Five-Star Alum Plays Bird on Broadway

A Q&A with Tug Coker about his role, Magic/Bird lessons and his Five-Star experience

by Peter Robert Casey April 7, 2012 2:49pm ET
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Tug Coker takes the stage as No. 33 in Magic/Bird, which premieres on Wednesday, April 11.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's basketball careers will forever be intertwined. Rivals turned friends, Bird and "Magic" - winners of eight combined NBA titles - are often credited with elevating the game and ushering in the "Golden Era" of basketball.  

Now, their storied rivalry and friendship is being told on one of the biggest stages outside of the 94' by 50' hardwood: On Broadway.

Five-Star attended a preview of Magic/Bird on Wednesday evening and caught up with camp alum, Tug Coker, who plays Bird, to learn more about his basketball background, the lessons of Magic and Bird and his Five-Star experience. 

Five-Star: Did you play ball in college? What was your hoop dream growing up?  

Tug Coker: I went to William & Mary and I played there for one year. I guess you can say I was on the team. Never played. I was just a part of the team.

My whole dream my whole life was to be in the NCAA tournament and didn't make it. When I transferred to UVA, I tried to achieve that dream. They changed coaches to Pete Gillen. The coaching staff worked me out, but said we're going to try to run and gun, play at a pace that you're no capable of going.

I would've been happy to just sit on the bench, but they said "No, thanks." From there, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do and got into acting.

Five-Star: How did you learn about the production and part in Magic & Bird?

Tug Coker: My agent sort of tipped me off to it. I thought to myself, "They're going to find some 6'9" kid with blonde hair from Wisconsin and pick him off the farm. But I'll go in and try, give it a shot, and never really thought that it was my part."

So I went in and auditioned and had a great time with Tommy [Kail], the Director. I went back on a Friday and auditioned for Tommy and Fran [Kirmser; Magic/Bird Producer]. I talked to Tommy for a little bit about my basketball history. They never asked me to dribble a ball. I was surprised and prepared. It's not often that one of your special skills is dribbling a basketball and you get to use that in a show, TV or film. I was at the ready, but it never came up.  

Five-Star: How much Did Larry and Magic shape the roles? What level of involvement did they have in the production? Did you get a chance to talk to either of them? 

Tug Coker: Larry and I talked on the phone a couple of times. He's going to be at the opening next week. Magic has been to rehearsal and gave us some nice tips. I asked Larry tons of questions. He answered all of the questions. He's a really nice guy. 

Larry didn't tell me how to portray him, which was sort of freeing for me. Whatever question I brought to him, he would answer. I would listen, absorb it, and hopefully it came out on stage.

Five-Star What kinds of questions did you ask him?

Tug Coker: I wanted to ask him things that pertain to the show. What was his relationship like with Red Auerbach? What was his relationship like with Magic? And his mom.

I took a trip to French Lick (Ind.). I was in L.A. when I heard I got the job, and I drove from L.A. to French Lick. I went to Terre Haute. I went to Bloomington to sort of check out all of the places he had been to and soak that up. 

Have you been to French Lick? It's a basketball mecca. It was a real thrill for me to see Indiana State, the Holmes Center, and just ask him all the questions that would be helpful for me in the show. There's so much to Larry's life that's not in the show, but we focused on what was included. 

Five-Star: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Larry in your conversations with him? Or that you gained from the script? 

Tug Coker: How funny he is. If you didn't know him, you'd just think he was a hard working guy. When you get to know him more, you realize he's really funny, humorous, and warm. Once you pass the circle of trust and get that loyalty with him, he opens up to you and is a lot more fun. 

Five-Star:  What lesson from Larry and Magic's story resonates the most with young, competitive basketball players today? 

Tug Coker: I think it's all about maximizing on your potential. That's what I learned from Larry. When he told me what his workout regiment was in the offseason, I was blown away. I was like, "I didn't even give myself a real shot to maximizing my talents as a basketball player."

I never would have been as great as Larry, but if I would have dedicated myself the way he dedicated himself, I would have been a lot better player. 

I remember when I was at Five-Star, there was a guy named Ed Schilling. He was a coach there. He said, "One out of 100 of you will take these drills home and do this six months from now." And I wasn't one of them. The sad part is I wasn't one of the dudes. I always thought about that. 

I'll tell you, because I'm an actor now, I learned from my mistakes. Because I didn't put in 100%, I know I'm going to do that with my career now. It's a second chance at doing something I really want to do, and I can thank Larry for that. Magic as well. When you see what Magic's done post-basketball career is really inspiring.

Bernard King came in last night. Same thing. Now he runs an energy company. These guys aren't really being defined by what they did on the court. They're human beings. They're really inspiring.

Five-Star: Any other Five-Star Camp memories?

Tug Coker: Fran Fraschilla was inspiring. Digger Phelps spoke to us. That was amazing. I remember in my year - I was a '96er - Tim Thomas was always the name coming out. He was always the dude that everyone talked about. If you knew basketball, you knew Tim Thomas.   

Garf was great. He's got a big personality. It's almost like Red Auerbach in a way. He's got a big, loveable, gruff and fun personality. Getting to hear him speak was pretty awesome.

Five-Star: What advice would you give to kids about picking a school? 

Tug Coker: I'll say this in general: Love being where you are. Go to a place where you feel like you're going to enjoy it and love it. Time moves so fast. Things happen and you're always thinking about the 'what ifs'; will I go pro? will I get a job? Just be happy where you are.

When you're looking at a school, if you feel comfortable there and feel like you're going to love it, then jump on it. Your instincts are usually telling you the right thing.

Five-Star: How many Magic/Bird shows have you done? How long will the production go? 

Tug Coker: We've done about 18-20 previews, and we open next week. It's open-ended, so we hope it runs for a few months. Lombardi ran for eight months, so we're hoping we can reach that. 

Five-Star: Well, best of luck. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

Tug Coker: Thank you for coming out tonight. It's been a pleasure. 

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