The first time I saw Tug Coker, he was standing on a Broadway stage wearing a blonde wig, a Celtics home uniform — the kind from the 80s with the short shorts — and what might just be the worst fake mustache I’d ever seen.
I didn’t get to talk to Tug that day back in 2012 — for reasons I’ll get to in a bit. But I knew Tug wouldn’t have been standing on that Broadway stage if he hadn’t failed as a basketball player in college. So when we finally got the chance to speak, I asked him to start there.
But Tug Coker had other plans.
"Well, actually, I’m going to back up a little bit," Tug said. "So, I grew up in Virginia. Sports were my life. I just grew up playing sports all the time, loving sports. But at the same time, I just loved movies, and I loved theater, and I loved film. And 'The Wizard of Oz' was my favorite movie of all time. I remember when I was 5 years old, and I would pause the VCR to write down the Scarecrow's lines, because I loved the Scarecrow so much.
"I couldn’t do plays because I was always doing a sport, whether it was tennis or basketball or soccer or something like that," Tug said. "I couldn’t do the plays, but I did the classes."
Tug’s favorite sport was basketball. But his high school playing days aren’t all happy memories.
"Honestly, most of my looking back is filled with some regret, because I didn’t maximize the opportunity," he said. "Princeton came to watch me one night against a team that I thought we could crush in high school, and I scored seven points and embarrassed myself. And Princeton didn’t give me another look."
Tug ended up at William & Mary, where he never got the chance to play.
"You know, around the last week of practice, one of the coaches came up to me and said, ‘Tug, I think you can really play. I think you can play at this level,'" Tug said. "And I was so happy to hear that."
But not happy enough to stick around. Tug wanted to play at a bigger school, so he transferred to the University of Virginia, where the new coach told him, thanks — but no thanks.
‘If You Really Put Your Mind To This, You Could Be Great’
So, with basketball out of the picture, Tug turned to his other love – theater. He signed up for drama classes, and one of his teachers said something that sounded familiar.
"He said, ‘If you really put your mind to this, you could be great.’ I was lost. I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I took that to heart. And I got into a play, and I practiced, and I worked at bars and insurance companies while I took classes at night and did plays when I could, and just kinda immersed myself with that same vigor that you have as an athlete."
"So I went from not believing I had a shot to calling my dad and like, ‘I think I just did this. I think I just got a job on Broadway.’"
But Tug Coker wasn’t finished with basketball. Not nearly. Because in late 2011, producers started sending out casting calls for a new Broadway play based on the rivalry and friendship between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. I should say that Tug is white, so when he showed up for his audition, the role of Magic Johnson was out.
"You know, Larry Bird’s 6-foot-9 and I’m 6-5. I thought, 'They’re just going to find some unknown in Minnesota, and he’s going to get his big break, and good luck to him,'" Tug said. "So, I performed a couple scenes, and I waited outside for, like, 15 minutes. And the casting director came out and gave me a hug. And I’ve never gotten a hug from a casting director after an audition before or since. So, I went from not believing I had a shot to calling my dad and like, ‘I think I just did this. I think I just got a job on Broadway.’"
Tug did get that job, which led him to meeting two of the most accomplished basketball players of all time.
"They weighed in on the script, they weighed in on the notes," Tug said. "You know, Magic came to rehearsal. That was incredible. He just sat there and kinda watched. And then slowly he gave a note on what he thought Larry would do in that moment, and I did it, and he’d start to make that electric smile that you get from Magic Johnson. And next thing you know, he’s, like — just the wattage of Magic Johnson takes over, and you realize, 'Oh, Magic Johnson’s in the room.'"
And so, in early 2012, Tug Coker found himself standing on a Broadway stage, being introduced to the theater the way he might have been introduced at a basketball arena, if he’d ever had the chance to start in college.
"I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe it. To portray my favorite player of all time, Larry Bird. I mean, I couldn’t have imagined that in a million years. He left me a seven second voicemail that said, ‘Hey Tug, this is Larry Bird calling. I’ll try you later.’ I still have that. It’s never going anywhere."
'Magic/Bird' Falls Short
I was in the audience for one of the preview performances of "Magic/Bird" in March of 2012. And, other than that awful mustache that might have been just a tad too close to the real thing, I thought Tug did a great job.
"All the things I wanted as an athlete, I kinda got to achieve as an actor -- which was odd. ... Not as an athlete. As a fake athlete."
"I was pretty proud of the way I handled the basketball on the stage," Tug said. "I shot, like, 10 shots in the show, as you know. I’m left-handed, but I trained myself to play right-handed. I went — My wife and I would go out to the court, and I’d shoot 100 free throws a day right-handed. Just trying to get that form that Larry had. That’s that athletic desire to be great coming back around. But I remember, the first night I missed a layup. I was so jacked up."
OK, so the basketball was hit or miss. One night, a miss flew into the audience and landed in a row of Olympic athletes. But, for a while there, Tug’s childhood dreams were coming true.
"All the things I wanted as an athlete, I kinda got to achieve as an actor — which was odd," he said. "I mean, I was in Sports Illustrated. And they talked about the show on PTI. And all these things that I devoured as a kid, they recognized. But not as an athlete. As a fake athlete."
As a fake athlete, Tug was getting a lot of attention. But the show wasn’t doing as well as the producers had hoped. When I showed up for my promised interview with Tug and his co-star Kevin Daniels, I was told that they were “re-working scenes” and could no longer be made available.
And then "Magic/Bird" was completely shut out of the Tony nominations.
"The lead actor nominees that year were James Corden, who won. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, James Earl Jones — just the best of the best," Tug said. "And then, oh yeah, Tug Coker. Not nominated, but you could have voted for him. So, just to be, you know, in that ilk."
Ilk or no ilk, zero Tony nominations weren’t enough for the producers of Magic/Bird. On the same day the nominations were announced, they decided that the show would close after just 38 performances.
"We got, like, a two weeks' notice," Tug said. "I almost broke down in the show, because I felt like in some ways — Larry has been so successful in his career with championships and coaching and GMing. And this was one of the things that didn't — wasn’t a success in people’s eyes. And I felt like, in some ways, I let him down."
But don’t feel too bad for the folks who worked on Magic/Bird.
"Starting from Tommy Kail, who directed the show, to the lighting designer, costume designer, set designer, sound designer — all worked on 'Hamilton' as their next Broadway show," Tug said. "I missed it by one show, because the next show was 'Hamilton.'"
Tug says he was in shock after "Magic/Bird" closed. It’s hard to top playing Larry Bird on Broadway.
"Part of the struggle about being an actor is, you don’t have the control. So it’s not every day that you get to be on a project that you’re so excited about every day to go to work," Tug said. "And that’s what you chase. You just get that little taste of something you believe in, and you just want it more and more and more."
Next Up: A Comedy Series Set In Sports
So Tug and his good friend Tommy Dewey decided to get together on a project. And since they’re both passionate about sports, they decided to make a show about former athletes — football instead of basketball players this time.
"I'm not gonna knock Tommy, he’ll listen to this, but I don’t buy him playing basketball," Tug said, laughing. "The show, I should say, is called 'Now We’re Talking,' and its about two quarterbacks who used to be on a team together. And they now retire, and they try to figure out the next stages of their life. We just fell in love with this idea of two former athletes getting into broadcasting, having this buddy comedy of these guys on the road together."
The short-form comedy series is available on Verizon’s video streaming app, go90 — so it’s meant to be watched on your phone. And if you think that means the show is small potatoes, consider this: The guy who played Larry Bird on Broadway is now producing a show in conjunction with Uninterrupted, the sports media company founded by LeBron James.
"It’s just a fun little nexus of these athletes trying to do entertainment and these actors trying to dabble in the sports world, and we got some great cameos, and it’s kinda funny to see how it all comes full circle," Tug said.
Unlike Larry Bird, LeBron James has not weighed in on character development. While the show was in production, he was a little too busy helping the Cleveland Cavaliers win the city’s first championship in 52 years.
"Now We’re Talking" isn’t Tug Coker’s only big co-production this year. He and his wife recently had a baby, and that started Tug looking back and wondering ... what if?
"He’s four months old, and I see that miracle, and I’m like, ‘Man, I really wish I had seized that opportunity to play college basketball more,'" he said. "Because you only get one shot, and the next thing you know you’re 20 years out of college, or whatever. And I realize that if I could have stuck with it, I could have, maybe, played in Europe."
"Well, I hate to tell you, but if you had gone and played in Europe, you wouldn’t have learned to be an actor and you wouldn’t have gotten to play Larry Bird on Broadway," I said.
"That’s true. That’s really true. I don’t know, I guess I just — I want my cake and eat it too," Tug said, laughing. "I want it all."
"Now We're Talking" is available for streaming on Verizon go90.
This segment aired on September 24, 2016.