Play highlights Georgia Bird's Magic touch

Sports fans know the on-the-court story of Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird. What many may not know is that the two stars forged a lifelong friendship out of their rivalry, thanks in large part to one woman -- Larry's late mother, Georgia Bird.

In the new Broadway play "Magic/Bird," which opens at the Longacre Theater in New York on Wednesday, we watch as the rivalry morphs from animosity to friendship.

Through a clever use of game footage (the play is produced in collaboration with the NBA) on a wall of video monitors behind the stage, "Magic/Bird" provides a chronology of the stars' on-the-court exploits and achievements from the 1979 NCAA championship game through eight combined NBA titles for the Lakers and Celtics in the 1980s, six total MVP awards and three classic head-to-head NBA Finals matchups that redefined the league.

Along the way in the play -- bookended by Magic's now etched-in-our-minds 1991 HIV announcement -- the audience gains insight into the stars' psychological mindsets and their journey from rivals to friends. It's this level of intimacy that sets "Magic/Bird" apart from typical sports stories.

Joan Marcus

Georgia Bird helped forge the strong will and competitive spirit of Larry, played by Tug Coker.

"Any good sports story is not really essentially about sports," playwright Eric Simonson said. "It's about character. It's about people's aspirations and what they're striving for. The thing that makes star athletes different from regular people is that they've achieved a level of perfection that everybody admires, and in a way I think that's what makes fans fans. They really see themselves in the star athlete or see themselves aspiring in the same way. The admiration is something you can't take away from how we treat those star athletes and how we feel about them."

In a pivotal scene that provides the heart of the play, Larry's mother hosts Johnson and Bird for lunch at her home in French Lick, Ind. The lunch took place during the summer of 1985, when the two rivals filmed a Converse commercial to plug their respective sneakers. The rivalry was at its high point.

In the lunch scene, one of the longest in the 90-minute play, Georgia (played by veteran actress Deirdre O'Connell) welcomes Johnson warmly to the house. She proceeds to tease her son by talking about how much she admires Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas, among others. It's a glimpse into the persona of a woman who helped forge Larry's strong will, competitive spirit and notoriously dry sense of humor.

Unlike the on-the-court scenes, which were widely reported, Simonson faced a challenge in writing about an encounter without many public details.

"When it came to the lunch scene between Magic and Larry, which was so key to the relationship, I had to make a lot of stuff up," Simonson said. "[Magic and Larry] just couldn't remember exactly what happened at that lunch or what was said. I went to other sources ... and had a lot of stories and anecdotes that came from their biographies and friends and themselves and sort of dumped that into that scene."

Simonson also didn't have much help from the reticent Bird when it came to describing his late mother, so he took it upon himself to create a character based on information he did have. The writer recalled the conversation he had with Bird about his mother.

"'This is how I rendered your mom,'" Simonson told the basketball Hall of Famer via phone. "'She is talkative and she wants everyone to feel comfortable, always smiling, joking around, not afraid to tell everyone what she thinks, forthright.' And his response was, 'Well, you know she was tall.' I asked his manager Jill about that and related the whole conversation and Jill said, 'If that's all he said, then you nailed it.'"

The scene also works well because of O'Connell, who delivers a superb performance as Georgia. Thomas Kail, the play's Tony-nominated director, approached the casting of the role of Georgia carefully.

"She's the heartbeat of the show," Kail said. "We knew we needed to have someone who could immediately make us fall in love with her, have us understand that she was the glue. She was going to sit these two young men down and let them know they were going to be on this block together and they needed to learn to play together. [O'Connell] has such warmth and yet there's that very distinct wit and strength."

O'Connell took the role of Georgia very seriously. To prepare, she visited Bird's hometown of French Lick and talked with Georgia's friends as well as with Larry's wife, Dinah. She wanted to know about Georgia's personality, sensibility, hairdo, glasses and what she wore (Liz Claiborne velour jumpsuits).

"There is a real toughness to her that I love about her, and sweetness," O'Connell said. "There is a combination of things that a lot of people told me about her. I wanted to honor her and there was no way for me to meet her, because she's not with us anymore. I wanted to find out as much as I could and get the sense of what it would be like. Southern Indiana is so specific in terms of its relationship to basketball. People kept saying she was very happy. She had a very clear sense of the blessings that had fallen on her."

In addition to the role of Georgia, O'Connell also plays a fictional sports reporter named Patricia Moore who covers Johnson and the Lakers. The actress read books, watched documentaries and interviewed veteran female sports reporters such as Jackie MacMullan and Lesley Visser as she prepared for the role.

"There is no story about how difficult it was to be a female sports writer at that time, but it is kind of in that toughness of her character what it was to be one of those first women who were in the locker room," O'Connell said. "I think it was embedded in there that she had to call a spade a spade and be a little tougher than some of the guys. She's not a real person, but in our little fiction Magic might have chosen somebody tough like that to be his spokesperson during the HIV announcement period because he would feel like people would trust them and believe that they weren't going to cut him any slack. Second of all, he would want somebody who was a straight shooter and would have a certain amount of respect for somebody who hadn't been easy on him."

Producer Fran Kirmser and producing partner Tony Ponturo developed "Magic/Bird" as the second in a series of sports stories for Broadway after bringing "Lombardi" to the stage in 2010. Kirmser read "When the Game Was Ours," the 2009 book Johnson and Bird co-authored with MacMullan, and knew she had to bring the story to Broadway.

"I remember watching them play as a young person and now I'm a mom," Kirmser said. "I thought, 'Gosh, this is a story I want to tell my daughter. This is a story I want my 8-year-old to know about.' There are so many reasons why. They both were incredibly talented and didn't take it for granted and worked so hard and worked hard at overcoming incredible obstacles. Somehow in this head-to-head competition they turned a corner and became friends.

"And it was a woman that was a catalyst and the facilitator of that friendship. I just think that's breathtaking. They were competitors that were not going to be headed in that direction. It's a major happening."

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