Play offers moments, but not as many as Magic-Bird rivalry

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had a rivalry that stretched well beyond their playing days. (AP file photo)

Jackie MacMullan wrote a sensational book about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird called "When the Game was Ours."

Then HBO created a terrific, revealing documentary about how the furnace of a bitter rivalry forged a friendship tougher than steel. Called it "A Courtship of Rivals."

And now, there is a drama at Broadway's Longacre Theatre called "Magic/Bird" to complete the intriguing trifecta. What is it about the Old School Bird and the Showtime Johnson that provokes this much creativity?

Peter Scolari, who plays Red Auerbach, among others in the show, gropes for an explanation of the Magic/Bird legacy in one of the final scenes.

"They saved the NBA," Auerbach growls.

Oh? Saved the NBA from what? From apathy, from foreclosed arenas, from bankruptcy, from tape-delayed telecasts of championship games, from a player mutiny that delayed the start of an All-Star Game?

Whole segments of the audience (anyone under 30) will wonder what Red is ranting about? Was it that the inmates were running the asylum that was the league back in the day, ignoring coaches, defying the laws, about what was legal to smoke or inhale? And, oh, yeah, that the league was too black?

Is none of that mentioned because the National Basketball Association shows up in the Playbill in the list of the show's producers and co-producers?

And who told Scolari to play Auerbach bent in a painful crouch like a guy with chronic constipation? Whining about the Celtics having to take down the championship banners in Boston Garden every time the Bruins play.

Scolari also plays Jerry Buss in a hideous sports coat, and a quintessential Baw-stun fan in a quintessential Baw-stun bah who can't even pronounce the name of the baseball team. Calls it the Red Sox, when everyone north of New Haven knows it's the Sawks.

Enough nit-picking. "Magic/Bird" is brought to us by the same folks who gave us "Lombardi," an up-close and personal look at the iconic football coach. Sure, Judith Light swiped the show as the hard-drinking, wisecracking, oft-neglected Marie, but we did get some entertaining insights into what made Vince tick.

This time, playwright Eric Simonson patches together a memorable quote here, a significant scene there. That cut-and-paste system works in a ransom note, but not in a drama about real people.

Kevin Daniels is outstanding as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, pitch-perfect in depicting the differences between Earvin and Magic. Tug Coker, in his Broadway debut, is spot-on as the solemn Bird, hoarding his inner thoughts.

The other roles border on caricature, so much like comic-strip characters, you half expect the dialogue to appear in balloons. Bird's mom, barely mentioned in the documentary, dominates one mawkish scene, all June Cleaverish, making lunch for the two players during a lull in filming a Converse commercial in French Lick.

If Momma Bird really adored Isiah Thomas, shouldn't the audience be reminded at some point that Thomas ripped Larry after Boston knocked off Detroit in the playoffs, saying, "If Bird were black, he'd be just another good guy."

It's what Simonson leaves out that is so troubling. Bird's dad committed suicide. Doesn't that have to be mentioned as a possible reason Bird was so wary of the media, fearful of strangers poking around in his psyche?

Do they dare bring it up to date? Bird is about to retire as general manager of the Pacers. Magic is front man for a group willing to pay $2.1 billion for the Dodgers.

We do get some grim stuff right at the start, Johnson's news conference to announce he had "attained" HIV and would retire from basketball.

Bird hears about it from Lon Rosen, Johnson's agent. Devastated ("First time I can remember not wanting to play a game"), he finally connects with Magic by phone. Bird asks, "You OK?"

Brief, poignant, revealing. That's the essence of Larry Bird, talking to his good friend and fierce rival, Earvin Johnson. He is concerned about Johnson's emotional state, how he is coping with the jolting news. He is asking what he can do to help, he is offering his emotional and physical support, he is holding out his hand.

It is a defining moment, coming early in the play, but it puts in perspective all the other angles, Boston vs. Los Angeles, East against West, gritty basketball vs. pretty basketball, old school vs. behind-the-back passes, white and black.

There are lessons offered here. And if you pay attention and do some homework, you can learn a lot from "Magic/Bird."

Contact Stan Hochman at