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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Busy sidewalks … Dec. 6 ‘Miracle on 7th’ event brings crowds downtown
Christmas Music Schedule
Schedule of Events
‘Someday at Christmas’ with Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack coming to ISU Dec. 11
Sandy Hackett’s famous Rat Pack is coming to Terre Haute to ring in a swingin’ holiday season with its critically acclaimed show “Someday at Christmas.”
Hailed as “extremely strong and hugely entertaining,” “Someday at Christmas” blends the classic charisma of the golden age of Las Vegas with some of Ron Miller’s greatest Christmas hits.
Community Theatre offers up family show ‘Babes in Toyland’ in December
Community Theatre of Terre Haute celebrates the season with the holiday musical, “Babes in Toyland,” based on the operetta by Victor Herbert & Glen MacDonough. It opens this Friday and continues through the weekend.
Heightened Sense of Place: Educators’ efforts helped put geography back on map in schools
Geography transcends dots on a map.
Teachers traveling abroad alongside Terre Haute geographer Dorothy Drummond have experienced the real-life cultures, atmosphere and people existing within those dots. An educator herself, Drummond has organized affordable geography tours of foreign lands for Wabash Valley schoolteachers for many years. The journeys involved more than sight-seeing.
Fade to Black: A few local theaters among last to part with century-old 35-mm film
The projectionist behind the first movie shown in the Indiana Theatre nearly 92 years ago would likely feel right at home in that same booth today.
HEALING WATERS: Team River Runner offers inspiration, opens doors for wounded veterans
Some people say the fun of boating on the Wabash is dealing with unexpected challenges such a big body of water can present on certain days; others delight in the wild beauty at Terre Haute’s doorstep, from bald eagles soaring above trees lining the banks of the Wabash to the panorama of the river itself as it curls through woodland in many places reminiscent of primeval splendor seen hundreds of years ago.
Leaving ‘footprints on the sands of time’
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Had I taken the time to read a street map, I would have been able to walk through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s historic home four years ago. My daughter, Ellen, and I spent the better part of a day hiking over the grassy hillsides of historic Mount Auburn Cemetery, just a few blocks away from the great poet’s house, and never knew we were that close.
‘Abraham’s Family’: New musical illuminates common ground, value of respect the three Abrahamic faiths can share
At a table inside a Denny’s in Terre Haute on a July night in 2012, a trio of theatrical writers conjured a bold idea.
They considered creating a musical based on the story of Abraham, a religious figure to whom three faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their ancestries.
Musical explorer: Quest to see the world is a full-circle journey for Marshall native Chris Bennett
Marshall lies 5,553 miles away from the mountains of Tahiti, far too distant to see from the French Polynesian island paradise.
The small Illinois town can’t be spotted from Germany, either. Or Los Angeles. Or Croatia.
Chris Bennett has performed in all those far-away places, and many others, but her heart needs no GPS to locate her hometown.
Legends of the Valley: Region has its share of spooky stories and paranormal tales
“It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky, it’s all together ooky,” the Wa-bash Va-al-ley!
Believe it or not — words similar to the old “Addams’ Family” TV show theme song are not far from truth in describing this region that seems to have a high concentration of the paranormal in its legends and modern-day stories — from documented bigfoot sightings, to a long-distance phone call made from inside a tomb, to a ghost at a cemetery you meet after climbing 100 steps — if you dare to count them!
‘Writing is an act of faith ...’ Visiting writer E.B. White, in Brooklin, Maine
BROOKLIN, MAINE — This town of 820 souls sits in the middle of a wonderful nowhere, its craggy toes dangling from rock ledges that hover above the blue Atlantic. For a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on, it has plenty to see, so one day this summer, my wife and I, a week or so into our New England journey, hoped to find the home of writer E.B. White, who lived nearby for over half a century.
Lessons of the Holy Land: New book explores geographic impact of small, but significant place
The appeal of a book based on the geography of a small stretch of land 4,000 years ago might seem limited.
The key is location, location, location, as a real-estate agent might say.
The focal point of a new release involving Terre Haute authors and editors is a place 50 miles wide and 145 miles long — about 10,000 square miles total, or the size of Vermont. The story of that state in 2000 B.C. might garner a niche audience.
River of inspiration: Adventurous spirit leads artist to paint sights up, down the Wabash
Nancy Nichols-Pethick slogged through knee-deep mud in the woods near New Harmony last month. Her quest was to find the ideal view of the Wabash River and sketch the scenery.
Practical knowledge: Retired Parke County resident dedicated career to values, educational bent Extension offers
Being a “guide on the side” with a desire to serve others recently garnered Parke County resident Mark Spelbring the Indiana Extension Educator’s Association’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Career Award.
‘The road less traveled’: The Indiana National Road Association encourages exploration, preservation of ‘the road that built America’
Its significance cannot be overstated. Its past is our past. Our future will be a product of the opportunities it provided. In a young, thriving nation, it loosened the dam on economic development and provided a route for the open floodgates of prosperity. It was the great migration route west. It holds 200 years of history to be uncovered and discovered.
“It” is the Historic National Road, the nation’s first “superhighway.”
Visiting Emily: 'New feet within my garden go...'
In an early stillness that belied the busy streets just outside the door, my wife and I stood in the cool back porch of poet Emily Dickinson’s imposing old house. It was a humid June morning, one that had turned warm after an overnight rain, and there were few visitors to the home of the strange woman who once said, “I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small towns along southern stretch of river offer peaceful sights, historic stops
A drive along highways running parallel to the Wabash River’s southern miles offers peaceful sights.
Points of interest along the Wabash: A few public access points provide unique peeks at river communities
While giving a presentation on the Wabash to a gathering of Indiana State University’s Osher Lifelong Living Institute in June, river enthusiast Brendan Kearns asked how many people in the audience had been “on the river.”
Points of interest along the Wabash: Parks, diners, nightspots — even ice skating — surround Wabash at Lafayette
LAFAYETTE — Lafayette and West Lafayette share the liveliest riverfront on the Wabash.
The most compelling sights depend upon a visitor’s tastes.
Points of interest along the Wabash: Small northern Indiana towns display Wabash front-and-center
BLUFFTON — A quest to see the white limestone bedrock that gave the Wabash River its name requires tenacity.
The Miami Native American tribe labeled the waterway “waapaashiki,” meaning “water over white stones,” describing the clear river they witnessed in its upper reaches in northern Indiana. Their moniker morphed to “Ouabache” by French fur traders to the pioneers’ Anglicized “Wabash.” The river water appeared clearer in those Native Americans’ days than now, thanks to a murky tint from sediment and nutrients.
Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio
Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Sustainability hubs will leave the world a better place
There is something powerful that happens when people ban together for greater good. In many cities throughout the United States there are sustainability hubs. While each one is uniquely different, they all have the common theme of leaving the world better than when they entered into it.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: You can’t tell there’s Velveeta in this fudge
At Christmastime we make sweets, candy, cookies, etc. When we were in State Soil and Water, we would bring cookies and candy for the last night at the meetings. A friend of mine, Marie Bunting, brought this fudge recipe and samples.
Usher in the holiday season with … ‘The Sound of Christmas’
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology’s Hatfield Hall will usher in the holiday season with “The Sound of Christmas,” featuring Elisabeth von Trapp and the Carolian Brass, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Community School of Arts open house features steel sculpture
Indiana State University’s Community School of the Arts will host an open house from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Turman Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Building, 649 Chestnut St.
The open house will present an opportunity to meet the teachers, learn more about spring 2014 offerings and register for classes and private music lessons. On display in the Turman Gallery will be artwork created by adult students participating in “Metal Sculpture” and “Digital Photography” classes and children participating in “Saturday Art Day.” There will be a special performance by the “Terre Haute Guitar Club,” and guests can enter a drawing to win a free spring arts class.
Bridgeton to host Country Christmas celebration this weekend
Bridgeton will host its annual Country Christmas celebration from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The shops will be open and full of gifts.
GRAPE SENSE: ‘Today’s Bordeaux’ campaign features more affordable wines
There is an old saying among wine enthusiasts: “The more you drink wine, the more you gravitate toward the French.”
And if you haven’t heard that one, certainly you’ve read and heard people talk about expensive French Bordeaux wines.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: A good bread for dishes like spaghetti or lasagna
I have made this bread for many years. It is wonderful with spaghetti or lasagna. I’m not sure where the recipe came from. We all love garlic bread. If you are just starting to make bread, this is a good one. I have taken this bread to the field, carry-in dinners, just about everywhere.
Comedienne Chonda Pierce coming to Indiana Theatre
Southern charm blended with some sass, wit and a woman’s view of the world’s quirks produce comedienne Chonda Pierce’s “Girl Talk.”
Music, cookies and Santa Nov. 23 at ‘Christmas at the Cecilian’
The Sinfonietta Pops Orchestra concert “Christmas at the Cecilian” sets the mood for the holidays with music, punch and cookies and a visit from St. Nicholas. The concert begins at 3 p.m. Saturday in Cecilian Auditorium at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.
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