Archives For magic johnson

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.

Yesterday afternoon, the Lakers beat the Celtics. Then a bit later I watched the fantastic Magic Johsnon documentary “The Announcement” (a must watch for any basketball fan). After all that, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. So, you can only imagine how great I’m feeling after seeing that Beckley Mason (of HoopSpeak and the great Hoop Idea series at TrueHoop) posted a link to this video on twitter. It’s aptly titled, Magic Johnson – Passing Skills. Enjoy.

From ESPN Films, the trailer for Magic Johnson: The Announcement. Tune in (or set your DVR’s) on Sunday, March 11th at 9PM EST. I know I’ll be watching.

(H/T to TrueHoop for the video clip)

Magic’s Forgotten Finals

J.M. Poulard —  November 25, 2011

One of the worst kept secrets in NBA basketball is that the presence of superstars on a roster can help build a championship team. A truly great player can propel a team not only to titles, but also help boost the value of a franchise. For instance, LeBron James helped the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the 2007 NBA Finals and turned the team into the hottest ticket in town. The team may never have won a title with James; but his play in a Cavaliers jersey certainly helped turn around the franchise.

The end result is that superstars often get the lion’s share of the credit when they win but they also get most of the blame directed towards them when they lose. Is it fair? Hardly. But those are the expectations that come along with being The Man and being paid like it.

But what often gets lost in the process is how underrated some superstars are.

Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest player the game has ever seen, and yet his performance in the 1991 NBA Finals is rarely mentioned amongst the greatest in the league’s history. For a variety of reasons, it seems almost forgotten but it was still impressive nonetheless.

In the same breath, the 1991 NBA Finals pitted Michael Jordan versus Magic Johnson; a match up that would eventually be viewed as a passing of the torch.

Jordan was a superstar that had captured the world’s attention with his impressive scoring ability as well as his surreal athletic gifts. He had not yet been to the mountaintop, and was hoping to finally be crowned as a champion at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Magic Johnson on the other hand was 31 years old, a five-time NBA champion and the proud owner of three MVP awards. Gone were the trademark goatee as well as some of his speed and quickness; but he was still Magic.

The Chicago Bulls won the 1991 NBA title in five games against the Los Angeles Lakers, but Magic Johnson played that series much like he did his entire career: as the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.

The Bulls were younger, faster, more athletic and quicker to the ball; but the one thing they failed to do was shut down Magic.

During the 1991 Finals, Chicago had Scottie Pippen hound Magic Johnson in the backcourt while he brought the ball up and also had Michael Jordan alternate and do the same in order to get the Lakers point guard to exert a lot of energy. In addition, they sent Horace Grant to double-team him before he crossed half court with the hope that the added pressure would disrupt the Lakers’ rhythm. And just for good measure, the Bulls alternated their half court defense against Magic, hoping to keep him guessing.

Phil Jackson had his team trap the Lakers’ superstar in the pick and roll on occasion, other times they would just make a hard hedge to disrupt his timing or they would simply go underneath screens and dare Magic to beat them from deep. Also, the Bulls were smart enough to defend the 6’9 point guard with only one defender when he went down to the low block; in an effort to force Johnson to score instead of allowing him to get his teammates involved.

The Bulls won the series thanks in large part to their crisp offensive execution as well as their smothering defense; but not because they shut down Johnson.

Magic was his usual self against Chicago (albeit the Bulls made him work hard for everything); rebounding the ball, getting out in transition, scoring, dishing and throwing out high fives to his teammates. He directed traffic beautifully and set up the likes of Terry Teagle, A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, James Worthy and Sam Perkins for easy scores. Showtime may have looked a little different during the 1980s, but this team with Magic was definitely a carbon copy of the Showtime Lakers, and Johnson was the one responsible for that.

Although Magic’s performance in the 1991 Finals was not the best of his career (his play in the 1987 and also the 1988 Finals have to be up there in the top performances ever in the title round), had any other point guard played as well as he had in that series; many would have been raced to say that it had been one of the best performances by a player on a Finals losing team. But because we had seen Magic do it before, it barely generated any publicity.

Furthermore, less than five months later, the Lakers superstar would announce his retirement from basketball because he was HIV positive, and just like that his basketball talent stopped being a topic of conversation.

Many will remember and even look up the footage of the three-time league MVP’s play during the 1980s, but it’s worth noting that he was still at the top of his game when he retired in November 1991.

Magic Johnson won championships in high school, college, the NBA and also captured a gold medal during the Olympics. In other words, he is a proven winner.

In his 13 NBA seasons, Johnson’s teams made it to the Finals nine times; and in his last Finals appearance (against the Bulls), he averaged 18.6 points, 12.4 assists, 8.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game on 43.1 percent field goal shooting (he also had two triple doubles in the series).

The Los Angeles Lakers did not win the title during the 1990-91 season, but Magic Johnson certainly was not the reason. He played like a Hall of Fame type player and yet was completely underrated while doing so.

That Lakers postseason run may have been forgotten by many, but at least the player is and will continue to be remembered.

The Magic Man

Darius Soriano —  November 18, 2011

Some things you just can’t stop watching. The wizadry is simply too captivating. That’s how I feel about this Magic Johnson reel that started circling the internet yesterday. The passing, the hook shots, the buzzer beaters, and Chick Hearn providing the commentary for every single play. I hope you enjoy it as much as me. (h/t to Andrew Ungvari for pointing this out to me)

Today is a special day. It’s special because we thought we’d never make it this date, but here we are. Twenty years ago, Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive and would retire from the Lakers immediately. By the time today came, I think many of us thought our worst fears would have already come true. That we would have watched one of the very best players we’d ever seen whither away and go through a horrid decline in health. But it hasn’t happened. Instead, Magic is still here with us today. Still smiling, still contributing to the game.

And while his playing career was cut short, no one can take away the memories. I’ll never forget how watching him play made me feel; how much pure joy it brought me. So on a day that will be always be remembered for Magic walking away, I remember him how I always will: as the dominant player he was. Here’s to 20 more years.

A Lifetime of Giving

Gatinho —  April 10, 2010

Magic“We are the communities we serve.” -Magic Johnson

On Sunday, April 11th, 2010, The Toberman Neighborhood Center will be presenting Earvin “Magic” Johnson with their Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The event will be held at the Manhattan Beach Marriot.

Magic’s on court heroics crafted many indelible memories for Laker fans, but his off the court work has had an impact that supersedes any rings or honors attained on the 94-foot-hunk-of-hardwood.

The Magic Johnson Foundation is one that is multifaceted and reaches into communities in a multitude of ways, from providing technology for under-served youths through his Empowerment Centers, to organizing job fairs, and providing scholarships, to educating diverse communities on the realities of those most effected by HIV.

Through Magic Johnson Enterprises he has built movie theaters, Starbucks, 24 Hour Fitness, and TGI Fridays in the communities that were historically ignored by larger franchises.

“I started in business over 25 years ago and have found a way to build on what I’ve learned through every partnership and opportunity. I’ve tried a lot of different things—some have worked out well, some have not—but I’ve stay committed to my goal to develop and grow a successful business and in the process I’ve found a way to give back through the Magic Johnson Foundation, which has meant all the difference.”

Other Laker luminaries and personalities are also expected to be present including Jerry West, Bill Sharman, Gary Vitti, James Worthy, Mychal Thompson, and Stu Lantz.

Happy 50th Birthday Magic

Kurt —  August 14, 2009

Annual Harold Pump Foundation Gala Honoring Magic Johnson And Bill Russell
It seems fitting that today in downtown Los Angeles, a huge Lakers-sponsored 3-on-3 basketball tournament gets underway, one that is going to take over blocks of a revitalized downtown and bring hundreds and hundreds of people to play hoops. (You can go down and watch or still play, just follow the link.)

None of that may have been possible without Magic Johnson.

Sure, the Lakers were a popular team in LA, but they were sort of the Buffalo Bills of the NBA, having been beat (usually by the Celtics) everytime they went to the Finals until the ’72 breakthrough year. But the arrival of Magic Johnson (paired with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and later James Worthy as well) changed that. Magic was a winner, from his first game when he ran over and hugged a stunned Kareem, to his first NBA Finals when he played the deciding game in the post because Kareem was out, to the baby skyhook in the Boston Garden. Magic won, and did it with flare. Three MVPs, nine trips to the Finals and five rings. He changed the franchise.

There was the day Magic announced he had HIV, which at the time was generally thought of as a death sentence. He helped change that perception and brought real awareness of the ongoing fight against the disease and how to live with it to the public at large.

Really, for the good of Los Angeles, that is just half the story. After Magic left the Lakers he did not leave Los Angeles, he invested in it. He invested in the urban, poor neighborhoods that nobody else would, and got big name companies to join him (but not without considerable work). He showed corporations they could make money in areas that before they had feared to tread, and while those floodgates have never truly opened, they are more open now than they have been.

In that sense, what is going on today in Downtown Los Angeles is a credit to him. The Lakers would not be the Lakers without him, the passion and love of the team and the game in Los Angeles would not be as deep without him. Investment in urban areas such as downtown would be much less farther along without him.

Los Angeles would not be the same without him. Thank you Magic, and happy birthday.