The actor talks about his role in the new HBO comedy series ‘Winning Time’ and how growing up in Mountain View influenced his career.

Actor Sean Patrick Small recreated a Sports Illustrated cover image of Larry Bird before being cast as Bird in HBO’s series “Winning Time.” (Photo courtesy Ben Malenka)

It’s easy to relegate “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” as a sports show, but HBO’s new comedy on the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty of the 1980s debuting Sunday, March 6, isn’t just focused on the hardwood – it takes you off the court and focuses on the relationships that Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah), Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and the whole group of players, coaches and front office personnel have with each other and others who occupy their world of glitz and glam.

One of the relationships that the show focuses on is the rivalry between Johnson and Larry Bird, which now lives in basketball lore but developed at a time when interest in the NBA was down. Before his rookie season, Bird told Sports Illustrated, “I can see why fans don’t like to watch pro basketball. I don’t, either. It’s not exciting.”

The Boston Celtics legend is played by Sean Patrick Small, a Mountain View native and Los Altos High School graduate who played on the basketball team all four years, choosing Bird’s 33 as his jersey number. Small grew up being told he looked like Bird – he even recreated Bird’s famous Sports Illustrated cover photo – and just so happened to be writing a miniseries about the 1979 NCAA championship game that launched Bird and Johnson’s rivalry when he heard about the casting call.

“When the casting came up it was like, ‘Oh, I’ve done all this research, I have that down; it was just getting the accent and physicality down after that,” Small says.

If the early reviews are any indication, it sounds like Small hit the mark – Rolling Stone writer Alan Sepinwall says Small “struts onto the screen holding a can of Budweiser with a chyron that reads, ‘You know my f— name.’”

The Six Fifty talked with Small, who also works as the senior facilities manager at production company Endemol Shine North America, about his Peninsula upbringing, how he got into character to play Bird and what he hopes people take away from the show. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Six Fifty: How did your upbringing in Mountain View influence your acting career?

Mountain View native Sean Patrick Small plays Larry Bird in HBO’s comedy series “Winning Time.” (Photo courtesy Cathryn Farnsworth)

Sean Patrick Small: I went to Los Altos High School and lived in Los Altos a little bit and then Mountain View at the end of my high school career. I took an Acting 1 class at the end of my junior year and that kicked off my acting career per se, and then I did advanced acting classes … Mrs. Moran over at Los Altos High School really kicked me into high gear acting wise.

I’ve played basketball my whole life, played all four years at Los Altos as well so that was definitely an influence wearing 33 growing up and being told I look like him, which led me to research him and see if he had a good enough story to write about at film school. 

The Six Fifty: I understand you were writing a miniseries about the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird when this opportunity came about — how much did you know about Bird and basketball before starting to shoot the show?

Sean Patrick Small: In high school I wore his number, but I wasn’t alive when he was in his prime so I hadn’t really watched too much of his stuff. But it was still the hype of Larry Bird and wearing 33 so that was that influence of it. 

The Six Fifty: What was the most challenging part of getting into character to play Bird, and how did you prepare for the role?

Sean Patrick Small: I did all the research so I felt like I had the backstory and emotional depth down. The major challenge for me was I wouldn’t say the physicality, but that was definitely a big part of the preparation, but the accent was one of those things where I wanted to perfect it. I didn’t want it to be this cartoonish Midwestern twang. I wanted to do this character justice in having him be a grounded human being rather than it being a hyperbolization of what Larry Bird would be, so I wanted to bring that humanity to him. That was the toughest part in terms of embodying that character. 

When I first started writing the miniseries, this was like in 2014, I read this book called ‘When March Went Mad’ and (Bird) had a really complex backstory where his dad committed suicide, he had dropped out of Indiana University before going to Indiana State, which he thought he never would. We’re still out there pitching it with Thomas Carter attached to direct it. 

I’m kind of a perfectionist in terms of doing anything. When I was training with the trainer Idan Ravin the first day, he was trying to get me to learn Larry Bird’s shot. I’d done research on his shot and I thought I was doing it right, and he was saying ‘You have to do this, that,’ and I see that now but I was getting frustrated. Three or four days later it was second nature, but it was one of those moments like, ‘Be kind to yourself, don’t beat yourself up so much.’ It was a good learning lesson. As actors and competitors and athletes we can always be pretty hard on ourselves.

The Six Fifty: What was it like working with this cast?

Sean Patrick Small: The cast is massive and there’s so many big names on it (John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Jason Segel, Sally Field). Unfortunately I didn’t get to work with every single one, but I did get to work with Quincy (Isaiah) who plays Magic a lot, and Adrian Brody as Pat Riley and Jason Segel as Paul Westhead. Being on set just in general I was so happy every day. I’d come in smiling ear to ear and I had to tell myself to dial that back because Bird isn’t smiling. When I’m not working I’d go to set sometimes and watch the video monitors and I was watching a master class every day pretty much. Being able to have a job where I get to do what I love and see these industry heavyweights do amazing work at the same time, I was sad when we had to end production because I was like, ‘Can we keep doing this forever?’

The Six Fifty: What do you hope people get out of watching the show?

Sean Patrick Small: I hope people are entertained with every aspect of it. It shows the personal and professional lives of these many different characters and I think the show does a really good job of being entertaining on and off the court. Obviously a basketball fan is just going to devour this, but I think they did a really good job of making it so non-basketball fans will enjoy this as a very entertaining TV series at the same time.

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