NEW YORK - Tug Coker has spent time in French Lick, Ind., to get the Hoosier twang down pat.
He sat in Red Auerbach’s old seat at the Garden, joined the “Beat LA’’ chant, and gazed upon the No. 33 hanging from the rafters. Looking for the ghosts of Showtime, he searched the old Forum in Inglewood, Calif. He even trash-talked with Larry Legend by phone.
Coker, the 6-foot-5-inch actor and former Virginia high school basketball star, is preparing to play Larry Bird in the upcoming Broadway production of “Magic/Bird.’’
At a recent rehearsal, he’s got his game face on. He has stayed out of the sun to keep his skin a pasty white. He wipes the bottom of his sneakers for traction just like you know who. He knows Bird used to run around the Loge level at the empty Garden, hours before games. So he says he’ll jog the aisles of the Longacre Theater, where previews began on March 21. He is not spooked that the nearly 100-year-old theater was built by former Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Some think it is cursed.
Coker, 34, is as versatile on stage as Bird was on the court. His credits include Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’ at the American Repertory Theater. He smiles easily. He knows Bird and Shakespeare are names that don’t usually appear in the same sentence. But he can’t help but compare the two.
“With Bird, what you see is what you get,’’ he says. “He’s like the guy in the back of the class that will say things. Shakespeare’s language is a little more poetic than Larry’s. Larry likes to get down to it. He has a dry wit.’’
The physical transformation is difficult because no one on earth looks like the 6-9 Bird. Coker, who still plays in Manhattan basketball leagues, has dark brown hair but wears a blond wig, eyebrows, and mustache on stage. Coker grew up a Celtics fan in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Virginia, and hated the Lakers. He saw Bird play once in Landover, Md., as a 9-year-old.
“Bird was my guy, but I really liked the whole team - Jerry Sichting, [Jim] Paxson, everybody,’’ he says. “My dad was a big [John] Havlicek fan. He never believed in Magic. I never liked Magic. I thought there was inauthenticity about him, the smiley, fakeness about him. I saw all this Showtime, baloney smile, and it drove me nuts. I was a Celtics fan. Hard work, don’t celebrate, just play hard and shut up, that’s what I liked.’’
The one-act play traces the lives of Bird and Magic Johnson from their days as rivals at Indiana State and Michigan State, through the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry, and the Olympic Dream Team.
“The idea is it’s two guys who are doing everything they can to get in each other’s way to prevent them from achieving the other person’s dream,’’ Coker says. “The one person who could get in their way is the other person. So out of that is animosity, jealousy, and bitterness, until they realize how much they had in common.’’
But as Bird and Magic fans know, it’s not just about basketball.
The play opens with Bird picking up the phone and weeping after Magic tells him that he has HIV. Can Coker cry real tears on cue? “To say I can do it every night is probably a lot to ask,’’ he says. “I’ll be thinking about that girl that got away.’’
Coker’s basketball career was bittersweet. He played four years at Stafford High School in Fredericksburg, Va., leading the team with a 15.6 points-per-game average his senior year in 1995-96.
“Tug was a very talented and multi-skilled player,’’ says his former coach, Stephen Spicer. “He was a 6-5, 221-pound forward who could handle the ball very well, was a very good passer, could score, and was a good defender.
“He was also a very strong student academically.”
But his college basketball career was more of a bit part.
“People talk about it, but it’s really sort of nonexistent,’’ Coker adds with a laugh.
Coker walked on to the William & Mary basketball team, but left after his freshman year, having never played in a game.
“I was better at the teammate part of basketball than the skill part,’’ he says.
Coker transferred to the University of Virginia, hoping to fulfill his dream of playing in an NCAA Tournament.
After Coker’s sophomore year, coach Jeff Jones said there was a spot on the roster for him. But Jones resigned in 1998 and was replaced with Pete Gillen. It was a mismatch on par with smalltown Larry Bird playing on the big campus of Indiana University.
“I was totally lost. They wanted to run up and down the court and that was not my game. I rode the pine,’’ Coker said. “That led me to acting.’’
Coker appeared on television on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,’’ “Community,’’ and “Torchwood.’’ He received his master of fine arts degree at Harvard University, and appeared in several productions at the American Repertory Theater.
Now Coker is making his Broadway debut. He still can’t believe it.
“I don’t have blond hair, I’m not 6-9,’’ he says. “I thought they were going to find some kid in Wisconsin and bring him onstage for the biggest role of his life.’’
So at the readings, he relaxed. “I was loose,’’ he says. “Afterward, the cast director gave me a hug. No cast director has ever given me a hug.’’
The 90-minute play depends more on dialogue between the two rivals than set changes. It has a 30 x 25-foot LED screen on stage to show highlights. The set is arena-like. There’s a locker, and a regulation basket that stands on a parquet floor set under the lights. At one point, Coker has to take a 12-foot jump shot.
“I’m not that worried about it because it will be exciting for the audience,’’ he says. “The thing about theater is you want to make every experience feel like it’s the first time. I’m really hoping that if miss I can do that famous Bird shot where I miss then swoop in with the left hand and put in the rebound. Wouldn’t that be awesome?’’
Coker says the pivotal moment in the play is when Magic goes to French Lick to film a Converse commercial at Bird’s house. The two enemies on the court realize they have a lot in common.
“To see those egos work it out. Magic concedes, goes to French Lick, and to see how Larry’s mom facilitates the situation, it’s a really great scene,’’ says Coker.
The script was written by Eric Simonson and produced by Fran Kirmser and Tony Pontoro, who teamed to produce “Lombardi,’’ a well-received Broadway play about Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi. Tony nominee Thomas Kail is the director.
“There’s a lot of rapid-fire scenes,’’ says Coker. “Eric said he really wanted to have an up-and-down basketball, rapid, quicker basketball scene.’’
Coker says the production is not just for baby-boomer males.
“The females obviously will go for the short shorts,’’ he says with a laugh. “The story transcends sports because people can relate to it. It’s two guys who came from humble beginnings and reached the American dream.’’
He says the 6-5 Kevin Daniels, who plays Magic, has the flashy smile and charisma down pat.
“We’ll probably shoot hoops together,’’ he says.
Bird and Magic both offered insights on the script. Bird wanted accuracy and all the nuances. “He’s so quiet and focused, his persona is all business, and one of the interesting challenges is capturing his coiled tension,’’ says Coker.
Coker says he talked to Danny Ainge about Bird and learned a lot. “There was a mutual respect there, a big brother, little brother relationship,’’ he says. “He was tough on him, but when he needed a little encouragement Larry was there. He said Bird never let up because he thought there might have been someone in the audience who had never seen him play before.
“Danny also says that all the talk of Bird being a trash talker was overblown. Danny says it really wasn’t the case.’’
Bird has been supportive. “He couldn’t have been nicer,’’ Coker says.
The play features just six actors. One of them plays Auerbach.
“I asked [Bird] about his relationship with Red and about their racquetball games and how he hated to lose,’’ says Coker. “One of the things he said he learned from Red was about loyalty. He said they always stayed in one of the older hotels in New York. So he always wondered why they stayed there and not one of the more swank, five-star joints. And Red always said, ‘These guys helped the Celtics when the Celtics needed help. We’re always going to help them.’ ’’
Magic has already attended a rehearsal, but Bird told Coker he’s never been to a Broadway show.
“How funny is that? A play about your life is the first show you’re going to see,’’ says Coker.
Both Bird and Magic are scheduled to attend the April 11 premiere. Coker also got into a little Bird banter about the two NBA Finals the Celtics lost to the Lakers (1985, 1987) during the Bird-Magic era.
“I told him, ‘I’m winning those two championships back for you buddy,’ ’’ says Coker. “ ‘I’m going to make sure I kick the Lakers’ [butt] on stage,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I hope so. But if Magic likes what he sees, he might want to go out there and play himself.’ ’’
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.