EXCLUSIVE: Earvin "Magic" Johnson Talks About Magic/Bird, the Broadway Basketball Biography

By Kenneth Jones
07 Feb 2012

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson
Photo by NBA

Basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, formerly of Michigan State University and the Los Angeles Lakers, will make his Broadway debut this spring — sort of.

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Magic/Bird, the new Broadway-bound play by Eric Simonson, begins rehearsals Feb. 20. The play doesn't star rivals Johnson and Boston Celtics veteran Larry Bird, but it does chart their rise from college to NBA superstardom, when they were opponents and ultimately friends. The dual biographical drama, which is being directed by Tony Award nominee Thomas Kail, begins preview performances at Broadway's Longacre Theatre March 21 toward an April 11 opening.

Kevin Daniels will play Johnson, with Tug Coker as Bird. A handful of other actors will assume multiple roles in the lives of the athletes.



Producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo also produced Simonson's football-centered Lombardi on Broadway. Seeing that drama about coach Vince Lombardi — and trusting dramatist Simonson — were key reasons that Johnson agreed to the project, he told Playbill.com. It didn't hurt that the production has the support of the National Basketball Association.

On Feb. 6, Johnson — the three-time NBA MVP, 12-time All-Star and two-time All-Star Game MVP — spoke to Playbill.com by telephone from California, where he makes his home in Beverly Hills.

Did producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo reach out to you about getting your permission and participation in Magic/Bird? Did they pitch the idea?
Earvin Johnson: Yes, yes. I said, "Well, let me come out first to see Lombardi." They did a wonderful job. They portrayed him in an incredible light, but also [showed us] the things that were going on in his life that we didn't know were going on. That's when I decided, "Okay. Go ahead. Let's do it." And, Larry, as well. So, two boys from the Midwest playing basketball — who would have ever dreamt that we would be on Broadway with a play about our lives? [Laughs.] And then it's great to have the NBA as one of our partners, as well, so everybody is working together to make sure it comes off right.

 

Earvin "Magic" Johnson
photo courtesy of NBA

Can you tell me about the kind of conversations that you've had with the playwright, Eric Simonson?
EJ: Yeah, we've had some great conversations. He wanted to get to know me, you know. What drives me. He wanted to get to know me as two people — he wanted to know me as "Earvin" and as "Magic." [Laughs.] Magic was the crazy guy out on the basketball court, and he did everything and anything to win, much like the Giants did yesterday [in the Super Bowl], and that's what it's all about. And Earvin was really driven by winning and competitions. It was really great to sit down with [Eric] a couple of times. He captured my voice, he understood me as a man and as a person, and he did the same thing with Larry, as well.

Did Eric come out to Beverly Hills?
EJ: Yeah. He came and we sat and it was really a good time. And, also, it worked the other way, too — me getting to know him, too, as the writer. So, it worked out great on both sides.

This is about your life and Larry's life — you need to build mutual trust with the playwright.
EJ: That's right. There had to be trust on both sides. I'm tough, but Larry is even tougher than I am! [Laughs.]

I want to know what that conversation was like — with Larry.
EJ: Exactly. [Laughs.] And, I was holding my breath waiting on the phone call that [Larry] he was going to cancel. [Laughs.] People have to understand that this is really unique because Larry is a guarded young man — a guy who, public-wise, only does things that have to be right; he has to feel good about it. So this is something that is going to be special. Once he gave the okay and once he sat down with the writer a couple of times, that meant he's really feeling good about it. Larry enjoyed talking to [Eric], he told me. He just wanted to make sure that things came out the right way, and, also, out of his mouth.

It had to be his voice. It had to feel like Larry's voice.
EJ: That's right. He's very concerned about that.

When you talked to Eric and to the producers, were there lines that you drew in terms of what you didn't want to be seen on stage? Did you say, "Let's steer away from…"?
EJ: No, I'm not like that. If you looked at the HBO documentary ["Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals"], you know, they touched on everything. My life is already out there, so whatever they wanted to cover and it made sense…I was fine with it.

This play is a biography of two people intersecting.
EJ: Yes. Two opposite people, yet, two people who really respect each other, love each other, support each other, but, in the beginning was not like that. [Laughs.]

 Continued...