News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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April 15, 2012

Playing a legend: Broadway actor practiced hundreds of shots, visited Terre Haute to play Sycamore legend in 'Magic/Bird'

Until now, the words “Larry Bird” and “Broadway production” simply would not appear in the same sentence.

“Queen Elizabeth” would be more likely to be paired with “monster truck show.”

It should be remembered, though, that college basketball skeptics once said Bird and his Indiana State Sycamore teammates did not belong in the same echelon as UCLA, Notre Dame, Arkansas, DePaul and Michigan State. Yet, when the 1978-79 season reached its pinnacle — the NCAA championship game — the two teams left standing were Bird’s undefeated Sycamores, and Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans.

Just by getting there, the Sycamores and their star player proved their worthiness, despite their subsequent 75-64 loss to Michigan State in the epic finale. The clash of cultures and personalities between Bird, the reticent “hick from French Lick,” and the flashy, always-smiling Johnson in the title matchup gave college hoops its most dramatic moment ever.

Dramatic enough, it turns out, for Broadway, which may be a head-scratching concept in the minds of longtime Terre Hauteans who remember “Larry” ambling around town in a PBR ballcap during his college days.

The play “Magic/Bird” opened Wednesday night in the Longacre Theatre, a century-old venue on West 48th Street in the Broadway district of New York City. The storyline follows the improbable friendship and rivalry between Bird and Johnson, from their first meeting in the ’79 NCAA Final to their career swansong with the USA “Dream Team” in the 1992 Olympics.

The actor who plays Bird defies a few odds himself, in doing so. Tug Coker logged one season as a college basketball player, never getting off the bench as a freshman walk-on at William & Mary. Like Bird, though, Coker logged long hours of preparation to deliver a believable, engaging characterization of a man known as “Larry Legend.”

Since landing the role in November, the 34-year-old Coker hit the gym hard, putting up 300 shots and a hundred free throws a day, using both hands, mimicking Bird’s unforgettable over-the-head release. He’s studied game and practice videos with the fervor of an NFL coach, and has spoken with Bird three times over the telephone. Coker even drove to Bird’s hometown of French Lick and Terre Haute to experience the atmosphere of two small towns that helped shape a Boston Celtics icon and Hall of Famer.

Coker’s future scrapbook will include shots of the day he and his sister spent in Terre Haute last November, touring Wabash Avenue, the ISU campus and Hulman Center. Those photos include several of Coker posing beside the Larry Bird Avenue sign between Seventh and Eighth streets. “That was an amazing picture for me and just my own history,” Coker said by telephone Tuesday from New York.

He understands the importance of details in portraying one of the most recognizable sports figures in history.

“It’s hard to play athletes in film, television and theater, because it’s hard to reimagine people who are the best in the world at what they do,” Coker said. “If I was great at basketball, I’d be playing in the NBA, you know, [but] I wasn’t good enough. So what I did was figure out ways to get inside him, look at the tics that people know about, try to replicate his arm angles, get the release over the head, look at the footage of [Celtics president] Red Auerbach, and try to study that as closely as possible.”

Craig McKee can vouch for Coker’s diligence. Now an attorney and judge in Terre Haute, McKee served as ISU’s assistant sports information director during the 1978-79 season. McKee was quoted in the 2009 book by Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis “When March Went Mad,” which chronicled that landmark season. After receiving a correspondence from McKee, Coker met and dined with McKee and his wife, Diann, who traveled to New York to watch an early showing of “Magic/Bird.”

In his first appearance as Bird in the play, Coker wipes off the bottom of his sneakers with his hands — a memorable Bird routine.

“That’s when I knew he had paid attention,” said McKee, who’s seen dozens of Broadway productions with his wife over the past two decades.

NBA officials provided the actor with candid “B-roll” video footage of Bird, “where he’s just sort of being himself off the court — things I’ve been privy to that maybe the general public has not been able to see,” Coker said.

Basketball realities

Even with such extensive research, Coker and co-star Kevin Daniels (who plays Johnson) realize audiences watching “Magic/Bird” will expect characters to hit any shots they take on stage. So, the production — written by Academy Award winner Eric Simonson — keeps the shot-taking at a minimum. “I shoot 10 to 15 shots during the show, all high-probability,” Coker said, with a chuckle. “We’re not getting crazy here.”

Though his court talents may pale in comparison to those of Bird, Coker’s basketball resumé exceeds that of most actors. As a Virginia high schooler, he played for high-caliber summer all-star teams featuring several future Division I college players. He even has national championship game experience, having played in an AAU title matchup at Oklahoma City. Coker also grew up as the son of a Celtics fan, hearing about Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and their Boston cohorts.

Once Coker reached the College of William & Mary as an invited walk-on, hoops reality set it.

“I loved being on a team,” he recalled, “but I saw how good these guys were and said, ‘You know, it’s time to find something else to put your passion into,’ and that was acting and theater.”

Though “Magic/Bird” marks Coker’s Broadway debut, his credits include several regional plays, as well as television roles in “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “CSI,” “CSI Miami” and several other small-screen shows. That experience helped Coker earn the part of Larry Bird from producers Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, who also crafted the play “Lombardi,” depicting the life of another sports hero, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Coker’s height didn’t hurt either. He stands 6-foot-5. Daniels, as Magic Johnson, also is 6-5. That’s important. Though both actors are shorter than their real-life subjects, they can look each other directly in the eye, just like Johnson and Bird, who are both 6-9. Out of character, Coker resembles Ben Affleck and looks nothing like the former Sycamore. However, with a shaggy blond wig, a wispy costume mustache, an ISU T-shirt and a Boston Celtics jersey, Coker transforms into Bird.

Acting skills and the script must take it from there.

“For me, I’m combining the passion I had for the game [as a player], and then putting it together with what I know how to do, which is trying to study and understand people better,” Coker said.

Understanding Bird

His conversations with Bird enlightened Coker more than anything else.

In one of their first phone chats, Coker was visiting his mother’s home and Bird was set up to call the actor there. “I told my mom, ‘Mom, please do not answer this phone. Do not ask me if I want something for lunch. For the next 30 minutes, do not interrupt this phone call. Please,’” Coker recalled, chuckling. “That was a real thrill.”

The chance to speak personally with Bird added background color Coker needed. Though Bird comes off as stoic in some public encounters, his sense of humor gradually emerges as he becomes comfortable with the situation. A pivotal scene in “Magic/Bird” reveals that process, as Bird’s mother forces her son and Magic Johnson to have lunch in the Bird household in French Lick during the filming of a now-classic Converse commercial, featuring the young Boston Celtics star and his Los Angeles Lakers nemesis. Until that day, their rivalry was purely competitive. Friendship had not yet bloomed.

Coker discussed that tense moment, and others, with Bird.

“I just wanted to ask him things that pertained to the play,” Coker said, “like his relationship with his mom, his relationship with Magic, and just how much Magic drove him to be a better athlete. And, he was unbelievably nice. He gave me so much of his time. I was really appreciative, and it was something I’ll never forget.”

The duels between Johnson and Bird for an NCAA championship, the NBA crown and player-vs.-player bragging rights pervades the plot. The development of their friendship, and the impact of others around them, is the play’s foundation. Coker enjoys the storytelling.

“I’m a person that loves biographies, so I like to learn the ‘how’ and ‘why’ people became great, and who influenced them in becoming great,” Coker said. “And I think that’s something we get to do on the stage.”

Hints of the legend were all around the Longacre Theatre. The McKees visited Coker’s dressing room, where a poster from Bird’s playing days hangs on one wall. Coker had it in his room as a kid. On stage, Coker wears an Indiana State T-shirt. Seeing that on a Broadway stage “was a little jaw-dropping,” McKee said. “It was great.”

At one point, the actors stand as a video plays of the Celtics celebrating their victory over Johnson’s Lakers in the NBA championship.

“When Bird says, ‘And this one’s for Terre Haute,’ I have to admit, I get a little misty-eyed,” McKee said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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