Magic/Bird: Does the NBA’s Greatest Rivalry Make for Compelling Broadway Drama?

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April 12 2012 1:42 PM

Magic/Bird

Does the NBA’s greatest rivalry make for compelling Broadway drama?

Larry Bird and Earvin 'Magic' Johnson embrace.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson embrace during a news conference on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Mich.

Photograph by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

On Wednesday night, Magic/Bird opened on Broadway. The latest effort from Eric Simonson and Thomas Kail, the writer and director behind the play Lombardi, charts the rivalry—and eventual friendship—between basketball legends Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Slate editors David Haglund and John Swansburg attended a performance. Their thoughts on the proceedings follow below.

John Swansburg: Hi David. I've donned my Kelly green Larry Bird T-shirt and my beat-up Converse Weapon high-tops, and I'm excited to talk about Magic/Bird. Perhaps we should start by answering the question everyone keeps asking when we tell them we saw the show: Do they actually play basketball on stage?

David Haglund: They do! Sort of. They more gesture toward the game of basketball rather than actually play it. Larry poses in his perfect shooting stance, the lights dim, and we hear repeated swishes as part of the stage rotates. (It's that kind of show.)

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Swansburg: I thought the actor who played Bird (Tug Coker) did a great job of capturing that shooting stance. If there were a Tony for best shooting stance in a dramatic role, he'd be the man to beat.

Haglund: Absolutely. And the voice! Not to mention the hair, and even a passable paste-on mustache. If the acting thing doesn't work out, and if there is still a market out there for Larry Bird impersonators, he has many New England mall visits in his future.

Swansburg: I’d totally go see a one-man Bird show at the Liberty Tree Mall. Sadly, I felt the actor playing Magic (Kevin Daniels) wasn't quite as convincing.

Haglund: He was not. Weirdly, he portrayed Magic as kind of a hayseed. According to Wikipedia, Lansing is a city of 100,000 people, and Michigan State is a major university with a big-time basketball program.

Swansburg: Yes, that was strange. Bird—the Hick from French Lick—is supposed to be the hayseed. But Magic shows up in Los Angeles very wide-eyed, particularly when Lakers owner Jerry Buss suggests that Johnson get acclimated to his new hometown by visiting the Playboy Mansion.

Haglund: You know Hugh Hefner?! Why gee, Mr. Buss ...

Swansburg: We should perhaps pause here to note that Magic/Bird is Bird- and Magic-approved, and presented in association with the National Basketball Association. (Lombardi was similarly vouched for by the NFL.) It occurred to me that portraying Magic as an innocent corrupted by Hugh Hefner might be a convenient way of getting to a certain press conference in 1991.

Haglund: The play really didn’t know how to handle that subject, even though it opened with the HIV announcement. Of course, the fact that this scene was immediately preceded by an introduction of the cast as though they were the 1996 Bulls at the United Center was maybe not a good sign either.

Swansburg: I think that was the highlight of the night for me: The whole cast in rip-away warm-up pants!

Haglund: We should also note that the whole cast is, what, seven people? Just barely a playoff rotation. With all but the two leads playing multiple parts.

Swansburg: Yes, a very economical use of human talent in this show. Peter Scolari, who spent the Bird/Magic years doing Emmy-nominated work on Newhart, plays Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss, Pat Riley, and a drunken Celtics fan. That's a tall order.

Haglund: And another actor gives us Michael Cooper, Cedric Maxwell, and an employee in the league office.

Swansburg: I went into this show very curious about which other Lakers and Celtics would make an appearance. I never would have guessed Michael Cooper and Cedric Maxwell.

Haglund: Where was Kareem? McHale?

Swansburg: Rambis? I could see Philip Seymour Hoffman pulling off a great, tortured Rambis. But I guess he's busy with that other great American sports drama, Death of a Salesman.

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