Sports History Gets another Look with Magic/Bird Basketball Drama





4-23-12

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Magic/Bird
Longacre Theater
220 W. 48th Street
New York, N.Y.

There just aren't enough plays about sports history. Sports play a major role in the lives of many, yet there are only a handful of plays or movies about sports each year. You want drama? Go the last two minutes of any football game, the last moments of a basketball game, or the bottom half of the ninth inning in baseball. There's drama behind the scoreboard.

Last year, New York played host to a fine sports drama, Lombardi, about legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. This season, the same team behind Lombardi has produced Magic/Bird, which opened last week. It is the story of the NBA careers of basketball superstars Magic Johnson -- of the Los Angeles Lakers -- and Boston Celtic Larry Bird. But it's also the story of the 1980s and the rise of the NBA in a country dominated by Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

Magic/Bird features two completely opposite personalities: the quiet Larry Bird and the ebullient Magic Johnson (he of the wonderful smile) and their fierce battles for their teams and against each other.

If you like basketball, you will love Magic/Bird, written by Eric Simonson. It's full of clips of great NBA games and the plays of the two protagonists (including, yes, the famous sneaker commercial). It's a sports fan's dream, full of colorful coaches, energetic fans, TV reporters and NBA championship series.

Kevin Daniels is both likable and believable as Johnson, and he grows on you as the play develops. The problem Tug Coker has playing Bird is that, while he captures Bird’s shy personality, that personality does not create much of a persona for an actor. Others in the play are Peter Scolari, playing two coaches and a reporter, Deirdre O’Connell (Bird’s mother), Francois Battiste and Robert Manning Jr. The play is well directed by Thomas Kail.

The problem with Magic/Bird is that the story really only runs from the first game between the men, in 1979, to 1992 and the Olympics. It starts with the announcement that Johnson has the HIV virus and ends with his unhappiness that friends and players avoid him because of the virus. It tracks the professional relationship between the two men, but it does not really get into their off-the-court relationship, whatever that was. It does little to contrast the soft-spoken Bird to the loquacious Johnson or bring in other players from their teams. The story ends without the audience discovering what happened to the apparently quite ill Johnson (he survived and is the picture of health today). Worse, the play leads you to believe the two men’s lives ended in 1992 but, in fact, both have led extremely productive lives since their retirements.

Johnson is one of the country’s most successful businessmen. His companies manage 105 Starbucks stores, 31 Burger King restaurants, 13 health clubs, apartment complexes, and skyscrapers -- not to mention providing money for investment in urban neighborhoods. A team of investors he led just purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also runs a large foundation that has helped people all over the country.

Bird has retained his love of basketball. He worked for the Celtics for five more years and then served three years as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Since 2003, he has been the president of the Pacers. He is the only person to ever be named MVP in the NBA and, later, the Coach of the Year.

If the playwright had done more with their later lives, he would have added more dimension to the two characters (or even just wrap up their lives at the end of the story), who are little more than superstar basketball players on stage. The drama of Bird’s Pacers in their epic battles with Michael Jordan and the Bulls? Johnson’s fight with HIV? The lives of both men out of the spotlight? There should have been more.

One thing missing from the play is the story of how these two men, and others such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, helped to transform the NBA from a floundering league in the 1970s into one of the most successful sports operations in the world. Much of the league’s success was due to Johnson and Bird, but that's not mentioned. More mention should have been made of the incredible success of the two players for younger theatergoers today. In his thirteen-year career, Bird scored nearly 22,000 points (24.3 ppg) and averaged 23.8 ppg in the playoffs.  Johnson in his career averaged nearly 20 ppg and scored nearly 18,000 points.

The play is a pretty good story about two sports titans, but, with a little more work and expanded territory, it could have been much better. The problem with all sports history plays, of course, is that writers usually pick a small segment of a story and highlight it. We just wish that here, in this two-player show, the audience could have learned more about the men, their teammates, the league, what the league meant to the U.S. and, very importantly, how Johnson’s battle with HIV, alongside that of actor Rock Hudson, drew enough public attention to it to raise funds to combat it (HIV and AIDS remain dangerous, but are no longer as deadly as they were in the ‘80s).

For the fans that are looking for the old Laker–Celtic matchup, though, this is a good play, complete with TV clips and roaring crowds.

PRODUCTION: Producers – Fran Kirmser, Tony Ponturo, others. Sets: David Korins, Costumes: Paul Tazewell, Lighting: Howell Binkley, Media Design: Jeff Sugg, Sound: Nevin Steinberg. The play was directed by Thomas Kail.


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