Posted: Wednesday February 29, 2012 11:17AM ; Updated: Wednesday February 29, 2012 11:17AM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA

Story is the star in Magic/Bird play

Story Highlights

A Broadway play about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will open on March 21

The play, with a small cast and minimal props, will trace a rivalry and friendship

The team that wrote and produced 'Lombardi' is responsible for 'Magic/Bird'

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The rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird defined the NBA in the 1980s.
The rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird defined the NBA in the 1980s.
Manny Millan/SI

It always comes down to the story. On Sunday in Orlando, the All-Stars were introduced from a rising platform to clouds of white smoke and thumping music. The goal was to make them seem larger than life, or at least larger than they really are.

It was one of those forgettable moments of instant gratification, and it raised the question of their impact. How many of these players will be remembered in the ages after they've retired from the NBA? Does the game define them, or will they define the game? Twenty years from now, will we be recalling Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the same way that we are still talking about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird so many years after they stopped playing basketball?

Will Dwight Howard become a serious champion? Will Chris Paul overcome his size to become the best in the game? All of these stars on display Sunday have achieved enormous success and wealth already. But there is so much more for them to accomplish, and most of them, for any number of reasons, will never approach the impact of the original stars of the modern NBA era. Magic/Bird is the title of a play that will premiere March 21 on Broadway.

"The distance from midcourt to the baskets is one thing,'" said Thomas Kail, the director of Magic/Bird. "The distance from midcourt to the rafters is the difference between mortality and immortality. If you can get there, the story lives on.''

Photo Gallery: Classic pictures of Magic | The college years

When Johnson and Bird each played in his first NBA Finals, the games weren't important enough to be shown on live television. Three decades later, they've become so important as to merit a 90-minute production on Broadway.

"It's going to be very interesting,'' Bird said. "What they're trying to do is capture what we were thinking, what we were doing, what we thought at certain times. It will really be interesting to see how they portray all that.''

While so much about pro sports today is based on exaggerating the impact of players who will fade out of memory as soon as they're done playing, the story of Magic/Bird will boil away the extraneous and the hype. It will tell the inspiring story of two rivals whose shared love for the game turned their animosity into friendship. It involves a small cast of six actors on a stage of minimal props. The story is the star.

Photo Gallery: Classic pictures of Bird | The college years

The backdrop is a large LED screen of approximately 30-by-25 feet that will be used to show highlights and establish the mood of a story that promises to hopscotch quickly from one year to another in pursuit of this timeless story that continues to define the NBA.

Larry Bird led the Celtics to three titles while Magic Johnson guided the Lakers to five.
Larry Bird led the Celtics to three titles while Magic Johnson guided the Lakers to five.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

"It feels like the game of basketball -- a series of very short scenes,'' said Fran Kirmser, who joins with Tony Ponturo in producing the play. "We start off with a montage that starts off really quietly, just sneakers squeaking on the floor, and builds into a full-blown game and just stops. The first scene has got Larry picking up the phone and Earvin telling him that he has HIV. We go from there back to the earliest times when they're first aware of each other. We get into their careers and then going head-to-head at every moment until, in the middle of the play, we sit down for a long scene where they really get to know each other, and they turn that corner and become friends.''

The breakthrough idea of turning athletics into the stuff of Broadway began with the successful Kirmser/Ponturo production in 2010-11 of Lombardi, which was written by Eric Simonson, who is also the playwright of Magic/Bird. The story of Packers coach Vince Lombardi, who was a founding father of the modern NFL, married the qualities of drama that are shared by sport and theater. Everyone involved in Magic/Bird is aware of the continuing opportunity to lure sports fans to Broadway for the first time.

"It's interesting with Lombardi,'' Ponturo said. "Toward the end of the play, a reporter recaps some things about Vince Lombardi, and he says the one thing he couldn't defeat was his colon cancer, and he died at 57. And you heard this gasp in the theater, because as well-known as Lombardi was, people didn't realize he died at 57.''

"You lived with him in front of you for an hour and half and then he's gone,'' Kirmser added. "That's what you have in the theater. Because you do believe -- hopefully -- the actors, so you're really there with them.''

As I look forward to seeing Magic/Bird, and experiencing new insight of a story that has yet to grow old, I find myself wondering what many of the players today are hoping to accomplish in their careers. Why couldn't Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal share the ball? What drove James to move to Miami via reality television? Is Howard seeking to become a champion or a star?

One of the lasting messages of Magic and Larry is that they weren't seeking to create a story that would last. They were each devoted to the goal of winning as a team, and that is why their story matters. They became timeless stars because they didn't let stardom upset their noble priorities.

Photo Gallery: Celtics vs. Lakers in the '80s

Three weeks ago, the producers, director and several members of the cast met in Boston to attend the Lakers-Celtics game. Tug Coker, a 6-5 former player who grew up as a Celtics fan (his father was born in Boston and became a fan of John Havlicek), has earned the role of Larry Bird. It was unknown how much Coker will actually be shooting a basketball on the stage, but he was enjoying the practice all the same.

"It's that high release, kind of over the head,'' Coker said. "I went to a Boston bar in Los Angeles [Sonny McLean's in Santa Monica] and there was a picture of Larry in the corner, and his hand is almost pointing down to the ground. It's a funky little release. So I'm trying, I'm trying. We'll see what we can do.''

Before the big game, they walked across the parquet floor and posed for pictures around the Celtics' leprechaun at center court. They were all laughing and enjoying this opportunity they are creating, in trying to understand and explain how two players became so much more than anyone ever could have dreamed. And then, one by one, they looked up to the banners.

 
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