Not only were many of the faces of first-nighters filing in for Magic/Bird new to Broadway, so too were their heights. The Longacre Theatre, on April 11, was acre after acre of strapping young, and old, men. It was like a sequoia convention.
I was situated behind a 6-foot-4-inch New York Giant linebacker Mark Herzlich. Leveling with me, he said, "John Mara Jr. is one of the producers of this play. I'm here to support him, and"—lest he forget—"the fun and excitement of the show." Also dutifully in attendance was "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara, along with NBA Commissioner David Stern, player-coach-and-now executive Pat Riley and wife Chris, John McEnroe and son Sean, CBS Sportscaster Lesley Visser, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, retired basketball greats Earl Monroe and Gail Goodrich, courtside fixture and film director Penny Marshall and John Starks of the New York Knicks. The superstars of the evening were, of course, the title characters — Earvin "Magic" Johnson, late of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Larry Bird, late of the Boston Celtics — there to relive their glory days when their fanatically fierce rivalry reluctantly, even grudgingly, turned into great and lasting friendship.
The key players who put Lombardi together last season for a respectable Broadway run — playwright Eric Simonson, director Thomas Kail and producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo — take to the court for another sports round of manly humor and heart-swelling sentiments.
The play begins with a pow! — on the day the competition died: Nov. 7, 1991, when Magic Johnson announced he had tested positive for the HIV virus and was retiring from the Lakers. The news had a spirit-killing effect on his longtime court rival and friend, who eventually followed him into retirement with back injuries.
The happiest of endings followed the fall of the curtain, when Magic Johnson, looking robust and well 20 years-and-counting later, joined his arch-friend/foe Larry Bird on stage with the cast of six for a few carefully selected words of appreciation.
Magic, of course, began: "We first have to thank Tony and Fran. When they called me up and told me they wanted to do this, I flew to New York to see Lombardi. It was a great, great production. And I called my friend, Larry, and — do you want to tell 'em what you told me?"
"I don't think so," Bird shyly demurred, drawing a huge laugh from the audience who quickly filled in the blankety-blanks with their imagined response.
"Trust me, it was short and to the point," Magic recalled. "We have been linked together," he said to his friend. "I don't know why God put us in each other's lives, but I'm glad He did. You're a blessing, man."
That compelled the tight-lipped and reticent Bird to speak. He recalled that faithful day in 1977 when he was about to get on the bus and first laid eyes on Earvin, toting a boom box on his shoulder and jive-dancing in his direction. "I thought, 'Well, here we go,'" he signed heavily. "I'd never know that 32, 33 years later, we'd be standing on a Broadway stage, laughing about this."
His tone turned serious. "Our competition was real. Our friendship's real. I would say early on, really because of me, the way that I went about my business was: I didn't want anyone to ever feel I had a weakness. I always felt that guys who went out to eat, guys who hung around together in the summer — they never had that drive and that passion to really beat their opponent as much as I did — so I was always the one who was standoffish. That was just the way I was, but later on when you get older and you mature a lot more, you have to acknowledge people, and this is a dear friend of mine. I love his family, his wife. We've all been through a lot of things in our life, but being up like this on stage in New York City — I think it's very special. I wish we could go back and compete again — not on the same team. It's been an honor and a privilege to play in our league — we have a great league with a lot of great young talent. We were very fortunate to play on the teams that were really stacked with Hall of Fame players, so don't feel sorry for us. We've been blessed."
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