The rivalry between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird began with Michigan State’s victory over Indiana State in the 1979 NCAA basketball title game.
It continued in the NBA, with Magic’s Lakers vying with Bird’s Celtics for championships.
Over time, their rivalry turned into a close friendship.
The story is told in is Magic/Bird, a new Broadway play. The first preview performance of Magic/Bird at the Longacre Theatre in New York is next Wednesday; the official opening is April 11th.
WKAR’s Scott Pohl recently spoke with Kevin Daniels, the actor cast in the role of Lansing native and Spartan legend Magic Johnson. He says when it comes to real-world basketball experience, co-star Tug Coker has him beat.
KEVIN DANIELS: Luckily for me, a lot of the story is actually about Larry and Magic as friends and as people and as champions, what their journey was to get them at the top of their league and how that all came about. We will be playing basketball in the show, but because of the limitations of the space, and it’s live theater, and the fact that we don’t have enough to do a full-court press, it’s more about a couple of stylized moves which we incorporate into the piece.
Tug played college basketball. He played all through growing up, and he’s fantastic to watch. And I’m learning! This man was at the top of his game for everything he did, and that would not be the words that people would use to describe Kevin Daniels as a basketball player.
SCOTT POHL: If you’re going to play basketball on stage, you can’t ruin the entire façade by shooting a three-pointer and not even hitting the rim.
DANIELS: Exactly! The couple of shots that I do have to make, the rim is somewhere where the audience will just know it went in.
POHL: What’s the time frame of the show? Because here at Michigan State, we of course focus on 1979 and the national championship game, but we also followed their careers and their rivalry in the NBA. What’s the time frame of this show?
DANIELS: It spans 1979 with the NCAA championship game to ’92 and the Olympics. We start in the present day, and we go back to ’79 and we span all the way through different events that lead us to the announcement (of Johnson’s retirement from the NBA after contracting HIV) and lead us to the All Star Game and lead us to the Olympics, and then we’re back to where we began the story.
POHL: I think that their relationship is pretty well known in terms of starting out as a really intense rivalry, but over the years, their differences bringing them together in a lot of ways. Black kid-white kid, urban-country, but they have become close friends.
DANIELS: Right, and that’s essentially what the story of the play focuses on, and so we all come in with our memories of these incredible plays, these incredible championships, these incredible moments that these guys had, and I think that our job as storytellers is to give you a different view of the same thing. Not to replace your memory of it, but to enhance and to show you a different side of it. I think that people are going to come to this and be surprised at what they take away from it.
POHL: How hard are you and Tug trying to match the look of the era? Are you letting your hair grow out? Is he wearing a wig to look more blonde? How does that work?
DANIELS: We have an incredible design team that has really been focusing a lot on capturing the authenticity of the era and what these guys wore. We’ve had a series of wig fittings and consultations with great makeup artists. We cover so much ground through the play! Magic was known for a goatee for a lot of his career, and in the Olympics, he didn’t have a goatee, and he didn’t have one in the announcement. They’re going to build facial hair for me, and they’re building wigs for the times when we have ‘fros and the mullets and the big blonde mop that Tug wears. I think it’s going to be a great theatrical piece to see people transform in front of you.
POHL: And the same people were behind the very successful Broadway show about Vince Lombardi a year ago.
DANIELS: Yes! Lombardi! Earvin and Larry came to see Lombardi. Earvin had loved it and was like yeah, I think we can do this. They got together and they wrote out the story for this, and here we are a year later.
POHL: I know that you’re focused on this show on Broadway, but in case you weren’t aware of it, we have a really beautiful theater here at Michigan State University that Broadway touring companies come to. If Magic/Bird is successful enough to launch a touring company, we hope you’ll come to MSU to put the show on.
DANIELS: Oh, wow, are you kidding me? That would be great, kind of where it all started!