Affable and engaging, Tug Coker comes across as anything but a tortured actor. He does, however, have one deep-rooted conflict that he might never fully reconcile.
How can the Stafford High School graduate, who made no impact in his one season as a William and Mary basketball player 15 years ago, in his Broadway debut portray NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird?
An honorable mention Post All-Met basketball selection his senior year at Stafford, Coker was nothing more than a practice player in Williamsburg. When he transferred to the University of Virginia, the coaches there gave him a cursory tryout but, citing his lack of speed and jumping ability, said no thanks.
So here is Coker, 34, who never realized his childhood dream of playing in the NCAA basketball tournament, slipping into a Boston Celtics jersey — his favorite team growing up — and copping the mannerisms of one of the most revered players of all-time as a co-star in “Magic/Bird.”
Coker would be more bewildered if he weren’t so amused.
“I find it odd and funny and cute that one of my goals in life was for people to watch me play basketball — but they’re doing it watching me on Broadway,” he said by phone from his Longacre Theatre dressing room, decorated with the same Bird poster that he had in his bedroom as a boy.
“My sports career was not as amazing as I hoped or thought it would be, so it’s funny that people keep asking me about it. I was pretty crushed when I didn’t have a chance to make an impact at either [college]. I just sort of realized I’m not as great a player as I thought I was coming out of high school. I tried to look for another thing.”
Coker had taken drama classes at Stafford, and after his failed bid to make the U-Va. basketball team, he traded the court for a stage. Acting has joined, not necessarily replaced, his previous passion, and he has been able to feed both since landing the role of Bird.
During preparation and previews for “Magic/Bird,” and now after its April 11 opening, Coker the accidental Celtic has been able to meet and perform for basketball royalty that he grew up idolizing, including Bird, 55, whom he saw play at the Capital Centre about a quarter-century ago.
Coker visited Bird’s home town in southern Indiana to get a better handle on his subject’s background and dialect by chatting with locals who know him. The fine citizens of French Lick, protective of their most famous export, would eyeball the underwear-model-handsome Coker, a 6-foot-5 left-hander with brown hair, and skeptically drawl, “How you going to play Larry Bird?” Bird is a plainish 6-9 right-hander with a blond nest and a your-ad-here chin.
Coker assured them that with wigs and a false mustache, he could be Birdified and do their boy justice. A New York Times review from opening night opined that “Mr. Coker is . . . saddled with a wig that makes him look like Frankenstein’s monster with a bad dye job.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Coker’s fake hair is un-Birdlike, though. Besides, Coker was more interested in what was in Bird’s head, not on it.
“I told Larry that I want this to be truthful and authentic, because the people coming to the theater every night aren’t coming to see me, they’re coming to see him and his story,” Coker said. “So I want to honor Larry in the best possible way.”
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“Magic/Bird” — brought to the stage by Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo, the team that created the sportsy Broadway hit “Lombardi” — chronicles the evolution of Bird’s complex relationship with Los Angeles Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson, played by Kevin Daniels.
The play bounces through their bitter one-upmanship rivalry that began with the 1979 NCAA championship game, on to their begrudging mutual respect as pros and ultimately their deep friendship, an unlikely bond that leaves the pair indelibly linked in sports history.
Johnson and Bird were two Midwestern boys — one black, one white; one urban, one rural; one drawn to the spotlight, one allergic to it; one grinning, one brooding; one Tinseltown, one French Lick — each driven by the other as they elevated the NBA to must-see status years before Michael Jordan came along.
From 1980 to 1988, Bird’s and Johnson’s teams combined to win eight of nine NBA titles — three times meeting each other in the championship — and the two later were teammates on the original “Dream Team” that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. As part of the “Magic/Bird” production, footage from their careers is projected on a 30-by-25-foot screen.
Coker received critical back pats locally for his role as a baseball player in the 2005 Studio Theater production “Take Me Out,” and he has acted in minor roles on several TV shows, including “The Office,” “CSI” and “How I Met Your Mother.” He grew up playing sports in a family that seemed to gravitate toward them, making the Bird role anything but a stretch, physical differences aside.
Even Coker’s nickname has a sports origin. John Herbert Coker III was dubbed Tug in utero when his father, John, and mother, Linda, were at a baseball game in which Philadelphia Phillies reliever Tug McGraw (father of country singer Tim) was pitching.
Known as Tug since, Coker considers theater to be a natural extension of athletics, if not a sport itself. Both require years of practice or rehearsal. Both are live performances in which preparation and instinct intersect. And both evoke an immediate response from spectators.
“Athletes often say, ‘Don’t think,’ ” said Coker, who trained at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. “That’s the same thing for acting. You do all your thinking before, and then you just let it fly.”
Literally, in Coker’s current role. During the one-act, 90-minute play, he has to take several shots on a regulation hoop, albeit high-percentage attempts; he learned his lesson on a botched reverse layup in previews.
Bird and Johnson attended opening night after taping “Late Show with David Letterman” together. Coker feared the basket might shrink with those two in the audience.
Prior to a meet-and-greet after the premiere, Coker’s only contact with Bird had taken place over the phone. He was so tickled about his semi-relationship with his idol that he told his father, Fredericksburg area orthodontist John Coker Jr., that he would never erase the routine message Bird had left on his phone.
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Coker and “Magic/Bird” director Thomas Kail, a Sidwell Friends graduate who grew up in Alexandria, got acquainted by talking high school hoops in the D.C. area, which made for a pleasant pre-audition conversation.
“I left thinking, if nothing else, at least I had a great time in the room,” Coker said. “I never really thought it was my job to win, because I always thought they were going to go hire some 6-9 kid from Wisconsin with blond hair living on a farm and pluck him and put him on Broadway.”
After that tryout, Coker went back two days later to audition for the producers, who then asked him to step outside. He waited. About 10 minutes later, the casting director emerged from the room and hugged him.
“I’d never been hugged by a casting director,” joked Coker, who at first thought the gesture might have been intended to soften yet another basketball rejection. No, it was a congratulatory squeeze. He was Bird.
When Coker eventually got to question his subject, Bird offered a piece of information that a certain former Stafford Indian wished he would have known, say, 20 years ago.
“He told me a little about his off-season workout regimen, and it blew me away,” Coker said. “I sort of wish I could tell the 14-year-old Tug to go back in time and do the regimen Larry was doing.
“I might have been able to step foot on the court in college basketball.”
At the Longacre Theatre
220 W. 48th St., New York