Growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., young Tug Coker had dreams of playing in the NBA. Like many tall and athletic kids of his age, he was drawn to the lights of the NBA, occasionally making trips to the Capital Center and the Verizon Center to see the home standing Wizards and dreaming of his time in the basketball spotlight.
It just so happened that, at least partially, Coker's dream was on track, as he starred at Stafford High School, making All-Met honorable mention, and got to play against future NBA players like Alan Iverson and Lonny Baxter on his local AAU team. He even went on to walk on at the College of William and Mary, but transferred to the University of Virginia after his freshman season with a hope to walk on there. The coach, Jeff Jones, said he would give him a chance, but Jones left after the year to go to American University and the new coaching staff wasn't interested in walk ons.
So with his NBA dream now gone with his hopes of playing in college, Tug pursued another dream, that of acting. He had taken some drama classes in high school, and was encouraged to try his hand at theater now that his fall was more free. What he found was his love of the stage and his skill as an actor matched his passion for basketball, and his career took off, from television to the screen.
All the while, Coker, who was named for the late baseball pitcher Tug McGraw, kept a close eye on sports, especially the NBA, although now more as a fan than as a participant. He still played in rec leagues and kept in touch with old teammates, but the hoop dream was gone...until last winter.
That was when the actor and basketball fan was cast as the lead in the new play Magic/Bird, which opened on Broadway in mid-April. The six-person play tells the story of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and their friendship that went beyond the basketball court. Coker landed the role of Larry Bird, and alongside Kevin Daniels, has been thrilling audiences night after night.
"I find it odd and funny that one of my goals in life was for people to watch me play basketball and that's what people are doing, but it's in a Broadway play," he said recently. "It is not something I could have ever dreamed of, playing such a legend in Larry Bird every night. I was pretty upset when I couldn't play at the higher level in college, and I realized maybe I wasn't the sort of player who could compete on that level. However I still loved and followed the game and channeled my thoughts into another line of work, and here they are together again, involved in a game I love in a job I love. Nothing could be better."
Tug's research in the role took him to French Lick and Bloomington, Indiana as well as to Boston for a chance to watch a game on the Celtics parquet floor. he also got to talk to the real Larry Bird, who saw the play—his first play of any kind—on opening night, and gave Coker a thumbs up for his performance.
"The whole experience has been such a dream, one that I thought had passed away long ago," he added. "However it goes to show if you do follow your dreams and work hard, amazing things can happen. It's not quite the NBA, but it is closer than I ever thought I would get, and we hope people enjoy the show and come back for more."
For all the details on Coker and the play, visit magicbirdbroadway.com.