Believing In Magic: How The 1990's Orlando Magic Rekindled My Love For The Game

Every so often the optical illusion of magic makes the most impossible thing imaginable appear—or disappear. Magicians are best at using misdirection and the sleight of hand while executing the most impractical tricks. Whether making a rabbit come out of a hat, or sawing a person in half, the thrill of the trick is what makes it so profound. From a logical standpoint, it’s hard to see that why someone would believe in such an entity, but on the other spectrum the thought of trusting that supernatural forces are real can be a thing as well.

Once upon a time, there was a time when I believed in Magic, and just like the best magic tricks seen on the big stage, it vanished within a blink of an eye. The magic show that caught my devotion didn’t include David Blaine, Criss Angel, or the great Harry Houdini, it included the mid-1990’s Orlando Magic featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. In arena’s around the NBA, there weren’t disappearing acts or anyone levitating, but there was a large quantity of three-pointers, slam dunks, and sheer entertainment. It was the perfect remedy for fans who suffered from post-Jordan era syndrome searching for the love of the game. I needed an antidote that would bring my affection to the game back to the forefront, and the Orlando did just that.

I can remember the Orlando’s run to NBA relevance as if it were yesterday. As mentioned, at the time fresh off the retirement of Michael Jordan, I was dejected, befuddled, and I didn’t think I would ever watch basketball again—well, outside of trying to emulate my inner Charles Barkley when I played. In my early stages of being a basketball junkie, the fun-loving Orlando Magic was a fairy tale team in a fairy tale city, and as a basketball fan, I lived the fairy tale. The euphoria felt while rooting for the Magic was spectacular. On a night to night basis, it was must-see-TV, and it is something that I will never forget.

In the world of sports, there are many memorable teams, players, and coaches that leave an everlasting impression on fans. From the championships, memorable plays, and the absolute passion of the sport fans are left with the nostalgia of yesteryear.

What made the Magic so fun to watch is that they were a close-knit group, and it was on full display when they took the played as a unit. As we’ve seen in the social media era of sports, a lot of teams with star power lack the team chemistry that the Magic displayed during their remarkable run. As a youngster, watching the Orlando, it taught me how to appreciate your teammates and support them during the good and bad stretches. From the high-flying alley-oops to Nick Anderson missing four free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, the Magic stood together as one. The It also brought an element of fun and adolescence to the NBA that wasn’t seen since the Showtime Lakers led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Although Shaq and Penny were in their early-to-mid twenty’s, they were most feared duo in all of the NBA.

Shaq was becoming one of the most dominant players on just about every court he touched—well, not in Houston, but he was a force to be reckoned with. He ran the floor like a gazelle, rebounded with strength, and he dunked his way into the hearts of fans. O’Neal displayed the combination of strength, athleticism, and skill that was never seen in the NBA before. At times, while watching Shaq, it was like watching a man play amongst boys. Even though most of his opponents had years of experience over him, it didn’t matter when he stepped in the paint. It was impossible to guard Shaq one-on-one, and as the years went by it was hard to double team him as he added passing to his repertoire. The nightly quarrel of facing Shaq was damming, and it only became a tougher task as his supporting cast became better.

In 1993 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic traded Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway, and the rest was history. At the time, it didn’t seem like the logical move, but Hardaway’s skill set meshed well with O’Neal and the rising Magic. The silky smooth point guard that hailed from the then Memphis State University took the NBA by storm. Hardaway had a penchant for making the improbable no-look pass, and he could score with the best of them. During that era, teams had an infatuation for big point guards in search of the next Magic Johnson. Although Penny didn't become Magic-like, he fit the mold of what then head coach Brian Hill wanted. With Penny leading the show, Magic fans, and NBA followers figured that the duo of Shaq and Penny were the second coming of Kareem and Magic, but only younger and fiercer. Shaq and Penny had on the court and off the court chemistry, and that made it even easier for everyone else.

Role players such as Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Brian Shaw, Donald Royal, and Dennis Scott didn’t garner the headlines such as the aforesaid dynamic duo, but they were valuable assets to the team. The role players were the perfect Yin to Shaq and Penny’s Yang and played a lot of beautiful basketball at a high level. Dennis Scott had the ability to shoot the three at a high clip which gave Shaq the space to work in the paint. Nick Anderson provided defense and scoring at the two-guard position, Brian Shaw and Donald Royal were the bench players who helped hold down he fort while Nick and Penny rested, and last but not least, Horace Grant gave them the leadership and championship pedigree that they lacked.

Despite being a main attraction around the NBA during the mid-90’s the Magic failed to win an NBA title. After being swept in the Finals against the Houston Rockets in 1995, they never made it back as a team. With Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA, it negated the run of dominance that many projected Orlando to have. Though the Magic in 1995 were the last team to defeat Jordan’s Bulls in a playoff series, Jordan took it personally, and Orlando's run ended in a New York minute.

After being swept in the playoffs in 1996, by the 72-10 Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, it would be the last time that we would see the Magic on the floor together with the usual suspects—Shaq, Penny, 3D, Nick, B-Shaw and Horace. Shaq took his talents, to Los Angeles and his Magic teammates struggled in his absence and were never a dominant force after his departure.

Despite not living up to the lofty expectations placed by basketball pundits, the Magic gave so much to the game of basketball. In true magical fashion, the highlight reel plays and high-spirited team vanished as if it was a disappearing act.

On April 14, as ESPN gears to air the 30 for 30 for the Orlando Magic it’s understatement to say that it’s a must watch. For me, the Magic rekindled my love for basketball, and I’m thankful for their manifestation in basketball history. To those who didn’t get a chance to see the nightly magic show, be sure to tune in.

In the words of The Lovin Spoonful,” If you believe in magic, don't bother to choose/If it's jug band music or rhythm and blues.”

It may not have been rhythm and blues that generated the magic, but it was breathtaking basketball that was played in Orange County Florida.

Thanks to Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Donald Royal, Horace Grant, Brian Hill, Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal, and many more members of the Orlando Magic, that gave me the belief that magic was more than just an illusion, and for rekindling my love for the game of basketball.

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