Magic and Bird Take Broadway – A Review

Emile Avanessian —  April 8, 2012

From Francios Battiste’s comically squeaky Bryant Gumbel (seriously, that’s either an inside joke or BG really ticked someone off) to Tug Coker’s almost cartoonishly awkward Larry Bird to a whirlwind of scenes that at times feels rushed, the six-person production of “Magic/Bird” is certainly not without flaw. With that said, however, the play does well to highlight the major milestones (accompanied beautifully by a backdrop of video screens for game footage) in the NBA’s most fascinating rivalry-turned-friendship-turned-brotherhood. In doing so, the production simultaneously informs from a high level those unfamiliar with the tale while engaging the hardcore fan through personal encounters (lunch at Ms. Bird’s house during the Converse shoot is awesome) that exist only in secondhand accounts and the memories of the legendary participants.

On Thursday night, ahead of the show’s official April 11 launch, I had the privilege of attending a preview performance of “Magic/Bird,” the stage adapted retrospective chronicling the evolution of the relationship between the most inextricably linked NBA superstars of the past 40 years. Written (Eric Simonson), produced (Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser) and directed (Thomas Kail) by the team responsible for delivering the story of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi to Broadway, “Magic/Bird” admirably attempts to encapsulate in 90 minutes a tale of for which ten times the allotment would likely have proven insufficient.

The greatest challenge the play faces is one of balance, as it strives to delve deep enough into the minutiae of the NBA and the subjects’ lives to appease the longtime hoops fan while remaining relatable to the casual fan (or non-NBA fan theater-goer). In striving to serves these two masters, the play tends to skew toward the mainstream attendee more so than toward the NBA junkie – understandably, since the production is ultimately a for-profit commercial venture – but is reluctant to fully commit to a side of the fence.

The issues of race, HIV and the increased influence of national television interests on the NBA are touched upon but never fully explored. Whether due to time constraints (again, comprehensively telling this story in 90 minutes is one ambitious undertaking) or a desire to stick to the middle of the road in the interest of not alienating potential customers, “Magic/Bird” passes on the opportunity to genuinely dive into the hearts and minds of Magic and Bird – both of whom, along with the NBA, were involved in the production of the play – and the word they inhabited.

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was accompanied Thursday night by considerable baggage. If this were jury duty, I’d have been among the first eliminated from the pool. There are few topics on which I am better versed, more invested, and less capable of emotionally disentangling myself. Thus, I entered the Longacre Theater (click here for tickets) with immense expectations that realistically would only have been met by an actual 1980s NBA game breaking out onstage.

“Magic/Bird” does, however showcase a number of performances, devices and moments that make the production, on balance, very honest and a lot of fun. For starters, we have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird themselves – Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker, respectively. Contradictory though this may seem, at no point does either actor’s performance grip the viewer in such a way that the line between actor and character is blurred – however, Daniels and Coker do successfully embody the overall persona of the men they portray. Nowhere is this more evident than in their appearances on stage together. This interplay is fascinating, ironically not because of any dialogue or delivery, but rather in its absence. I have seen countless interviews, not to mention HBO’s spectacular “Courtship of Rivals” documentary (against which, fairly or not, this play will ultimately be measured) in which Magic and Bird attempt to describe the experience of living their rivalry, of being them for that period of time. The more I hear these greats discuss the years and head-to-head clashes that define their legacies and permanently fused them in NBA lore, the more convinced I am of one takeaway – unless you know, you really don’t know.  As an onstage team Daniels and Coker do an excellent job of conveying this element of the relationship – the incredible familiarity, knowing looks and silences that speak volumes.

Individually, Daniels puts forth a strong effort in his portrayal of Magic. He is engaging, enthusiastic and likeable, flashing the trademark grin and addressing “the media” with familiarity and playfulness. When necessary, he is genuine and succeeds in hitting the appropriate emotional chords. In contemplating the biggest shortcoming in Daniels’ performance, I ultimately concluded the worst that can be held against him is that while he convincingly portrays a Los Angeles Laker whose experiences mirror those of Magic Johnson, he simply is not Magic. Given the paucity of Magic-level charisma not only in sports, but all walks of life, it would be unfair to penalize an otherwise solid performance for the inability to command a room like few in history ever have.

As mentioned previously, Tug Coker’s Larry Bird left something to be desired. He goes too far in attempting to capture the introverted demeanor and deliberate speaking cadence with which Bird is synonymous. These elements of Bird’s personality are presumably overdone by design, in order to quickly and decisively establish the character for the uninitiated. Though strategically understandable, the end result misses the mark, with Bird – one of NBA history’s most intelligent, compelling and tortured characters – coming off painfully slow and awkward, almost a cartoonish dullard.

The shortcomings of Bird’s character in the play are not solely attributed to Coker, but in part to the script with which he had to work. As part of an extended scene that takes place at the home of Bird’s mother, in which Bird and Magic (now famously) share a home-cooked meal and the seeds of future friendship take root, the men take a moment to discuss their respective upbringings. A significant chunk of this conversation is spent reflecting upon the relationship each shared with their fathers. For one reason or another – perhaps at the request of Larry Bird (if so, I totally understand), or in a misguided attempt to anesthetize the story, not a mention is made of Bird’s father’s suicide in 1975, which, needless to say, was a monumental defining moment in his life.

Speaking of lunch at Ms. Bird’s (my personal highlight), Deirdre O’Connell (who also portrays reporter Patricia Moore and generic 1980s Boston barkeep “Shelly” – both extremely well) is outstanding (and very funny) as Dinah Bird. She does an excellent job of toeing the line between zealous NBA fan and “friend’s mom” in her conversations with Magic, and speaking to Larry (the awkwardness here was spot on) like an unapologetic mother that doesn’t give a damn how many MVPs you’ve got.

Other highlights include not-Tom-Hanks-the-other-Bosom-Buddy Peter Scolari, who portrays Red Auerbach, Pat Riley (great physical resemblance, very minor role) and Jerry Buss (cartoonish, in a car salesman sort of way). Though a bit spry and muscled (seriously, we’d all do well to look like that at almost 57) to cut the figure of an aging Auerbach, Scolari’s combination of mannerisms and accent are a lot of fun and sell the character well. Finally, a shout out to Robert Manning, Jr., who portrayed among others (Cornbread Maxwell, Norm Nixon) Lakers’ defensive ace, and one of Magic’s close friends of the Showtime era, Michael Cooper. Between the voice (really close to genuine article), the familiar warmup-jacket-and-shorts in the layup line and a really cool restaurant scene with Magic that I like to imagine actually went down in late-80s L.A., Coop heads the list of secondary characters.

In adapting an incredibly rich and complex story to pique the interest of both non- and hardcore fan, “Magic/Bird’s” 90-minute run time makes for something of a snug fit. As a result, the play fails to capitalize on opportunities to engage in some truly meaningful dialogue. However, in recognizing the immense challenge of attempting to engage such disparate audiences, a number of well-executed scenes and performances, combined with the headline duo’s chemistry in their onstage interactions, “Magic/Bird” succeeds in educating the uninitiated while striking a chord with those that lived and died with the NBA of the 1980s.

Whether you are looking to teach a young child about the most vital period in the history of the game or simply looking to take short stroll through history, “Magic/Bird” will deliver the goods. At the end of the day, I guess that can’t be too far off the mark.

Emile Avanessian


31 responses to Magic and Bird Take Broadway – A Review

  1. Nice write up. I am intrigued to go see the show if I ever get the opportunity. Is it being played in NY or los angeles?

  2. Pat O’Connor April 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    The production has a step up in my mind just by having Deirdre O’Connell in it. She is an actress I first saw 25 years ago at Los Angeles Theatre Center and a very fine performer.

  3. Off topic, but Odom and Mavs part ways…

    Sad really. Not an end I envisioned for him, though i guess some team will pick him up next year.

  4. Harold – I agree very sad. But I also think that Lamar has very limited opportunities on where he feels “safe” in terms of living. I mean, if he felt uncomfortable in Dallas, then where else would he feel more at home? My guess is that his short of teams will be driven by the city where they are at rather than by the team itself. And, as those of us who are married well know, his wife’s wishes in terms of places to live will also play a part – particularly if they decide to start a family.

    With that in mind, my guess is that Lamar will want to be in LA or NYC. So, in short, we got the Lakers, Clips, Knicks and Nets in the mix. Would not surprise me if he took a cheap deal with the Clips just to get back at the Buss’s.

  5. Sorry… Aaron once again will bring logic to the convo. Lamar sucks now not because he is sad… Hahaha, but because he didn’t train or workout for over six months and got old and flabby. It’s very simple guys. Very simple. Guys that have never been known for their work ehic will fall of a cliff after not moving off their couch for over a half of a year when they are over 30 years old. Simple as that. Lamar did this to himself. He wasted all the talent his parents gave him by never working hard and eventually just letting himself go completely. It is very sad. Lamar was the anti Kobe. In every way. Good or bad. He played unselfishly on the court and lived that same way off of it. Too bad he wasn’t a little more selfish on and off the hardwood.

  6. Aaron: a little harsh. Lamar is just mentally fragile his heart was in LA. Had a tough summer and will bounce back. It’s all in his head right now nothing to do with diminished skills. Everyone isn’t as mentally strong as Kobe. Tough to concentrate on basketball when he has all that hoopla around him everyday. I’m more than sure LO bounces back.

  7. Makes me wonder – on this site – of how many people who would have blame Mike Brown for Odom’s bad play this year.

    Since, you know, he’s to blame for everything. Not big lugging centers who don’t want to get back on D. Not that he has 2 guards now that are even NBA caliber, and didn’t have the 2nd until the trade deadline.

  8. Aaron,

    If you define wasting talent as earning tens of millions of dollars and winning two championships while averaging 14 pts and 9 rebounds a game over his career, then yes, Lamar Odom wasted his talent. He was never the Magic that everyone wanted him to be, but he turned over countless classic performances (and interviews) that made him many a fan’s favorite. While your portrayal is typical of media narratives, the fact is the guy is in the .01% of basketball talents that made it. And he did pretty damn well even for a .01%er. Sorry to insert “logic” into this discussion.

    Sorry to see his career tank like this. Sometimes life takes hard turns. Thankfully the man’s got wealth to cushion the fall, though the mind is immune to the security of money.

  9. cdog: You know how we’ll know if Brown is a bad coach. If he puts Blake on Ginobli weds.

  10. I can see Lamar pining for a return to Miami. It has a beach, which he loves, he played with some guys still on that roster, and it has the chic factor his wife and her TV cameras need to be in the “It” crowd.

    Not to say the Heat could or would go along, but that’s got to be a potential landing spot on Lamar’s wish list.

    The Lakers do not need him back, not unless Pau or Bynum are shipped elsewhere next season. There aren’t enough minutes at crunch time to have all three of those guys on the roster vying for court time.

  11. i wonder if kupchak had an inkling odom’s malaise would doom his season.

  12. Kevin,
    You can’t be that bad of an NBA player if you have good NBA skills and athletisism coupled with all the experience Lamar has. It’s literally impossible. You could have killed his puppy, give him three hours of sleep, and traded him to Charlotte and he would have been a good NBA player seven years ago. He has been in awful shape and is an old flabby basketball player. Those are the facts.

  13. It’s no doubt he’s in bad shape and on the wrong side of 30. But so what? He’s not a PG or an SG. It wouldn’t take him that long to get in good enough shape to be EASILY a better backup PF option than what the Lakers are currently floating. I honestly believe he would have played himself into game shape, just like Ron has, had he not been dumped. He had his best statistical season just last year. There’s no way that just all disappeared.

  14. Lamar has been overrated by fans and experts even to this day. He had a free ride in LA by playing alongside the Lakers’ 7′ twin-towers. His scores were mostly open shots and put backs. I have not seen a play of his with a degree of difficulty higher than 2 in the scale of 1 to 10 over the years. When he needed to “earn” his points in Dallas he simply couldn’t deliver. Hence the excuse of “personal issues”. The real “issue” is his lack of move down low. Basketball is more than just put backs and two step layups. What happened is unfortunate. But I think his career is done.

  15. The Lakers mentality this season on which players to have on their bench is exactly why the bench is possibly the worst in the league.

    The bench players the Lakers said yes to: Todd Murphy, Devin Ebanks, Andrew Goudelock, Josh McRoberts, Darius Morris, Derrick Caracter, Steve Blake, Luke Walton and Jason Kapono.

    The bench players the Lakers said no to: Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown, Gilbert Arenas, Michael Redd, Gerald Green, Kris Humphries, Arron Afflalo, Derek Fisher and Tracy McGrady. (Not sure if Humphries and Afflalo were unrestricted free agents or not)

  16. Aaron: Odom always played his way into shape years before. no matter how good you are if your mentally shook you will fail look at Tiger.

  17. Kudos to Mitch for recognizing up front (certainly before I did) that LO was not the same guy. That said, Josh is correct, the current 2nd team forward bar is so low, that a fractional LO is better than what we have.
    Norman: There is truth to what you say about LO getting a free ride. However don’t Troy and JM have the same free ride? I looked on-line and could not find odds on them to win 6th man of the year in 2012 : ) So how bad are they, that they can’t step into a taxi labeled “free ride”?

    Edit: Norman’s post is gone. Perhaps the ride wasn’t free? : )

  18. Robert: let’s put it in perspective, this is NBA, even a “free ride” takes some basic requirement such as 6’9-10 and long arms, thus is perfect to take the opportunity of the open space created by the twin towers and the constant double team on Kobe. There are no less than 20 tall guys in NBA match this criteria perfectly. Thus it is a free ride. Put him in any other team without the constant open space he wouldn’t deliver. Dallas is the proof. The two players you mentioned did not meet the basic requirements of the 20 or so tall players that are capable of taking the free ride.

  19. Kobe is not playing again tonight, so I am in a bad mood again. Perhaps Darius could launch a thread called “Front Office Forum” so I can vent my frustrations : )

  20. Robert: “Norman’s post is gone. Perhaps the ride wasn’t free?”

    The ride is free, but this site is not. There is no free speech on this site, only speech that the moderator likes 🙂

  21. Well, without Kobe this gives Bynum another opportunity to win a game as, alpha.

    I hope there’s not another 10 year lull before we get another manic-basketball-winning-superstar player, like Kobe and Magic. Even a 65%er would be fun to watch. I’m spoiled I’ve watch two of the best to ever play the game, God willing I’ll be around to see the third.

  22. #22. Your comment was stuck in moderation for whatever reason. Unfortunately, I’m traveling right now and was just able to check the site. That said, if you don’t want to be patient with comments being approved (as is stated in the commenting guidelines), please feel free to visit another site.

    As an aside, I’m not concerned about your (or anyone else’s) perspective on free speech. I’ll run the site as I see fit – which is inline with the commenting guidelines that exist. If comments operate within those guidelines, they’ll be approved whether I like them or not. I barely agree with a third of the stuff people say on here…

  23. darius: every one on this blog from time to time wants to say something so profound that the words alone will permeate the minds, bodies and souls of fellow bloggers such that it will transcend simultaneously on to the laker players, coaches, front office, reporters. color commentators, you name it, everyone willing to push in the same direction so that the lakers will win another world championship soon.

    with that thought in mind, i’m also falling off a cliff and just before i hit the ground, i wake up.

    Go Lakers !!

  24. Darius: yes, it could be a computer glitch. As to the free speech part, you are running a very unique moderated forum on the “free” internet that the public can see. So if the speech is moderated to the point that it only represents a moderated/biased point of view, then it is a threat to the public, the same situation what propaganda can do to the society. The public can’t tell whether that things said here are tailored or absolutely neutral. Glad to hear that this is not what you intended. Thanks.

  25. darius: we’re bored beyond belief. new post forthcoming?

  26. The game preview and chat will be up relatively soon. Thanks for your patience.

  27. My fellow Lakers fans let’s hope our Franchise Player improves on his unimpactful 10 -27 FG 23 pts 18 reb 0 ast 0 blk 3 TO’s performance. Our best player can’t have those bad shooting nights when his teammate Ron scores 4 less points (19) on 17 less shots.

  28. Kevin @ 29,
    I couldn’t agree more!

  29. You ever notice when Mike Brown is asked a question he says “I don’t know you have to ask that person/player”. Your the coach your supposed to know. Or “I don’t know I haven’t talked to the trainers yet I’m not sure”. Well what do you know Mike Brown?

  30. @ Kevin:

    … 0 assists & 0 blocks?

    Shouldn’t take much to improve upon those numbers. I hope he’s not Andrew ‘Blackhole’ Bynum tonight.