Does the NBA’s greatest rivalry make for compelling Broadway drama?

Larry Bird and Earvin 'Magic' Johnson embrace.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson embrace during a news conference on April 6, 2009 in Detroit, Mich.

Photograph by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

On Wednesday night, Magic/Bird opened on Broadway. The latest effort from Eric Simonson and Thomas Kail, the writer and director behind the play Lombardi, charts the rivalry—and eventual friendship—between basketball legends Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Slate editors David Haglund and John Swansburg attended a performance. Their thoughts on the proceedings follow below.

John Swansburg: Hi David. I’ve donned my Kelly green Larry Bird T-shirt and my beat-up Converse Weapon high-tops, and I’m excited to talk about Magic/Bird. Perhaps we should start by answering the question everyone keeps asking when we tell them we saw the show: Do they actually play basketball on stage?

David Haglund: They do! Sort of. They more gesture toward the game of basketball rather than actually play it. Larry poses in his perfect shooting stance, the lights dim, and we hear repeated swishes as part of the stage rotates. (It’s that kind of show.)

Swansburg: I thought the actor who played Bird (Tug Coker) did a great job of capturing that shooting stance. If there were a Tony for best shooting stance in a dramatic role, he’d be the man to beat.

Haglund: Absolutely. And the voice! Not to mention the hair, and even a passable paste-on mustache. If the acting thing doesn’t work out, and if there is still a market out there for Larry Bird impersonators, he has many New England mall visits in his future.

Swansburg: I’d totally go see a one-man Bird show at the Liberty Tree Mall. Sadly, I felt the actor playing Magic (Kevin Daniels) wasn’t quite as convincing.

Haglund: He was not. Weirdly, he portrayed Magic as kind of a hayseed. According to Wikipedia, Lansing is a city of 100,000 people, and Michigan State is a major university with a big-time basketball program.

Swansburg: Yes, that was strange. Bird—the Hick from French Lick—is supposed to be the hayseed. But Magic shows up in Los Angeles very wide-eyed, particularly when Lakers owner Jerry Buss suggests that Johnson get acclimated to his new hometown by visiting the Playboy Mansion.

Haglund: You know Hugh Hefner?! Why gee, Mr. Buss …

Swansburg: We should perhaps pause here to note that Magic/Bird is Bird- and Magic-approved, and presented in association with the National Basketball Association. (Lombardi was similarly vouched for by the NFL.) It occurred to me that portraying Magic as an innocent corrupted by Hugh Hefner might be a convenient way of getting to a certain press conference in 1991.

Haglund: The play really didn’t know how to handle that subject, even though it opened with the HIV announcement. Of course, the fact that this scene was immediately preceded by an introduction of the cast as though they were the 1996 Bulls at the United Center was maybe not a good sign either.

Swansburg: I think that was the highlight of the night for me: The whole cast in rip-away warm-up pants!

Haglund: We should also note that the whole cast is, what, seven people? Just barely a playoff rotation. With all but the two leads playing multiple parts.

Swansburg: Yes, a very economical use of human talent in this show. Peter Scolari, who spent the Bird/Magic years doing Emmy-nominated work on Newhart, plays Red Auerbach, Jerry Buss, Pat Riley, and a drunken Celtics fan. That’s a tall order.

Haglund: And another actor gives us Michael Cooper, Cedric Maxwell, and an employee in the league office.

Swansburg: I went into this show very curious about which other Lakers and Celtics would make an appearance. I never would have guessed Michael Cooper and Cedric Maxwell.

Haglund: Where was Kareem? McHale?

Swansburg: Rambis? I could see Philip Seymour Hoffman pulling off a great, tortured Rambis. But I guess he’s busy with that other great American sports drama, Death of a Salesman.

Haglund: I was imagining Billy Crudup. Even without such luminaries, though, this show might have worked if it had an actual narrative. Instead, we get a series of dramatized press conferences and postgame interviews that I’m pretty sure I can find on YouTube. In fact, the show’s producers did find them on YouTube, and projected them in the background while the actors were speaking. Which was an odd touch.

Swansburg: That was an odd touch. They also showed highlights from various Lakers/Celtics games—and every time they did, I found myself wishing I was just watching the clips and not this show.

Haglund: That would have been a fun evening.

Swansburg: I honestly would sit in a Broadway theater and watch 90 minutes of Bird and Magic highlights.

Haglund: I would do that and go home happy. But I left Magic/Bird convinced that the Magic/Bird relationship, fascinating as it is, really isn’t Broadway material. What’s most interesting about their friendship is what all of us, the fans, made of it.

Swansburg: I agree. I think the show’s producers made a lot of mistakes, but the basic problem here is that there just isn’t a great story to tell.

Haglund: They’re basically two incredibly talented and hardworking basketball players who were connected in the public imagination and gradually grew to like each other.

Swansburg: Right.

Haglund: The most interesting part of that is “connected in the public imagination,” not “gradually grew to like each other.”
The best way to describe this show is Living History. If you saw this at the Basketball Hall of Fame during a trip to Springfield, Mass. you might enjoy it.

Swansburg: Exactly. It should be 12 minutes long and come free with Hall of Fame admission or proof of purchase at the gift shop.

Haglund: It’s not exactly Chekhov. Twelve minutes sounds about right.

Swansburg: Let’s talk about the scene that was the emotional center of the evening. Of course, I’m talking about when Michael Cooper and Magic Johnson go out for a bite to eat. Just kidding. But that is a scene in this play.

Haglund: Yes. To a restaurant with very large menus. And purple lighting. It was the late ’80s.  Also: Coop is such a square!

Swansburg: Such a square. Think of how much more fun that scene would have been if the bright lights of Broadway were glinting off of A.C. Green’s Jheri curls. Anyway, the emotional center of the show is a scene that takes place in French Lick. Bird and Magic are there to shoot their famous Converse commercial, and Bird invites Magic to his house for lunch, prepared by his mother, Georgia Bird. What did you make of that set-piece?

Haglund: I enjoyed it, actually.

Swansburg: Me too.

Haglund: The actress who plays Georgia Bird, Deirdre O’Connell, probably had the best night of the bunch. If Bird and Magic did a dramatic reading of her stat line, it would be something like 20, 10, and 5. Another thing that actually happens in this play: Magic and Bird doing dramatic readings of stat lines.

Swansburg: In the play’s defense, they were all triple doubles.

Haglund: Yes. That scene at Mama Bird’s house was very sweet, and seemed plausible. But you told me it was invented? They did come to like each other while filming a Converse ad in French Lick, right?

Swansburg: Yes, that much is true. But according to a piece in the Times last week, neither Bird nor Magic remembered much about the afternoon—the details are largely the invention of the playwright, Eric Simonson.

Haglund: This is one of many reasons that a documentary is the right form for this story: You want to learn what actually happened, not distill the dramatic truth from an embellished version of events. (HBO has made just such a documentary.) And the play still left out a lot of the genuine drama. For instance, they spend much of that lunch talking about their fathers—and for some reason Bird never mentions that his dad committed suicide when Larry was just 18.   

Swansburg: I could see a man of few words like Larry Bird keeping that to himself. But that leads me to another problem with this show: As we noted earlier, the actor playing Bird does quite a good job capturing his reticent, sullen affect. But what always made Bird such a compelling real-life character was that this man who hardly cared to string two words together at a press conference was such an artist on the court.

Haglund: And such a trash talker!

Swansburg: Right! Notorious!

Haglund: Which the show gives us a tiny, watered-down taste of.

Swansburg: Very watered down.

Haglund: Whereas we get quite a demonstration of Bird’s drywalling technique. Which mostly involved bending over and holding his sore back.

Swansburg: What was your favorite moment of the show? I think we both had the same one.

Haglund: By far the best part of the show was the clip of Larry Bird throwing a half-court, behind-the-back pass to Reggie Lewis in a game that happened hours after Magic announced he had HIV. It was immediately taken as a kind of homage. I’m getting chills just typing that, and I’ve already watched the clip three or four times today.

Swansburg: Yep, me too. I love that Bird, who could be spectacular but was generally the workmanlike winner to Magic’s glitzy showman, would pay respects to his friend with that totally unnecessary display of flair.

Haglund: And that moment takes us back to the show’s biggest problem: These guys were at their most dramatic on the court.

Swansburg: Yes, whenever we caught a glimpse of them in the projected highlights, we saw what made them special, and it cast an unkind glow on the proceedings below.

Haglund: It did. Let’s discuss what, if anything, the show took to be the meaning or importance of the Magic/Bird friendship.

Swansburg: I’m still a little verklempt from watching that behind-the-back pass. Trying to pull myself together.

Haglund: It’s basically about interracial understanding?   

Swansburg: The point of connection for the two men seemed mostly to be about a shared work ethic. That’s not the most surprising insight, but I bought that Bird and Magic eventually came to realize that they weren’t actually all that different, despite race, style of play, and the East/West divide.

Haglund: Right, and I wonder if the divide for them was ever any more than: He’s as good as I am, I must beat him. Even that East/West thing: They were both from the Midwest!

Swansburg: So, would we recommend that anyone go see this play? You and I are both Bostonians who came of age during the great Magic/Bird years. If we didn’t much like it, will anyone?

Haglund: If you love plays that aren’t that good, then you will love Magic/Bird. It really is an incredible rivalry. Just not an incredible play. Or even a good one.

Swansburg: I agree. My recommendation: Go see Book of Mormon instead, but do carve out half an hour to watch one of the many Bird/Magic tribute reels on YouTube. I’m very grateful to this show for prompting me to do that. Bird’s over-the-backboard shot! Magic’s blistering bounce passes!

Anyhow, thanks for coming to see the show with me, David. Next time let’s just watch a live-action Celtics game—I hear they’re peaking at just the right time!

Haglund: That’s a great idea. They beat the Heat while we were at the theater—wish we’d watched that instead.