The Play and the Players

On Broadway, the latest attempt to recast Magic and Bird as individuals rather than symbols.
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Production photo from Magic/Bird

About halfway through Magic/Bird, the new Broadway play based on the lives of the legendary basketball rivals, an intoxicated white man in a Red Sox T-shirt talks hoops to a bartender, an Irish-American woman with a heavy brogue. The real genius behind the Celtics, he says, is Red Auerbach, who picks “low hanging fruit” like Danny Ainge and Larry Bird, white guys ignored by the rest of the league due to their race. They’re true team players, he says, unlike Magic Johnson and the Lakers, who are overrated, flashy showboats with no real knowledge of the game.

As he carries on, a black man emerges from the shadows to call out the drunk. Even though he comes from Boston, he says, he roots for the Lakers. “Why would I be a fan of those white guys?” The argument heats up until the black man’s friend shows up to pull him out of the bar. At the performance I saw, the audience broke into applause at the end of that scene in a show of appreciation for the dramatic subtext of the Magic-Bird relationship.

If you lived through the 1980s, the rhetoric of the bar argument might give you flashbacks to similar debates that went on everywhere from the school cafeteria to the office water cooler. One version had it that Magic was a showboat, Larry the workmanlike hero; another saw Larry as an overrated white guy (just ask Isiah Thomas), while Magic and the Lakers didn’t get the credit they deserved because they were black. In the era of mandatory school busing and Reagan’s “welfare queens,” Bird and Magic were inevitably read as racial signifiers, which certainly didn’t hurt television ratings for the NBA’s showcase rivalry.

Magic/Bird is the latest in a string of attempts to recast the players as individuals rather than symbols, starting with Magic and Bird’s dual biography, When the Game was Ours, written in 2009 with Jackie MacMullan. That story was largely retold in the HBO documentary Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals; and both bio and doc serve as source material for this play.

Written, directed and produced by the same team that brought Vince Lombardi’s story to Broadway two years ago, Magic/Bird is a polished enterprise, with hoops that drop in and out of the staging and video projections of Magic and Bird’s real-life career highlights. Actor Kevin Daniels plays Magic with the familiar ingenuous charm, while Tug Coker turns the unenviable task of playing one of the most stoic men in sports into a plus, milking Bird’s deadpan one-liners for laughs.

At base, the play presents the story of Bird and Magic as a sports bromance, with the two heroes gradually realizing the similarities that underlie their rivalry—both came from working class roots, held their stern fathers in respect, and found in basketball passion, popularity, and social mobility. 

Playwright Eric Simonson makes these points in the play’s well-executed centerpiece, a long lunch the men have with Bird’s mother, Georgia—who horrifies both by claiming Bill Laimbeer among her favorite players—when Magic travels to Indiana in the summer of 1985 to film an awesome Converse commercial.

Simonson has the difficult task of covering a lot of territory. He includes a scene alluding to the way the NBA used the duo to boost its television ratings after a some lackluster years in 1970s. Jerry Buss, Pat Riley, and Red Auerbach—all played by the actor Peter Scolari—flit on and off the stage, as well as Bryant Gumbel, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper.

The main subplot, though, is race: a Boston reporter needles Bird about being the Great White Hope; a black teammate (not named in the play, but most likely based on Cedric Maxwell), talks trash to Bird in practice before getting shown up; Magic turns the tables and charms a white reporter who tries to get him to talk about race. And there are the two invented characters in the bar. These scenes hang uneasily now, three decades after the men entered the league. Neither was really a good choice as a racial symbol: Magic was and is a charmer and conciliator; if Bird was ever concerned about much more than winning basketball games, he never showed it. This play—made with the cooperation of both men—is not the place where any major revelations are going to be dropped (the most surprising scene is a conversation between Magic and Michael Cooper in which Magic admits his fondness for womanizing).

The primary racial antagonisms that churned during Bird and Magic’s 1980s have changed—mandatory busing and school desegregation have been replaced by new flashpoints like Trayvon Martin, Obama’s birth certificate, and mass incarceration. But as individuals, Bird and Magic have as little to do with these as they did debates about Affirmative Action or welfare in the 1980s.

More than identity politics, the Magic/Bird rivalry became a national obsession first and foremost because of their transcendence on the court. Instead of having the actors try the impossible task of mimicking the players’ moves, large-screen projections show the two running the floor in their prime—no doubt the best way to convey their electric games to the audience. Even with 24/7 access to YouTube, the sight of Magic dishing no-look passes or Bird draining threes without a conscience still thrills.

At the end of Magic/Bird, Larry’s back has gone out and Magic has shocked the world by announcing he has HIV. The black guy and white guy who clashed in the earlier scene are brought back together in the bar. This time they’re conciliatory, each hailing the skills of the other’s favorite player. “Let’s call it a draw,” the black guy offers, reaching out his hand. At this point, that seems the most appropriate thing to say.

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At the performance I saw, the audience broke into applause at the end of that scene in a show of appreciation for the dramatic subtext of the Magic-Bird relationship.
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