Showtime is about to have a whole new meaning for Magic Johnson.
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The story of the NBA Hall of Famer’s rivalry and friendship with Larry Bird is coming to Broadway in ”Magic/Bird,” set to open in April. The two consulted in its production, and Johnson can’t wait to watch their story told.
His ”Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s were a Hollywood hit, and now he’s ready to see his name in Broadway’s lights.
”I guess it’s the real Showtime,” Johnson said in a phone interview. ”When you think about Broadway and you think about Larry and I being on Broadway, it’s definitely at its highest level and I don’t think either one of us thought that we would be on Broadway. If we was, we’d be there seeing a play and not a play about our lives.”
It’s the second in a planned series of sports-themed plays from producers Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, the team behind ”Lombardi.” Kirmser said even before that show’s success, they wanted to tell the story of Johnson and Bird, who started as rivals in college and finished as Olympic teammates and longtime friends.
”They played at such a high competitive level and there was equally a high level of respect between the two of them,” Kirmser said. ”That is not something that we see all the time now and we thought it would be exciting to take a look and relive the rivalry live on stage and important to take a look at this relationship between the two of them.”
They reached out initially to Johnson, who first brought his wife, Cookie, to see ”Lombardi” before committing. Then it was on to Bird, who, just like with the Dream Team 20 years earlier, wanted to first know that Johnson was on board.
”That’s normally how it usually works with us,” Johnson said.
Friendships between rivals is nothing new in today’s NBA, where players seem just as eager to team up with a foe than beat him. But the fact that Johnson and Bird became friends was surprising even to them.
Their rivalry started when Johnson’s Michigan State team knocked off Bird’s Indiana State squad for the 1979 NCAA championship. Bird, the reserved white guy from Indiana, would then end up in Boston, while Johnson, outgoing, black and made for the big city, went to the Lakers, who had never beaten the Celtics in the NBA finals.
They met for the championship three times as pros, with the Lakers winning twice. But along the way, what started as hatred had softened, to the point that Bird said he lost some of his drive once Johnson retired for the first time in 1991 after contracting the HIV virus.
”Larry learned that Magic was also Earvin, so it wasn’t all showbiz, and Magic probably learned that Larry had a sense of humor and personality behind that sort of tough exterior as well,” Ponturo said of their friendship. ”Something that’s lasted 30 years in this kind of environment is a story worth telling.”
Johnson and Bird met with the writers and the actors portraying them. Bird wanted assurances the play would be true to his life and found it to be accurate – though Tug Coker, the actor who portrays him, has dark hair.
But Kirmser said Coker, who has appeared on TV in shows such as ”How I Met Your Mother” and ”The Office,” has the same facial intensity as Bird. She said both he and Kevin Daniels, who plays Johnson, play basketball and ”really capture the essence of these two individuals.”
”They pick up a basketball and you believe it,” Kirmser said. ”And that, for the theater goer, even the theater goer who doesn’t know much about basketball, and certainly for the sports fan, is so important because both require authenticity.”
Daniels met with Johnson on Monday, asking him about Johnson’s competitiveness, his preparation, and of course how his relationship with Bird evolved.
”I told him the story about where I had to shoot the Converse commercial at Larry’s house, which I wasn’t too happy about,” Johnson said, adding that Daniels has the right look because he shares Johnson’s ”magical smile.”
The NBA provided historical footage that appears throughout the 90-minute show, which Kirmser said covers ”draft to Dream Team.”
The duo helped turn the NBA into one of America’s most popular sports, and interest in them was reignited after the 2010 HBO documentary ”Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals.” Seeing their highlights again is a treat even for those who aren’t normally into theater.
”A lot of people do grow up with these two,” Ponturo said. ”You sort of remember it, but to go back and relive some of these games on the video and the competition, Fran and I have looked at many, many, many hours of video, and you’re reminded of their play and some of the amazing shot making and talents and everything that they had. So those who go to see the show are going to be quickly reminded about how wonderful these two were on the court.”
Johnson plans to be there when the show opens April 11 at the Longacre Theater, maybe even seated next to Bird. And who could have predicted that when they first met?
”Just think about sports. How many guys can be linked to each other and still be champions, competitors, then walk away being friends?” Johnson said. ”It’s hard to find that.”