Sean Patrick Small has long been aware of the similarities between him and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird.
Growing up as a 6’4 kid who played basketball, he took on Bird’s number 33 shirt as he was trying to perfect his own jump shot.
While it’s not a big jump for HBO to cast him in the Adam McKay-exec produced series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty as Magic Johnson’s rival – you just have to look at the pictures – the confluence of events that got him there is its own wild story.
Small transferred to USC after discovering a passion for acting and writing. “How can I try to combine these two things together in order to make my way? I’ve been told that I looked like Larry Bird, and I’m 6’4 and played basketball. Let’s see if this guy has a good enough story to write about,” he told Deadline
A friend recommended Seth Davis’ book When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, which details a legendary NCAA championship game that launched an epic rivalry between Bird and Johnson.
He subsequently optioned the book himself and wrote a four-part miniseries based on it, exploring the early lives of the two stars. It wasn’t, however, just a writing sample. Small managed to attach Thomas Carter, director of Samuel L. Jackson-fronted basketball feature Coach Carter, to the project, and began pitching to networks and streamers
Meanwhile, the HBO series came together from Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht and based on Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the LA Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.
John C. Reilly was attached to star as owner Jerry Buss in a star-studded cast that also includes Jason Clarke, Gaby Hoffmann, Adrien Brody, Sally Field, Michael Chiklis and Jason Segel as well as Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson.
The other problem for Small was Emmy-winner Bo Burnham was set to star as Bird. Until he wasn’t.
On a trip from LA to Denver to surprise his wife’s sister during a secret proposal from her boyfriend, it emerged that Burnham had dropped out of the project due to scheduling conflicts, a “stars aligning” moment.
Through his reps, he was able to get an audition and two weeks later he was cast in the role of Bird. Two weeks after that, he was on set and working with the show’s basketball trainers to perfect Bird’s unusual shooting style.
The producers asked Small how much he knew about Bird. “‘It’s funny you should ask’”, he said. “I’ve actually been doing a project of my own for a long time and I know pretty much everything there is to know about him.”
Small, who also works as the senior facilities manager at Endemol Shine North America, admits that Bird is one of the “villains” of the show, given his intense rivalry with Johnson. The pair are friends now, but it wasn’t until they were shooting a Converse sneaker commercial at Bird’s house in French Lick, Indiana that they became close.
Winning Time is shaping up to be one of HBO’s most talked about shows of the year with HBO content chief Casey Bloys telling Deadline that he’s hopeful that they will do a second season.
In success, Small hopes that it might also reignite his own Bird project. “We’re still pitching, we’re trying to get it off the ground,” he says.
If he manages it, it’d be a story to rival that of Bird’s own.
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