Tue Jun 09 09:00am EDT
It's been a fitful 20-year run for the Magic franchise, and though you'd have to assume the team and the fan base are awfully happy to be in this year's Finals, you also get the feeling that they might regard their matchup with the Lakers as the most recent in a series of calamities.
Well, maybe "calamity" isn't the right word, but the Magic have had a lot given to them, and quite a bit cruelly taken away.
Then there was Penny Hardaway's health, Nick Anderson's confidence (which dragged well beyond the 1995 Finals), Grant Hill's(notes) health, Tracy McGrady's(notes) interest in playing defense, Fran Vasquez's interest in just playing in the NBA, and a litany of coach (nine of them in total, with Brian Hill somehow coaching twice) after coach after coach.
Orlando isn't allowed this cruel twist of fate, however, if they don't have a bit of luck on their side. Winning the lottery to get O'Neal. Striking again the next year as a 41-win team to pull in Hardaway. The interest in coach after coach after well-regarded coach. The max signings of Grant Hill and McGrady in 2000, a free agent turn that hasn't been replicated by any NBA team before or since.
And speaking of using the wrong words, "luck" probably shouldn't be invoked. What team in NBA history has pulled off rebuilding better than that era's Magic? John Gabriel, in an instant, realized that his 1999 Magic were overachieving (and overpaid) under (over?) Chuck Daly, and set to destroying his entire roster in a truncated 1999 offseason so as to cash in on an impending 2000 free agent bonanza.
Even after destroying the roster, the Magic hung around the .500 mark all year, finishing just a few Milwaukee Buck (Orlando's polar opposite, full of underachievers) three-pointers away from making the 2000 postseason. And after getting to bend Tim Duncan's(notes) ear (a free agent that summer, he passed), Gabriel managed to pull in one of the best players in the NBA in Hill, and a youngster who would soon become one of the best in the NBA in McGrady.
Things fell apart after that, as they often do with this franchise, through no fault of their own. Every time there seems to be a bit of good with the Magic, it's always surrounded by a wee bit of the bad.
Former personnel boss John Weisbrod had the guts to draft Dwight Howard(notes) ahead of Emeka Okafor(notes) in 2004, a move that seemed like the obvious choice to a lot of us, but still rather surprising in a league that often values safety and name recognition over true talent.
Score one for Weisbrod, but take a ton of points away for mismanaging Tracy McGrady's trade request, along with a series of personnel blunders (Cuttino Mobley(notes) for Doug Christie(notes); Anderson Varejao(notes) and Drew Gooden(notes) for Tony Battie(notes)) alongside it.
New guys Otis Smith and Dave Twardzik have done well, I suppose, but they also bid against themselves to sign Rashard Lewis(notes) to a ridiculous contract in 2007, and failed to properly suss out Vasquez's immediate NBA prospects before using a lottery pick on the Spanish forward in 2005. And even with the Magic in the Finals, questions loom about Hedo Turkoglu's(notes) (already 30-years old) future, or the franchise's ability to accrue depth around Howard with Lewis' contract on the books.
Am I acting a bit like a downer? Well, you could also say I'm due to live up to a reputation that, years back, I didn't deserve. Any bit of fawning or credit or praise I used to pass Orlando's way in writing about the team online from 1997 to 2002 or so was met with an insecure and nasty tone from a fan base that would comb every column for any scrap of perceived damnation they could find regarding the city of Orlando, their team, and its overall abilities.
It was drudgery to write about the Magic back then, because save for Raptor fans (who had the excuse of rooting for an expansion team that was six years younger), their followers were just an angry, angry lot. This has changed, obviously, to a point that you couldn't guess at the fan base's history; but the team's backers obviously wore their disappointments on their respective sleeves, while using that 28.8 connection to let everyone know about it.
So here's everyone's chance to get it right. A showcase, in Orlando, that could stretch for almost a week. Three games, featuring an outstanding team full of players either in their prime, or young studs who have nothing but the brightest futures to look forward to.
The work this team has put in since November made them championship contenders by midseason, and the heart and resilience this team has shown since February has left them beyond admirable in every sense since then. This is a team to be proud of. And, finally, this is a team that other teams should be scared of. Even the Lakers, with all their scowls and beards and yelling and giant chairs.
So act the part, give us a show, and most of all? Enjoy it, Orlando fans. You know, after all the Sturm und Drang, that you deserve it.