Like Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, the characters they play in the new basketball drama Magic/Bird, Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker formed a real-life friendship while prepping to star in Eric Simonson's biographical drama. Night after night the actors inspire each other as the characters they play strive for greatness. Broadway.com recently sat down with the dynamic duo for a bouncy chat about scoring leads on the Great White Way.
Age & Hometown: 34; Fredericksburg, VA
Current Role: A Broadway debut performance as Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird
Team Player: A former real-life basketball star at the University of Virginia, Coker traded his playbook for a playbill when an injury put his hoop dreams on hold. “The basketball thing didn’t work out, and I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do,” he recalls. But once a teacher encouraged him to try acting, Coker had an epiphany. “I realized theater and basketball are a lot alike because it’s all about preparation, working hard in rehearsal and then playing on instinct when you go on stage. It’s the same thing with the team aspect of sports: You are always helping each other out onstage, just like you are on the court. I like that.” After earning an M.F.A. from the American Repertory Institute at Harvard, Coker launched his career at the American Repertory Theatre, including a role in the baseball-themed Take Me Out.
Fly Guy: A Boston Celtics fan, Coker started an extreme training regimen the moment he realized he would embody Larry Bird. “I basically immersed myself in the world of Larry Bird for months: shooting baskets every day, working on the dialect, reading every book, seeing every YouTube clip,” he says. “I love basketball, so it’s been a dream job to research.” Still, the actor is floored daily at the realization that he is shooting hoops on the Longacre Theatre stage. “How are these worlds colliding? How are these two things—Larry Bird and Broadway—going together?” Coker marvels. “Once you understand that this is actually happening, you have to pinch yourself because it’s an amazing feeling. Broadway is a community that I’ve always wanted to be a part of. I’ve had certain dreams in my life that I haven’t quite accomplished, so to be able to accomplish this one is amazing.”
Age & Hometown: 35; New York City by way of Houston, TX
Current Role: Legendary Los Angeles Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson
One Shot: Born on the Balboa Navy base in San Diego, Daniels spent his childhood moving around the country before his family settled in Houston. “I got into theater at an early age,” says Daniels, who gave up playing high school sports to focus on acting. After graduating from Juilliard, he sharpened his skills in an all African-American production of Much Ado About Nothing before making his Broadway debut in Twelfth Night. When he heard about Magic/Bird, the actor sent in an audition tape—but kept his expectations low. “I was thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way they are going to let me play Magic Johnson,’” recalls Daniels. “Also, I’m friends with a couple of the actors they saw first, and they were stars.” But it turns out the real star was Daniels himself. After auditioning three times for Magic/Bird director Thomas Kail, he got a call on his birthday confirming that he would play Magic on Broadway.
Magic Touch: After landing the role of a lifetime, Daniels realized he had a lot of work to do. “If Magic Johnson was known for his basketball skills, what is Kevin Daniels known for? Let’s see? I fell a lot,” he jokes. In the end, the actor decided that the best way to research Magic Johnson was to talk to the man himself. “Magic Johnson has really been an open book. He was like, ‘I want you to know me inside and out,’” Daniels says of calling Johnson daily for tips. “It’s been such an incredible journey to play such an iconic, charismatic generous man. The challenge has been to do justice to that, but we are not in the business of impersonation.” Daniels now credits Johnson for inspiring him to aim for greatness. “Researching Magic Johnson, I realized I clearly haven’t done enough with my life,” he says. “This play is not just a basketball story. It’s about two men driven by this competitive spirit and their need to overcome obstacles. It’s a human story.”