Why Sean Patrick Small Was a Slam Dunk to Play Larry Bird on HBO’s “Winning Time”

We spoke to the actor about his approach to portraying the NBA legend

May 5, 2022 6:00 am
Sean Small's Larry Bird lines up next to Quincy Isaiah's Magic Johnson in "Winning Time."
Sean Small's Larry Bird lines up next to Quincy Isaiah's Magic Johnson in "Winning Time."
Warrick Page/HBO

Wrapping up its first season and already renewed for a second, HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty has been a hit with hoops fans who are interested in getting a dramatized look at how one of the most dominant dynasties in NBA history came about both on and off the court in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Since the series, which is based on the book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman, is focused on the Lakers, Magic Johnson, as he was in real life, is the star of the show.

Played by Quincy Isaiah, Johnson, the hero, needs a villain. And he finds one in Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, who is played by former high school hooper Sean Patrick Small on the show.

Much taller than his last name would suggest at 6’4″, Small was, amazingly, actually in the process of developing a miniseries based on When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball — a book that details how the rivalry between Bird and Johnson began when the two stars faced off as collegiate players during the 1979 NCAA championship game — when he landed the part of Larry Legend. Given the amount of research Small had already done on Bird for his own project, the role seemed like a natural fit.

“I had all this research in my back pocket to the point where it just seemed like second nature,” Smalls tells InsideHook. “I think there was a responsibility to portray this guy as honestly and authentically as I could. That’s why I focused a lot on the accent and not sounding too much like a caricature. Trying to get the physicality down and being grounded in some sort of reality was also important.”

Small's Bird is somewhat of a villain compared to Isaiah's Johnson
Small’s Bird is somewhat of a villain compared to Isaiah’s Johnson.
Warrick Page/HBO

Getting Bird’s physicality down meant that Small, who wore No. 33 during his four years of high school basketball and was a pretty good shooter with a slightly questionable handle, had to rework the motion of his jump shot so it would be a carbon copy of the former Celtic’s signature J.

“We worked with a trainer on becoming a silhouette of the character we were playing. You needed to look exactly like that guy on the court,” Small says. “I have a modern-looking shot that’s pretty much straight up and down. Bird had what we called the chicken wing. His left elbow is so far out but it creates a nice shooting window to see the basket. Our trainers worked us into the ground, but it was really fun. I think my jumper is probably about the same. It’s just now I can make it looking like Larry Bird. My handle has gotten a lot better to the point where I’m trying to show my dribbling skills off to my friends.”

In addition to helping his handle, playing Bird helped Small improve something a bit unexpected: his posture.

“I watched videos of him when he was playing or doing interview videos to see how he moved and realized that he had some of the best posture I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “It helped with getting into character. In my trailer, working on the walk, it was ‘All right. Stand straight up. Shoulders back. Have the best posture you can think of.’ That gives you an air of confidence right off the bat doing that. Another way to get into that super competitive mindset for the basketball scenes was playing pump-up music for myself. I created a playlist called Bad Bird and I would listen to it really loudly in my car without allowing myself to react to it or sing along. It was to internalize all the energy so that I would be able to put it out on the floor for the cameras to see.”

Those cameras haven’t been trained on Small an overwhelming amount thus far in Winning Time, but he has put his best Converse forward in terms of portraying Bird accurately and with confidence.

“I think my eight years of research really helped in trusting myself with that. You have to trust in the research you’ve done and put it out there as you see best fits for the character,” Small says. “In essence, this is just a guy who is on a mission to win at basketball by any means necessary. He might not have been the fastest person on the court or jumped the highest, but he gave it everything he had every time he was out on the floor. His competitive edge is just on a whole different level, and that’s why he’s one of the greatest. That competitive edge can sometimes come off like he’s a little bit of a dick or an asshole, but it really is just all about winning basketball games for him. That’s all he cares about.”

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