As depicted in a new play, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had their share of awkward moments before a friendship developed. On one side of the stage is actor Tug Coker playing Larry Bird. On the opposite end is Kevin Daniels in the role of Magic Johnson. Each is talking on a phone with his agent in what begins as one of the more mundane scenes in Eric Simonson’s new Broadway play Magic/Bird. Larry’s rep tells him that Converse wants to film a commercial for his new signature basketball sneaker, the Weapon. Sounds great, says Larry. Have them send me a script and let’s shoot it. There is one catch: Magic Johnson, Bird is informed, will also be in the commercial.
Cue the record scratch.
On second thought, thanks but no thanks, says Larry. Magic has a similar conversation with his agent, who tells his client that Converse wants him, at Bird’s request, to film the TV spot in his rival’s hometown. “There’s no way I’m going to French Lick,” says Magic. “I live in Hollywood. This is where they make commercials.” OK then, says his agent. It looks like there won’t be any Magic Johnson basketball sneaker after all. “Wait,” says Magic. “Where is French Lick?”
Smash-cut to Indiana.
Bird and Magic stand on opposing sides of a basketball court wearing hoops gear. And Converse Weapons. Their patience is wearing thin. Each complains to his respective handler that the filming is tedious. Magic says he is headed to his trailer and will be back when they need him. As he walks off, Bird calls out. The two rivals speak, having a real conversation for the first time. It starts awkwardly. Then it gets more awkward. Bird has a request. “My mom was wondering if … you … want come up to the house … to have lunch … with us,” says Larry. Magic is taken aback. Larry explains that his mom will be upset if Magic refuses. “Do me a favor,” he asks, adding that he doesn’t want to be in his mom’s “dog house.” Magic, still somewhat puzzled, accepts.
Cue Mrs. Bird absolutely stealing the show.
Georgia Bird explains to Magic that she has been following his career ever since his high school team won the Michigan state title, “something Larry never did,” she notes. “Thanks, mom,” says Larry. “You were my favorite player,” she says to Magic. “Don’t forget about Bill Laimbeer,” says Larry. Mrs. Bird and Magic hug. As they talk, the Lakers point guard interrupts his greatest rival’s mom to tell her, “You can call me Earvin.” She does just that while informing her new friend that her son was supposed to have played ball as a Hoosier at the prestigious Indiana University. “He would have played under Bobby Knight,” but instead “got scared or something” and was “back here in three weeks.”
Slowly, this warmth and familiarity that Mrs. Bird exudes towards a new friend spills over to her son. After Larry’s mom exits to tend the mashed potatoes, the two future Hall of Famers discuss the Birds’ vast acreage in front of the house. Earvin seems envious that Larry has this wide-open expanse where nobody treats him like a legend.
Like the Legend.
Magic doesn’t have an escape. He loves Hollywood, but you can tell that Earvin is starting to realize that Larry has something of which he can only dream. Larry opens up about his upbringing and how it’s nice that he now has his space, something he never had as a child in a family with five siblings. Earvin had nine, he says. Larry lets his guard down so much that he almost slips up and tells Earvin how he hurt his back while shoveling gravel for a retaining wall he has been building all summer. He pauses, realizing he shouldn’t be revealing a new physical weakness to Magic. “Trade secret?” asks Earvin. “Something like that,” says Larry before later admitting to Earvin that he “wrenched” his back working on the wall. Why, asks Earvin, is he, Larry Bird, the reigning NBA MVP, out there building a wall rather than employing a contractor? “If I can do it, why hire someone?” “Because you can afford it” “Huh,” says Larry, who seems to have a yokel-turned-rich epiphany.
Cut to real life.
Who knows if any of these conversations ever happened? But real-life Magic and Legend actually did have lunch with Larry’s mom while filming the this commercial in French Lick in 1985. By their own admission, this was the moment when two men who had spent years hating each other….even as they together created March Madness….and built the modern NBA, finally realized — even grudgingly — their commonalities. It’s fitting, then, that Larry was the one building a wall. As depicted in Magic/Bird, he was the one who showed more vulnerability as the two foes first became friends. In the literal sense, building the wall is what led to his physical demise, as we see later when he struggles through excruciating back pain during routine activities. But that metaphorical wall, that shell that he creates as a cocoon, was something he needed to construct to maintain his edge against the only man he knew could beat him. Larry can’t befriend his rival. He has to act the ornery bastard.