Rivalries between humans go back as far as Cain and Able. Since the days of ancient Greece, sporting events have been the best venue to showcase the dedication, passion and majesty of competition. Throughout the 20th century myriad genres of sports featured great rivalries – Ali and Frazier, New York Yankees and Boston Red Socks and Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. But no sporting rivalry produced more pageantry than the skirmishes between Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
The grudge match between Magic and Bird began in 1979 when Johnson and Michigan State beat Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA finals. Their rivalry progressed to the pros as both were drafted to the NBA, Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird for the Boston Celtics. The competition between the Celtics and Lakers did not start with Magic and Bird, these teams have had an adversarial history that predated both Hall of Famers entrance to the league, but with Magic and Bird the rivalry rose to mythical proportions. Between 1984 and 1987, they went head to head in the finals four times with the Lakers winning the championship three times. Their contrasting playing styles and obvious difference in skin color made great media fodder, helping to fuel the antagonistic relationship. It also helped to resurrect a seriously ailing NBA. Individually, their desire to dominate each other assisted them in being better players.
In 2010, the production team of Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo brought the NFL center stage when they opened Lombardi at the Circle in the Square Theatre and scored a touchdown. This spring they traded in the gridiron for the hardwood court of the NBA; Magic/Bird, their latest stage production, opened at the Longacre Theatre on April 11. Magic/Bird is a contemporary retelling of an epic rivalry and the unlikely friendship that was forged from it.
The play opens in 1991 with Magic informing the world via press conference that he is retiring from the NBA due to the discovery that he had contracted HIV and follows Bird’s reaction. The audience is then transported back, being introduced to Magic and Bird as collegiate players during the championship game that spawned their rivalry. It then recounts their transition to the pros as well as their individual rise as stars of the NBA. The production also depicts how their rivalry affected the fans as well as black/white relations during that time and the media’s role in exacerbating it. Then suddenly in 1984, while most of the country was choosing sides, Magic and Bird were shooting a commercial for Converse. While doing so they discovered commonalities within each other and forged the foundation that would develop into a long-lasting friendship. The play ends coming full circle as Magic comes to terms with his announcement to the media and Bird contemplates retirement. The two giants would make one last stand together playing for the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team during the Barcelona Olympics in what would be dubbed as the first Dream Team.
Playwright Eric Simonson penned an interesting narrative. The play moves with the speed of a fast break; the energy is constant and never waivers. These two men transcended their sport, eventually ascending to the immortal status of titans. Sure, initially people will fill the seats because they were fans of either Magic or Bird and recall how they innervated the NBA. But patrons will soon find as I did that what lies beneath this tale of basketball and fierce competition is a genuine human interest story of two men that were able to find the humanity within each other despite differences in style, background and race. Like Lombardi, Magic/Bird won’t just appeal to sports fans but to anyone that enjoys an emotive drama. Whether one knows what a power forward does or not is irrelevant, you will still leave the theater feeling as if you have learned more about men behind the legend. In my book Magic/Bird scores a triple-double!
Part of my fondness for Magic/Bird is the innovative multimedia staging of the play. Various excerpts of press conferences and games are intertwined with the action happening on stage. The actors, with the exception of those portraying Magic and Bird, play multiple characters, which I found extremely entertaining. I also appreciated the role call of the actors at the beginning of the play. Kevin Daniels recreates the show time pizzazz of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Tug Coker makes his Broadway debut in the role of the ever so serious Larry Bird. Peter Scolari triumphs as Pat Riley, Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss and Bob Woolf. Deirdre O’Connell is a comedic delight as Dinah Bird, Patricia Moore, bar owner Shelly and Georgia Bird. Robert Ray Manning Jr. and Francois Battiste complete the cast. All of them are MVPs.
During this time of year, the NBA kicks into high gear as the most dominate teams secure their place in the playoffs hoping to make it through to the finals. Broadway in springtime shares the same feverish anticipation as the NBA, new shows open either proving themselves worthy or unworthy of a Tony nomination. Whether or not Magic/Bird will make it to Broadway’s version of the finals is unclear, but I do commend this production for attempting to push the boundaries of American theater.
Photos courtesy of Broadway.com