It’s true that Tug Coker, the Stafford High graduate portraying Larry Bird on Broadway in “Magic/Bird,” was no Larry Bird on the court and that he did not log any minutes during his one walk-on season at William and Mary. Nor did University of Virginia coaches deem him valuable enough to keep as a walk-on there.
But Tug Coker was a pretty good Tug Coker, averaging 15.6 points his senior year in 1996 and earning honorable mention All-Met distinction.
The versatile 6-foot-5 left-hander had the kind of all-around game that made playing college basketball seem not so far-fetched, particularly when many of his AAU teammates were earning scholarships.
“I’d hoped I could ride the pine at U.Va. because my dream was always to make the NCAA tournament,” Coker, 34, said in a recent phone interview.
Coker now jokingly gives credit to former Virginia Coach Pete Gillen for launching his acting career. Before Gillen’s rejection ended his college basketball dream for good, Coker had dabbled in acting but had not seriously pursued it.
Coker’s recollections of his high school basketball career come back in snippets: A three-quarter shot bouncing off the rim in the final seconds against Fauquier. Playing against Potomac (Va.) and AAU teammate Rolan Roberts, when the Panthers won the state title in 1995. Facing a talented Gar-Field team in one of his first varsity games.
“I think I had six turnovers in seven minutes,” Coker said. “It was like shellshock for me.”
Former Stafford Coach Steve Spicer recalls that in Coker’s junior year in a Virginia AAA Northwest Region quarterfinal at William Fleming he scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, nine on three-pointers. Another time, against Brooke Point, a play designed for Coker in the final seconds broke down and he found a teammate inside for the winning basket just ahead of the buzzer.
“Tug was a very good basketball player,” Spicer said. “For a big kid, he could handle the ball real well. Good shooter. Very intelligent. He could rebound, pass, defend. It was tough for teams to defend him.”
Spicer still can remember what Coker said after his varsity debut as a freshman: “Coach, this is a lot of fun!”
Coker’s Stafford highlights are not the parquet-floor heroics of the subject he is portraying, but his skills surely helped him land the part that became his Broadway debut.
Long before “Magic/Bird” materialized, Coker would play in regular pick-up games around New York City. “Guys from all walks of life, from doorman to banker to actor to writer,” he said. “It was awesome.”
The kid who grew up with two Celtics posters in his room already had a loose connection to late Celtics coach and front office executive Red Auerbach, a long-time District resident. Both Auerbach and Coker’s maternal grandfather, Charles Chesnut, are in the George Washington University Athletic Hall of Fame.
“It’s the perfect role for him,” said Coker’s father, John Coker Jr., a Fredericksburg area orthodontist and Boston native. “If he was doing [“Les Miserables”] or something in politics, he’d have to go to the library and bone up on it. This is something he’s done all his life. It was a match made in heaven.”