By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
April 12, 2012
Wednesday night in downtown Los Angeles, the Lakers take on their aging but resurgent division rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, at home. Twenty six hundred miles away in Boston, the Celtics stretch and recuperate while still feeding off the adrenaline from Tuesday night’s punishing road game win over the Miami Heat.
Two hours south of the Celtic’s TD Garden home, a different sort of NBA rivalry is taking center court, as “Magic/Bird” opens at the Longacre Theater on Broadway. The second sports-themed drama produced by Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser, after 2010’s Tony Award-nominated “Lombardi,” follows title characters Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird from college to the NBA, through Johnson’s discovery in 1991 that he had contracted the H.I.V. virus, and their turn as teammates on the 1992 Olympic gold medal-winning “Dream Team.”
More tellingly from a sports business perspective, “Magic/Bird” follows the arc of a rivalry that helped the NBA transcend its financial depths in the 1980s and helped catapult the league to where it is today.
Johnson, Bird, and the NBA itself are all blue chip brands these days. A solid new collective bargaining agreement and blockbuster TV carriage deals have lifted the value of the average NBA team to a record $393 million, up 6.5 percent over last year, according to Forbes. The league, moreover, has a global footprint, with offices from Europe to China. “The NBA is a machine now,” remarks actor Tug Coker, who plays Larry Bird, during a “Sportfolio” interview set to air Wednesday night.
Bird is the Indiana Pacer’s president of basketball operations, and Johnson, a successful entrepreneur who made worldwide headlines last week when he and his colleagues in Guggenheim Baseball Management, including Guggenheim Partners and longtime sports executive Stan Kasten, submitted the winning bid for the Los Angeles Dodgers for the record-breaking sum of $2.15 billion.
But when Coker was a kid with pro basketball aspirations growing up in Virginia, he recalls that he had to watch NBA games “on tape delay at 1:00 a.m.” if he wanted to watch them at all. Baseball was still America’s favorite sports pastime in those days, with the fast-growing NFL not far behind.
Along with the ascendance of Michael Jordan in Chicago, the rivalry between Magic and Bird – the charismatic black kid from Detroit with the Great Lake-sized smile and the shy white boy from rural Indiana, transformed the NBA. Their leadership of their respective teams, Magic’s “Showtime” Lakers and Bird’s Red Auerbach-influenced old school Celtics, produced eight NBA titles between them, capturing the hearts (and wallets) of sports fans along the way and helping to turn the league into the made-for-TV personality showcase it is in 2012.
Part of the allure of the Magic-Bird rivalry for sports fans then and now was watching the gradual shift of their relationship from mutual loathing during the 1979 NCAA championship game (in which Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans beat College Player of the Year Bird and his Indiana State squad 75-64) to respect and admiration and later, the deep friendship normally reserved for longtime teammates.
Tension between rivals works just as well as a storyline on screen or stage as is does on a basketball court (last year’s Academy Award nominated “Black Swan” comes to mind), and Coker and colleague Kevin Daniels, who plays Johnson, seize every opportunity to mine the dynamic in “Magic/Bird.” To prepare for their roles, Coker spent time in Bird’s native French Lick, Indiana, talking to locals and visiting Bird’s longtime haunts, while Daniels watched old Lakers game tapes to mimic Johnson’s mannerisms and the interactions between the players.
“What I love about these guys is that they were all about making their teams better. It wasn’t about who could score the most points,” Daniels says during his “Sportfolio” interview. “As an actor, I feel the same – what can we do to make this story better? What can we do to engage the audience?”
The NBA is a marketing partner in ”Magic/Bird,” a formula that worked well for Ponturo in staging the successful 2010 Broadway run of "Lombardi,” partnering with the NFL.
Adding even more drama to the “Magic/Bird” premiere this week, of course, is Johnson’s Dodgers victory. While we’re pretty sure that Ponturo didn’t go as far as to pay off his good friend Kasten to secure the winning bid in order to create even more buzz around Ponturo’s play, it’s clear that Johnson still knows how to maximize his celebrity, a talent that bodes well for the Dodgers and “Magic/Bird” alike.
Johnson will be in the audience Wednesday night for the “Magic/Bird” opening, and alongside his NCAA championship, five NBA titles, and Olympic gold medal, he now has yet another goal: winning a World Series. "That’s the dream when you buy a team like the Dodgers,” he recently told Newsday. “You want to get them back to the place of winning a World Series. So that would be the ultimate."
And if “Magic/Bird” were to win a Tony Award, even if he didn’t walk away with the actual statue, we get the feeling that the Tony would be a welcome virtual addition to Johnson’s trophy case, and to his made-for-media brand.