From the pages of Athlon Sports Monthly, Michael Bradley details an exciting new Broadway production based on the careers of basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
After five NBA world titles, three MVP awards, 12 All-Star Game appearances, three Finals MVP awards, nine first-team all-league selections and an NCAA national championship, you’d think that Magic Johnson would be hard to impress.
But when you’re talking Broadway, even the most accomplished person has to take notice.
On April 11, Johnson and long-time rival and friend Larry Bird will see their basketball lives presented dramatically in “Magic/Bird,” a 90-minute production from Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the same people who staged the extremely successful “Lombardi” last year in New York. The show intertwines actual game footage and actor portrayals to present the relationship forged by two of the greatest players ever and the emblematic performers of the 1980s.
“It’s amazing,” Johnson says. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that a black guy from Lansing, Michigan, and a white guy from (French Lick) Indiana, two small towns, two Midwest guys, would have a play about them.”
A couple years ago, most people would have felt the same way. A documentary? Yes. But a Broadway production? Forget about it. But the success of “Lombardi” gave Kirmser and Ponturo the confidence that audiences are interested in seeing their sporting heroes staged on the boards. Their goal is to present the players’ intense competition on the court and the friendship and respect that eventually blossomed off of it. And if you think the play will have trouble attracting an audience, then you forget just how popular Bird and Johnson were when they played.
The 1979 NCAA national title game that featured Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores against Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans remains the highest-rated college game of all time. When the two entered the NBA, the league was floundering due to lack of star power, a lousy TV contract (tape-delayed Finals games?) and a general perception that the league had lost control of its players. Within five years, the two had led the NBA into the new world of tremendous popularity, prime-time broadcasts and must-see matchups that prevails today. It is almost impossible to underestimate their impact on the sport. “Magic/Bird” attempts to chronicle their influence while still emphasizing how they went from merely basketball rivals to friends.
“The way we describe it is that it takes them from the (NBA) Draft to the Dream Team,” Kirmser says, referring to the 1992 Olympic team that roared to the gold medal. “At the play’s end, you get a sense of how they affected the world around them.”
The play, directed by Thomas Kail, is comprised of a series of 20 rapid-fire scenes depicting various portions of the players’ careers and their interactions. The scenes are supplemented by actual game footage that will play on a screen behind the actors and is designed to provide a realism that makes this more than just a dramatic rendering. One scene, described as “pivotal” by Kirmser, centers on the moment when Bird and Johnson move from merely basketball rivals to friends. It takes place at Bird’s house, when the two are filming a TV commercial and begin to learn that they aren’t so different.
A key component to the play’s success is the casting of two actors who also have athletic ability. “If we had two people who weren’t able to pick up a ball, it would be all over,” Kirmser says. Kevin Daniels (Johnson) and Tug Coker (Bird) may not be ready for the NBA, but they can play some ball — and have the requisite height to bring further credibility to the production.
Without the success of “Lombardi,” there could be no “Magic/Bird.” The production about the legendary Packer coach allowed Broadway audiences to become comfortable with the idea of a play that was so sports-centric. “Lombardi” spent eight months on Broadway, the longest run of any play that opened last fall, and proved that people would be receptive to a different type of athletic portrayal in the theater.
“Fran had the inspiration of telling biographical stories,” Ponturo says. “There aren’t a lot of those in the theater at all. So many stories told are negative and not inspiring. We like to do stories that are inspirational.”
No matter how accomplished Ponturo and Kirmser are at telling sports heroes’ stories — and “Lombardi” proved their talents — “Magic/Bird” wouldn’t have the same impact without the participation of the basketball legends themselves. Each is an underlying rights holder to the production and had input into the script. Still, it remains somewhat surprising to them that this is actually happening.
“Both of us said, ‘What? Really?’” Johnson says. “We were over the moon about this and can’t wait. People are excited about this play. We’re going to get the theater fan and the sports fan coming to this.”
And two former basketball legends who can’t wait to see themselves on the stage.