EXCLUSIVE: Earvin "Magic" Johnson Talks About Magic/Bird, the Broadway Basketball Biography
By Kenneth Jones
Basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, formerly of Michigan State University and the Los Angeles Lakers, will make his Broadway debut this spring — sort of.
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?
Can you tell me about the kind of conversations that you've had with the playwright, Eric Simonson?
Did Eric come out to Beverly Hills?
This is about your life and Larry's life — you need to build mutual trust with the playwright.
I want to know what that conversation was like — with Larry.
It had to be his voice. It had to feel like Larry's voice.
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…"?
This play is a biography of two people intersecting.
Can you point to the turning point where it went from rivalry to relationship?
So, I get there, and it's got all of — what? — one or two stoplights in the whole city. A small town. And, so now I'm driving to his house. He has a lot of acres in land and the lawn is really beautiful. So, I get all the way down to the basketball court where we're going to shoot the commercial, so I get out and I asked him, "Well, where's my trailer?" So, I go to my trailer, and then they finally said, "Okay, it's time to come to talk with the director to see what you guys are supposed to do." So, we come to the basketball court and it's just so awkward, you know? It was just: "Hey." "Hey." [Laughs.] I thought, "Am I going to escape out of here today, or what?" Then we started the shoot. First it was a car scene. After the car scene, we had to do the on-the-court stuff. So, he said, "I want you to take Larry to the basket." I said, "Is this for real?!" [Laughs.] Because Larry's looking like, "I'm not going to let him just drive and score on me." Now, we're getting ready to get serious. [Laughs.] So, the director's like, "No, no… This is just... Larry, we're acting now. Magic, we're acting."
So, we did that scene and then, finally, it's lunchtime. This is what really changed our relationship. He had so many acres that he had those four-wheelers — ATVs. He gets on one. I get on one. So, I'm trailing him up to his house because that's where lunch was going to be served. We walk in and his mother came over, "Oh, Earvin!" Hugged me, kissed me. I'm like, "Oh, wow." I'm getting this type of great reception from his mom, you know? So, we sit down and then his mother is just going on. She knew my stats, she knew me. I'm like, "Wow!" So, I'm blown away, so it made me sort of relax. So, she brought the lunch over. We're sitting there and talking. I'm asking him about the house and asking him about the lawn, and he shocked me. I almost fell off my chair! I said, "Yeah, man. Whoever cuts your lawn does a wonderful job." He said, "Yeah, me." I said, "Wait a minute… what? You're cutting — what — ten acres? 15 acres? This has got to be 10-15 acres!" He said, "Yeah, I cut my own grass." I'm like, "Wow." So now we're laughing. It just broke the ice. Here, we went from Bird and Magic, the basketball players, to now Bird and Magic, the men. He asked me questions about Lansing and my family. I'm asking him questions. It was hard to get us back to the commercial shoot. We were giggling and laughing like two little boys. That was really what changed our relationship — that lunch, his mom, him knowing me as "Earvin" and not as "Magic," and myself really knowing him as "Larry."
His mom really melted the ice, didn't she?
This sounds like a great scene. It should be in the play.
You've read the play, right? A draft of the play?
I'm curious to know what your relationship to the theatre has been. Do you go to Broadway? Do you see shows?
What else have you seen on Broadway?
Does your wife choose?
Usually in a couple, the lady chooses the play!
Have you met Kevin Daniels, who is playing you in Magic/Bird?
What's it like talking to "yourself"?
You feel like a specimen.
Have you shot hoops with him?
See you on opening night.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)
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