As Larry Bird, Los Gatos High alum trash-talks Magic Johnson in HBO series

You’ll have to wait until episode 7 of “Winning Time,” HBO’s flashy new series about the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty in the 1980s, to see Los Gatos High alum Sean Patrick Small make his memorable entrance as surly Celtics legend Larry Bird.

That episode airs April 17. But the specter of Small’s Bird has loomed over Season 1 since the 10-part series launched in March, with various characters at times taunting the young Lakers’ star Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Season 1 covers Johnson’s first 1979-80 season, and people keep asking him if he’s worried that Bird, “the kid from Indiana farm country,” is a better player.

“Bird was just this shy kid from French Lick (Indiana),” said Small, 29. Playing Bird was a “dream role,” Small said, explaining that the three-time MVP had a “super dark” backstory that included poverty and a father who died by suicide.

Small grew up playing basketball and being told he looked like Bird, and he chose Bird’s No. 33 for his jersey when he played for the Los Gatos High Wildcats. The USC film school grad was trying to shop his own script around about Bird when the role in “Winning Time,” executive produced by “Don’t Look Up” director Adam McKay, suddenly became available.

In Small’s first episode, Bird and Johnson, their bitter NCAA rival, come face-to-face at a press conference before they play each other for the first time as pros. Small strides into Boston Garden, wearing Bird’s Rust Belt uniform of shaggy blond mustache and khaki hat, clutching a Budweiser can and accompanied by the gospel bluegrass song “Satan is Real.”

As Rolling Stone critic Alan Sepinwall wrote, Small captures Bird’s ability to command a room with his steely silence. When the media-friendly Johnson offers reporters the usual talking points about how the game involves “two great teams, two great rivals,” Bird grunts out monosyllabic responses, then covers his microphone, leans over to Johnson and shows his notorious gift for trash- talking: “I’m going to rip your (expletive) a new hole.”

As NBA fans know, the rivalry between the taciturn Bird and the gregarious Johnson became must-see TV in the 1980s and propelled the beleaguered NBA into the center of American sports and culture.

“They were different with the East Coast vs. West Coast, the White vs. Black, but they were very similar in their want to win, which is why Bird, whenever he’s around Magic, comes off so not wanting to deal with him,” Small said “It was his competitive nature, his ‘I’m going to be the best no matter what it takes.”’

Season 1 of “Winning Time” covers the start of that rivalry, plus much more about the behind-the-scenes machinations of ambitious owner Jerry Buss, played by John C. Reilly, and his legendary coaching staff. The series is packed with A-list stars, tacky ’80s opulence, period music and director Adam McKay’s usual fact-paced editing and breaking-the-fourth-wall cinematic tricks.

For Small, getting cast in a prestige TV series constitutes a big break, which he won through a combination of coincidence, entrepreneurial hustle and his long affinity for Bird. Small also almost lucked into acting. He never gave it much thought until he took drama teacher Nancy Moran’s class as an elective his junior year at Los Gatos. He fell in love with filmmaking while starring in a short student film at UC Davis, then transferred to USC to study film and screenplay writing.

While at USC, Small turned to Bird’s story as a topic for a screenplay after reading the book “When March Went Mad,” about the lead-up to Bird and Johnson’s first big showdown in the 1979 NCAA championship game.

Fast-forward to June 2021. Small was shopping around his miniseries about the rivalry when his manager told him that Bo Burnham, the actor and comedian initially cast as Bird, had suddenly dropped out.

Small pulled together an audition tape, with producers calling him for a Zoom interview within a few days. While the producers said they were impressed by his performance, they needed to know: Did he play basketball, and did he know much about Larry Bird? Being able to say yes to both questions gave him a “leg up.”

Among Small’s immediate acting challenges was learning how to move like Bird on the court, even though “Winning Time” often seems as much concerned with depicting the drama off the court as on.

“I worked with the basketball trainer they had on set,” Small said. “Since I had played, I knew how to move around the court. But it was really honoring in on making myself the silhouette of Bird. We worked on his shot of him, because his shot of him is so different than any of the modern-day shots you see.

Small also got into character by holding himself up like Bird. He had “some of the best posture I’ve seen in my life.” And while Bird does n’t say much in “Winning Time,” Small worked to nail his accent to him, a Southern Indiana mix of Midwest and Southern. He didn’t want to overly “twang it up” and turn Bird into a caricature.

Small mostly worked with fellow newcomer Quincy Isaiah, who plays Johnson, but he also had scenes with Adrien Brody and Jason Segel, who play Pat Riley and Paul Westhead, respectively, and Michael Chiklis, who takes on Celtics coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach. When Small wasn’t in a scene, he enjoyed “a master class in acting” by watching these other acclaimed actors at work.

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