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Magic and Bird On Stage

Tug Coker as Larry Bird

How playwright Eric Simonson made theatre out of basketball stars

In the space of eight years, Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. won a combined six NBA championships. Bird and Magic, as they’re still known worldwide, represent a combined 13.5 feet of grit, skill, and nearly unprecedented basketball smarts, resulting in perhaps the most storied rivalry in modern sports.

According to playwright Eric Simonson, they also represent “the better angels of the collective unconscious of the country.” That’s how he describes the joint protagonists—bitter rivals turned battle-scarred friends—of his play Magic/Bird, which is now in previews at the Longacre Theatre.

Simonson, who is reteaming with the director (Thomas Kail) and producers of the football-themed play Lombardi, would appear to be an unlikely candidate for go-to sports scribe. His resume includes adaptations of Moby Dick and Slaughterhouse-Five, collaborations with poet/playwright Ntozake Shange and African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and a documentary short about the radio dramatist Norman Corwin that won an Academy Award in 2006.

But Simonson also adapted the canonical baseball film Bang the Drum Slowly, and in 2007, he even wrote a different play about Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi for Madison Repertory Theatre.

That play, Lombardi: The Only Thing, was a bit more erudite than the project that reached Broadway—it was modeled on Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell—but it did get him in touch with author David Maraniss, who wrote the acclaimed Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered. That introduction would ultimately get him a meeting with the Lombardi producers, and the success of that project led to Magic/Bird.

For his latest play, Simonson also had two living title characters as collaborators. Simonson took advantage of the availability of both men, who played an enormous role in rescuing the NBA from the drug-and-violence-related PR problems that plagued the league throughout the 1970s.

“I had access while I was writing this,” says the playwright, who also consulted news clippings and When the Game Was Ours, the joint biography that the two men wrote. “So if I had a question or needed an anecdote—or just some insight—I could simply call them up, which was great.”

But while both Magic and Bird have seen readings of Magic/Bird, neither had script approval. And while the NBA has weighed in on various iterations of the piece, “the producers are very good at letting everyone know that this is an artistic process and giving me the space I need,” Simonson says. “Most of the notes have been about correcting facts.”

He says Lombardi appealed to “equal parts theatre people and sports fans,” and he aimed for a similar split with Magic/Bird. For instance, the new play begins with a moment that even sports neophytes will remember: the 1991 announcement that Magic had contracted the HIV virus and was retiring from the NBA effective immediately. (Bird was one of the few people that Magic contacted before the press conference.)

Simonson also explores questions of race, since skin color often shaped the public perception of Bird and Magic’s rivalry. “It’s part of the story,” the playwright says. “Their relationship reflects the country’s relationship with race. Larry and Magic demonstrated to the country that what matters is excellence.”

He adds, “I think the great thing about this story is that they’re really equal. They balance each other—they’re the perfect yin and yang. Whatever is weak in one is strong in the other.”

Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).

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