're really two sides of the same person, two sides of all of us," said Eric Simonson, who wrote the play, which opened Wednesday night.
A celebrity-packed crowd, including both its subjects, was expected to attend. (This is no small feat: the down-home Bird has not only never attended a play on Broadway — he's never been to a play, period.)
Simonson was sitting in the balcony of the Longacre Theater, overlooking a stage tricked out in basketball hoops and parquet tiles. The aesthetic of the old Boston Garden is one of many realistic touches he and director Thomas Kail incorporated for their production about the legendary Laker and Celtic. (Those tight 1980s shorts, incidentally, are another). Simonson and Kail drew from game footage, newspaper clips, an HBO documentary, their own interviews and even TV commercial outtakes to craft their dramatization.
The basics of "Magic/Bird" should be familiar to a fair number of sports fans — telling a story that long predates Johnson's latest incarnation as savior of the Dodgers. Essentially beginning at the pair's showdown in the 1979 NCAA final, it follows them to the NBA, where they are each expected to revive a struggling team and league, and moves on to a prime-time rivalry and numerous championships, including five titles for the Lakers.
Along the way, the play teases out their differences. Bird (played by Tug Coker, who nails the athlete's sleepy drawl) is the shy kid from French Lick, Ind., who would rather be building retaining walls on his rural property when he's not playing basketball. Earvin Johnson (Kevin Daniels), the extrovert with the million-dollar smile, has a penchant for the pleasures of the Playboy Mansion.
Yet each fed off the other's greatness. Magic's championship in his first season in the NBA gets Bird burned up, while Magic stews over Bird's rookie of the year award. As their careers unfold, they each would check box scores to see how the other did on a given night, locked in a kind of rope-pulley dynamic in which the movement of one exerts force on the other.
They also had a prickly relationship over the years. But "Magic/Bird" shows how that rivalry gave way to grudging respect and, eventually, to a deep fondness.
"You'd never think they would have anything in common, and yet the fact that they were each so special made them understand each other in a way no one else could," Daniels said.
Although "Magic/Bird" doesn't poke too much at the stars — producers have the blessing and marketing cooperation of the NBA — it doesn't entirely shy away from their foibles either, such as Bird's fear of the spotlight, and Johnson's intense need for it.
"Everybody else likes me," Johnson says to Bird in the show. "Why not you?"
Said Coker, "These guys are superheroes who had insecurities. That's what we're trying to show. It's not a story about two great people but about what two people had to overcome to be great."
Race is a key issue here too; Simonson explores the subject in sometimes heated bar stool conversations between fans of the predominantly black Lakers team and the heavily white Celtics.
For much of the show, theatergoers watch the players separately, as they step forward from different parts of the stage or alternate taking center stage. Mostly, the two leads interact with other people in their lives (for instance, Jerry Buss, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach — all played by Peter Scolari, in a remarkably shape-shifting turn).
But the play builds to a conversation that took place at a real-life lunch between Magic and Bird at Bird's French Lick home as the stars are shooting a sneaker commercial. (The details are largely unknown; Simonson constructed what they might have talked about, primarily their backgrounds and attitudes about fame and work ethics.) The bond between them is forged that day, and rivalry morphs into friendship.