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

By Kenneth Jones
February 7, 2012

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.]

Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird

Can you point to the turning point where it went from rivalry to relationship?
EJ: It's always — even today and always will be — a rivalry, for sure! It doesn't matter if we laced 'em up right now, I'm still going to want to beat him and he's still going to want to beat me. [Laughs.] That will never die! So, I think the turning point was — I went to his house to shoot a Converse commercial and I was really upset because the year before, he had won the MVP. The next season, I had won, but Converse is making me fly to Indiana to shoot the commercial at his house. So, you know, I'm very upset. What's going on here? I got to go to his house to film my commercial! We were not on speaking terms at that time, so I'm saying, "Oh, my goodness. This is really crazy. What's going to happen to me? I'm going to Larry Bird's hometown and to his house." So, I went back and forth and finally I said, "Yes. I'll do it."

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?
EJ: Yeah, she was the one. It's something how mothers can see things, you know? Like, "these guys probably need me." [Laughs.] "Let me bring these two guys together." And she was just wonderful, I tell you. It reminded me of my own mother — how sweet, kind, how thoughtful, how my mom is a big basketball fan, she is a fan. I'm sitting here, I swear it was my mother talking to us, and it was Larry's mom.

This sounds like a great scene. It should be in the play.
EJ: Yeah, it is. It's in the play.

You've read the play, right? A draft of the play?
EJ: Yeah, I can't tell you everything, but I can tell you that one scene is in there. [Laughs.]

Kevin Daniels will play Magic Johnson in Magic/Bird.

I'm curious to know what your relationship to the theatre has been. Do you go to Broadway? Do you see shows?
EJ: Yeah, I see shows myself. My wife and I see shows — not just there in New York, but when they come here as well. I'm just blown away. I was just there to watch Sam Jackson and Angela Bassett [in The Mountaintop] when they kicked off their play. Matter of fact, I was there opening night. I'm always going there. I love it. There's nothing like New York. There's nothing like Broadway. There's nothing like a great play. I'm still blown away. I still can't believe that this is actually going to happen and that Larry and I actually have a play! This just blows me away because I've been there so many times and never thought that I — we — would be a part of any play.

What else have you seen on Broadway?
EJ: Ah, man!

Does your wife choose?
EJ: Yes. Hey, you know if you're married, you already know what's happening: You follow!

Usually in a couple, the lady chooses the play!
EJ: Exactly. You follow. A lot of times we'll go just because our friends are involved. Sam and LaTanya Jackson — they recommend a lot of plays. So, we go a lot of times to see our friends and then we go a lot of times to see the great plays. We love it.

Have you met Kevin Daniels, who is playing you in Magic/Bird?
EJ: Yes. Matter of fact, he's coming today in a minute, to talk to me one more time before he [goes to New York]. This is where he lives.

What's it like talking to "yourself"?
EJ: Weird. [Laughs.] I can't even begin to tell you how weird it is! Also, too, how a guy has to watch you — wants to see your mannerisms and on and on and on. It's weird. [Laughs.]

You feel like a specimen.
EJ: Exactly.

Have you shot hoops with him?
EJ: No, no, no. It's about business. It's about him really capturing my voice, watching me: how I stand, walk, talk— those things.

See you on opening night.
EJ: I'm coming and I can't wait. It's going to be great.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)