NEW YORK — Tug Coker grew up in suburban Virginia with an impossible dream: One day he'd love to play pro basketball. Maybe, fingers crossed, even for his favorite team, the Boston Celtics.
Incredibly, that fantasy is coming true, just not in the way he expected.
Coker is currently pulling on a Celtics jersey eight times a week and bouncing a basketball in front of thousands of people. But the court just happens to be in a Broadway theater.
"I never thought people would pay to come and see me play basketball," he says with a wide smile.
Coker is starring as Celtics legend Larry Bird opposite Kevin Daniels as Earvin "Magic" Johnson in "Magic/Bird," a play about the off-court friendship and fierce on-court rivalry of two of the NBA's most valuable players.
Written by Academy Award-winner Eric Simonson, the play traces the lives of Bird and Johnson from their face-off at the 1979 NCAAA title game to their inclusion in the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics.
Though very different men — one was an outgoing African-American point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, the other a shy, white forward from rural Indiana — the duo's athleticism and competitiveness helped glamourize basketball and made them into icons.
"The challenge for us I think is to give something new to people who know the story extremely intimately. And also entertain and educate and enlighten people who just come to see theater and don't know sports," says Coker. "So we're walking a fine line."
The play is commissioned by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the duo who previously combined sports and theater in 2010's hit "Lombardi," a play about legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. "Magic/Bird" reunites much of the "Lombardi" team, including director Thomas Kail and Simonson, who crafted his script from conversations with Johnson and Bird.
Johnson himself was convinced his story could be told onstage after catching "Lombardi" and seeing the first draft of the script. He said both he and Bird took a lot of time to talk to the writer to make sure every detail was correct.
"It's hard to really open up and let someone into your world. I'm more open so Kevin could get anything out of me. But Larry is more guarded so it was tough to get things out of him," says Johnson. "But, at the end of the day, they have captured both of us. And they have captured also the people around us. So we're both very happy."
Finding the right guys to play such well-known figures was no easy feat. The actors had to look the part, they had to be tall — both Bird and Johnson are 6-foot-9 — and both had to have some ball skills or the show would be deflating.
Enter Coker and Daniels — both athletic, both proportionately matched at 6-foot-5 and both superbly trained stage actors: Coker at the American Repertory Theater and Daniels from The Juilliard School.
"We just really were lucky that the two guys that captured it happened to be 6-5," says Kirmser. "They both have sports in their background, particularly with Tug and basketball. It made it convincing when they picked up a ball."
Coker, 34, who has been on the TV shows "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," ''How I Met Your Mother" and "The Office," flew from his home in Los Angeles to New York to audition. His warmth and dry wit won over producers.
"It's not often that Tug doesn't have a basketball under his arm, which you sort of sense was also like Larry Bird in person — every waking moment he was trying to put a ball through a hoop," says Ponturo.
Daniels, 35, grew up in Houston and Irving, Texas, and played high school basketball before becoming an actor in Los Angeles. He initially auditioned for "Magic/Bird" by sending a video.
Kirmser and Ponturo recall seeing it and instantly recognizing Johnson's easy grin and charisma. "It was almost as if he reached through the screen," says Kirmser. "That was sort of a breathtaking moment for us — Magic right there!"
To get into character, Coker spoke on the phone with Bird and traveled to his hometown of French Lick, Ind., soaking up Bird's aura. (When locals wondered how he would play the icon, Coker responded: "Just relax. We've got wigs and mustaches coming in.") Daniels has met Johnson twice, including the time when he stopped by and watched a rehearsal. ("Terrifying," says Daniels; Johnson advised him to keep smiling.) Both actors also watched tons of film.
Unlike the recent Broadway musical "Lysistrata Jones," which had prominent basketball sequences, "Magic/Bird" shies away from live choreographed lay-ups or dunks, preferring to focus on the duo's relationship and use stylized action sequences or projections to show the plays on the court.
"Nothing would shatter an illusion more than someone going for a three-point shot and missing it," says Daniels. Coker agrees: "People expect Larry and Magic to make everything. Or at least they remember them making every shot."
Coker adored basketball and even transferred from the College of William & Mary to the University of Virginia to try to make the school's team. He only got as far as the bench. "I was better at the camaraderie aspects than I was in the skill positions. So I just realized maybe I should probably do something else than be an athlete."
His path led him to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and then to graduate work at the American Repertory Theater. "Magic/Bird" represents his Broadway debut, one that manages to combine his acting skills with his childhood love of basketball.
"It's not very often where you're doing a film or a play where it's like, 'You actually want this skill? I have that. I can do this! You're looking for me!'" he says. "So, for me, I was really excited to have the opportunity to tap back into something that I really grew up loving and really wanted to be."
Daniels was a high school basketball standout but had to choose drama over hoops in college. "I kept asking Juilliard to start a basketball program but they wouldn't do it," he says laughing. He made his Broadway debut in "Twelfth Night" in 1998 and has appeared in the film "Ladder 49" with John Travolta. "Because of this, I have discovered a new love for basketball that I didn't have," he says.Comment on this story
The two actors have developed an easy friendship. And though they may play rivals, they've gone together to see "Jesus Christ Superstar" and are likely to share a round of cocktails after work.
But their friendship sometimes takes a back seat onstage.
"Magic gave me fits growing up because he was so good," says Coker. "That smile drove me nuts. I grew up watching that and having to endure the Lakers sort of getting the edge on the Celtics. So every night, I try to get the championships back."
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