With a Name to Inspire Sports Fans, Tug Coker Will Play Larry Bird in World Premiere of Magic/Bird

By Kenneth Jones
08 Dec 2011

Tug Coker
Tug Coker

The producers aiming the new sports play Magic/Bird at Broadway have found their Larry Bird. The 6-foot-5-inch actor Tug Coker will play the basketball star in the biographical play by Eric Simonson.

Coker, a former NCAA college basketball player, has film and TV credits guesting on "Torchwood," "Hot in Cleveland," "CSI: Miami," "Community" and more, and appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream at American Repertory Theatre in Boston. When Eric Simonson's new play about the friendship between rival ballplayers Magic Johnson (of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Bird (of the Boston Celtics) comes to Broadway, it will mark Coker's Broadway debut.

As previously reported on Playbill.com, producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo are shooting for their production Magic/Bird to have a March 21, 2012, Broadway opening following a Feb. 27 first preview.

A theatre is yet to be announced for the open-ended run of the six-actor, 95-minute play about the professional rivalry and friendship between basketball stars Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird.



Larry Bird said in a statement, "I look forward to experiencing Tug's portrayal of me during that fun and exciting time in my life. I am fortunate to be working with great professionals such as Fran, Tony and Eric to create this story for the Broadway stage."

"Having grown up a Celtics fan I am extremely excited, humbled and privileged to play Larry Bird," Coker said in a statement.

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Kirmser and Ponturo were behind the NFL-minded play Lombardi, about Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, seen on Broadway in 2010-11.

Ponturo said that finding actors who are as tall as the real-life ballplayers probably would not happen, adding that they may not find men who are 6-foot-9-inches (as Bird and Johnson are, roughly), but the actors have to at least match each other in height. The illusion of theatre will do the rest.

A casting notice for the show puts it more succinctly: "Taller is good."

Ponturo said that the production will be "fast-paced, like basketball" and will take the characters from their Indiana State vs. Michigan State college rivalry in 1979 to their Olympic "Dream Team" status in 1992.

"They're together a lot on the stage, you want to feel that competitive [quality], but you want to feel that friendship," Ponturo said. "Chemistry is the best word to use."

The leading characters of the play are Larry Bird, described in a casting notice as "fiercely competitive" and "uncompromisingly honest," with "a small-town suspicion of strangers, and loyalty to friends"; and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who is "charismatic, energetic and the life of the party," a man who is "fiercely competitive, outgoing, gregarious" with "unlimited ambition, ego and charm."

For both roles, actors in their 20s or 30s are being sought.

A casting breakdown also indicates the roles of Red Auerbach, the cigar-chomping legendary Celtics coach and manager, doubling as a blue-collar sports bar owner named Tommy; Frank, an African American "Boston firefighter and sports fan" in his 20s or 30s doubling as Cooper, an NBA player for the Lakers, and one of Magic's best friends; Georgia Bird, Larry’s mom, doubling as Shelly, a working-class bartender; and Willy, a fanatical African American sports fan, doubling as Baxter, Magic's shrewd agent.

As previously reported, Lombardi director Thomas Kail, the Tony Award-nominated director of In the Heights, will direct.

The creative team is David Korins (set), Howell Binkley (lighting), Paul Tazewell (costumes), Nevin Steinberg (sound) and Wendell K. Harrington (projections), "who will weave historic NBA film footage throughout the play."

Playwright Simonson is an Oscar winner and Tony nominee. In 1993, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his direction of The Song of Jacob Zulu.

Magic/Bird chronicles "the intertwined life stories of two of the most influential figures in sports and pop culture of the past 25 years."

The play will be produced in association with the National Basketball Association, marking the organization's first relationship with Broadway. Johnson and Bird are involved in the creative process of this original play, which is not based on source material.

Here's how the producers bill Magic/Bird: "At the heart of one of the fiercest rivalries in sports history, two of the greatest basketball players of all-time battled for three championships, bragging rights, and the future of their sport in the 1980s. Johnson and Bird electrified the nation on the court, reinvigorated the NBA, and turned their rivalry into one of the greatest and most famous friendships in professional sports."

Kail directed Lombardi, about football coach Vince Lombardi, in-the-round at Circle in the Square Theatre in the 2010-11 season. He was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for his direction of the musical In the Heights. For Lincoln Center Theater, he also directed Off-Broadway's Broke-ology and When I Come to Die.

This is the second original project undertaken by producers Ponturo and Kirmser. They said in production notes that they "share a common vision of bringing new, original plays and musicals to a wide, diverse audience of theatergoers, initially combining the drama of sports and entertainment through Kirmser/Ponturo Group."

Lombardi and Magic/Bird "are the first two products of that vision."

Visit www.magicbirdbroadway.com.

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In an earlier statement, Larry Bird said, "I am fortunate to be working with great professionals such as Fran, Tony and Eric. I am looking forward to working with them to create a story for the Broadway stage about such an exciting and important time in my life."

Johnson added, "I have great love and respect for Larry Bird, and am elated that our personal and professional relationship will now be exposed to an even larger audience through this dramatic production. Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo have a proven record not just of creating a successful production, but in making sure the story depicted is historically correct and impactful to a wide audience, and I am looking forward to assisting and supporting this effort in any way possible."