Saturday, May 14, 2016

Orlando's Short Lived Magic of the 1990's

I just got done watching the 30 for 30 documentary on the rise and fall of the Orlando Magic of the 1990's, and it allowed a flood of memories to come rush back to me.

It's kind of funny how things can do that, isn't it? I mean, I was a basketball fan back then, but also a fan of a whole lot of other things, too. A fan of the NFL, a fan of the NHL, and a fan of soccer - particularly the World Cup, which had just been hosted by the United States in 1994. My brother even managed to score tickets to a quarterfinal game. Don't ask me how, since they were hot tickets, obviously. He even managed to get better tickets for the 1998 World Cup, this time the semifinals (that is, one of the two games to determine who meets for the championship in the final championship match). In both cases, he invited me to attend with him, and I took him up on the offer both times.

To boot, there was also tennis, and this was at a time when Andre Agassi was, for the first time, truly rising to meet his potential, as he would go on to win the US Open in 1994, and followed that up with the 1995 Australian Open title, beating arch-rival Pete Sampras in the final to capture it, and eventually grabbing the number one ranking for the first time in his career.

Add to that, some intriguing Olympics, as the 1992 winter games were also in France (no, I did not attend those), before the Winter Olympic Games broke off from the tradition of being in the same year as the summer with the Lillehammer games in 1994.

So indeed, it was a busy time for sports, and sports are not even what I think of the most about the 1990's, because there was all of that amazing music, and there were the increasingly exciting time in my personal life, since I was a young man in my prime. This was a time when concerts, which had for so long seemed like a luxury that only other people managed to enjoy, were suddenly becoming accessible to me, and I went to a lot of concerts, including some truly great and memorable ones. Plus, all of the great albums and unbelievable music that was coming out helped to really define the 1990's, for me and for millions of others.

But the 1990's were also a fantastic and exciting time in the NBA, as well. There were those mighty Chicago Bulls, who pulled off three straight titles to start off the 1990's. The New York Knicks, who along with the Nets, were my favorite team, were on the rise and presenting what seemed like a tough challenge, although the Bulls won out in the end, anyway. Then, there were the Indiana Pacers, who when Jordan first retired after the 1993 season, rose up to challenge what appeared to be the automatic supremacy of those Knicks, forcing them to a tough Game 7 win to scrape by to the NBA Finals, where the Houston Rockets finally beat the Knicks in another tough, seven game series. There were some other great stories going around back then in the NBA, such as Charles Barkley going to Phoenix, and the Suns enjoying a dominant season in 1992-93, before bowing to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. There were the Seattle Supersonics, who enjoyed a dominant season in the 1993-94 season under coach George Karl, who did not shy away from his team's status as favorites in the absence of Michael Jordan, and how they were shocked in the first round by the upstart Denver Nuggets, the first eighth seed to stun a top seed. Plus, there were all of those great laser light shows, when arenas would darken as the home team was being introduced. The trend started with the Bulls (of course), but before too long, each team tried to top all others, until it got rather ridiculous.

Yet, one of the most intriguing stories of the NBA at the time was something that, ultimately, did not even pan out in the long run, and that was the story of the Orlando Magic.

It is hard to forget how they managed, against all odds, to obtain the first pick in the NBA draft by winning the lottery two straight years - and the last one was after they had a 1 in 64 chance, as they had only one ping pong ball. So, one year after obtaining the once in a lifetime talents of Shaquille O'Neal, they had the first pick again, and drafted Chris Webber. Then, they orchestrated a deal that sent Webber to the Warriors, who really, really wanted him, in order to obtain Anfernee Hardaway, plus three additional draft picks. An unbelievably profitable deal, and the Magic soon cashed in with a tremendously successful and promising season in the 1993-94 season, which was the franchise's first ever playoff season.

They got swept by Indiana, but the possibilities for the future seemed limitless. After all, they had picked up a dominant center in Shaq in 1992, and then picked up one of the most explosive threats in the league with Penny in 1993. Then, they obtained Horace Grant in 1994, and he seemed to be the last, missing piece in the championship puzzle. This was going to be the team of the future, the next dynasty. That was what people expected, and nobody expected any less.

In the 1994-95 season, the Magic were dominant, and wrapped up the season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They went back to the playoffs, and easily got past the Boston Celtics, closing out the old Boston Garden. But in the next round, they had to face the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan had made his return just a couple of months earlier. Everyone expected Chicago to win, but Orlando managed to get the best of what seemed like an aging Bulls team, and they clinched it in six, with Horace Grant, the ex-Bull, being hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammate in triumph. Finally, the Magic barely scraped by the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, to earn their first NBA Finals trip.

They were happy, and celebrated a little too much, as they had the defending NBA champs, the Houston Rockets, as their opponents. Horace Grant tried to warn them, having been there before and knowing what to expect. Still, the Magic still looked dominant in the first half of Game 1, and seemed to have the game well in hand. They could do this, they could win the series. But they came out flat after the half, and the Rockets got back into the game. By late in the fourth quarter, the Magic still seemed on the way to a win, but they just had to be careful, holding a three point lead. Nick Anderson was fouled, and all he had to do was sink one shot, and Orlando would in all likelihood win. He missed both shots, but managed to get a rebound, and was fouled again. And again, all he had to do was make one shot. He missed both of the next two, which meant four straight misses from the free throw line at the most crucial time. The Rockets then sank a three-pointed to tie it, and would go on to win in overtime.

Orlando never recovered. They lost Game 2 at home, and did not manage to win a game on the road in Houston to avoid the sweep. As the Rockets celebrated their second straight title, Magic coach Brian Shaw called his team together, and forced them to stay on the floor and to watch the celebrations, so that they could feel the disappointment, but also see what they were missing out on, so that they would not miss out on it the next time. After all, everyone expected this to be the first of many NBA Finals appearances that the young Orlando Magic would enjoy.

As it turned out, that is not quite how it happened. The Magic would still be an elite team the next year, but they began to have problems. Young egos got in the way, as the rise of Penny Hardaway's fame detracted from Shaq's thunder. There were injuries and distractions, but the Orlando Magic still managed a very successful 60-22 season. No one remembers that, though, because the Chicago Bulls that season went 72-10, and they were regarded as the best team of all time. When both teams breezed through their first two rounds to set up an Eastern Conference showdown, it looked like there might be similar fireworks as the previous year, in what had been a highly entertaining playoff series.

However, the Chicago Bulls were having none of it. They dominated in the first two games at home, and then took Game 3 in Orlando. The Magic tried to avoid the sweep, but they failed. For the third straight season, the Magic left the playoffs after suffering a sweep.

In the offseason, the biggest thing for Orlando to do was retain the services of their biggest star, Shaq. However, the whole problem with young egos really grew out of control, and the Magic lost him to the Lakers, who offered him more money than any other player had ever gotten to that point. Orlando had lost their best player and their greatest asset, and would never recover. They were knocked back down to the pack, and before too long, their coach was ousted from a unanimous decision by the players, who elected to get rid of him. After that, Penny Hardaway started having some serious problems with his knees, and he would never again be the same player, and the Magic were essentially done.

Yet, despite this rather quick decline from what otherwise had been incredibly great fortunes, the Magic of the 1990's have remained as one of the great and most intriguing stories from that era. I remember personally thinking that they were the team of the future, and they reminded me a great deal of another sports franchise, but not an NBA one. Yes, they reminded me of the Dallas Cowboys, who were beginning to cash in on their tremendous good fortunes right around the time that the Magic were on the rise. The Cowboys had bottomed out in the late 1980's, after a decline which had begun in the 1986 season. But they took chances, hiring coach Jimmy Johnson, and then trading Herschel Walker for what seemed like a million draft picks. In the meantime, they got top flight offensive talent in three consecutive seasons, grabbing wide receiver Michael Irving in 1988, quarterback Troy Aikman in 1989, and then Emmitt Smith in 1990. With trades and with all of those draft picks, the Cowboys reversed their fortunes, going from a dismal 1-15 season in 1989, to winning their first of three Super Bowls of the decade in 1992, as they went onto clinching "Team of the Decade" honors.

Both teams were young, flashy, and both also seemed to have a certain youthful arrogance about themselves. Also, both teams had a buzz about them, with almost all of the so-called pundits and experts predicting a long reign of dominance for each. Everyone seemed sure that the Dallas Cowboys were going to start winning, and in a big way, in the very early 1990's, right around the time that obtaining Emmitt Smith proved to be a very strong move following his strong showing in the 1990 season. To that point in time, it seemed that everything that they did to build themselves up looked charmed and magical, and destined for greater things in the not so distant future. So it was with Orlando, as well, as they obtained one superstar after another, and looked poised to produce great results on the basketball court, as well. And both teams did produce some great things in the field of play, as the Dallas Cowboys finally followed up on that tremendous promise and faith that people had in them by beating the recent dynasty of the time, the San Francisco 49ers, in the NFC Championship Game, and then following up by blowing out the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. Orlando, too, seemed to follow up on their tremendous promise by beating the recent dynasty of their time in the Chicago Bulls.

Orlando's rise in fortunes, and the promise that came out of that, seemed to be on that level. Hell, the two teams even looked similar, with similar colors and even somewhat similar logos. If the Cowboys would have a basketball uniform, it might very well look like those Orlando Magic uniforms. Orlando's future dynasty seemed inevitable. As Ahmad Rashaad suggested in the 30 for 30 documentary, "The Orlando Magic were like a fairy tale team in a fairy tale city."

But part of their legacy is that the bell tolling midnight chimed much earlier than expected, and ultimately, they did not cash in, largely for the reasons stated above. Shaq moved on to LA, and won championships there. The coach got fired, and Penny was hampered by injuries. The Magic dynasty was not to be, and the Bulls, who had gotten embarrassed in the semifinal series against Orlando in 1995, returned the favor big time in 1996, their most dominant season. The Bulls had already won three NBA titles prior to that season, but they were so strong, that the historically dominant 1996 Bulls not only won that title, but defended it successfully the next season, and then again the year after that.

That was the main difference between the Magic and the Cowboys. Both eventually got beaten by the old guard team, after knocking them out of the playoffs. But Dallas lost following the 1994-95 season, in the third straight NFC title showdown between the two teams. By then, however, the Cowboys had knocked the Niners out in two consecutive seasons, and had captured two straight Super Bowl championships. They would add a third the following season, after the 49ers suffered a shocking loss to Bret Favre and the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys would win that third title in January of 1996, in the Arizona sunshine in Super Bowl XXX. Orlando, by contrast, lost to the Bulls in the very next season, after having failed to win the 1995 NBA Finals. The Bulls went on to win the 1996 NBA Finals, giving themselves a four titles to none advantage over their presumed successors, before the Magic began to disintegrate, also in 1996, without having captured an NBA title.

So, while Dallas was unable to completely shut out their main rivals, the 49ers, from a title in the 1990's, their own three titles largely overshadowed San Francisco's sole Super Bowl title. By contrast, Orlando only produced one NBA Finals appearance, and they got swept. That clearly pales by comparison to Chicago's six NBA championships in a span of eight years, which included some historically dominant individual seasons in 1992, 1996, and 1997. Chicago overshadowed the youthful promise of the Orlando Magic even more completely than the youthful Dallas Cowboys managed to eclipse the more established San Francisco 49ers in the nineties. The decline of both teams, the Dallas Cowboys and the Orlando Magic, had some similarities. In both cases, the coach departed on relatively hostile terms. Major talents departed for greener pastures financially. Yet, by the time it happened in Dallas, they had two titles to their name, and managed to win another Super Bowl championship nonetheless. But in basketball, where only five players are on the court at any given time, the loss of talent - particularly as great and dominant a talent as Shaq's, was simply too much for Orlando to overcome. The ouster of the head coach did not help, and then the injuries that continually hampered Penny just killed whatever promise and potential those Orlando Magic once had. All that was left for fans were bittersweet memories of some great moments during incomplete runs, and ruminations of what might have been.

Now, to be fair, the Dallas Cowboys and Orlando Magic both were handed uniquely exceptional opportunities to capitalize on. The Cowboys translated these into championships, while the Magic did not. But the Magic were not alone. The Los Angeles Rams were given a similar chance for incredible success when they traded Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts, getting a ton of draft picks in return, and an opportunity to build a good, young team. For a while there, it looked like the Rams might have done something with that, as they looked like an emerging team in the late 1980's and into the 1990 season. However, the Rams went from one of the favorites in 1990, to a 5-11 season, and would suffer nine straight losing seasons. The most pronounced symbol of their failure would be 17 straight losses to their biggest rival, the San Francisco 49ers, who's success made the failure of the Rams all the more complete. So, Orlando is hardly the only team that had a chance to build a young and hugely talented team seemingly destined to do great things, only to ultimately disappoint.

Those Bulls humbled the team that was supposed to have been the next great dynasty, the Orlando Magic. However, the Chicago Bulls were themselves a uniquely great dynasty, even by the standards of dynasties. After all, their six titles in eight years eclipses almost every other dynasty not just in the NBA in recent decades, but in all sports. After all, most of the NFL franchises that earned "Team of the Decade" honors did so by winning three or four championships. The Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's and the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970's each won five titles. The New York Yankees won four titles in the late 1990's and early 2000's. And in basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers won five titles in the eighties, and again five titles in the 2000's. None of those teams won six titles in eight years, let alone with the level of dominance that the Bulls displayed. The fact that most people place an asterisk on the championships won by the Houston Rockets in the mid-nineties, and point to the fact that Michael Jordan had retired during that same stretch as evidence that Houston had gotten away with not having to face the truly best team of the era. So, Orlando was up against stiff competition, to say the least. And the words that seemed so apt in describing the Magic of the 1990's was that they never really recovered from some devastating setbacks. The first chink in the armor came when Nick Anderson missed those four free throws that might have changed the outcome in the 1995 NBA Finals. Then, they never appeared to have recovered from that embarrassing and humbling sweep by the Bulls. But they especially never recovered from Shaq's departure. They never recovered from Grant's ousting as head coach. And finally, they never recovered from Penny's injury problems with his knee.

The Magic might have been the NBA equivalent of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990's. But they were two different sports, two different teams, and obviously, two different stories. One was hugely successful, as the Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to win three of four Super Bowl titles (since matched by the New England Patriots of the early 2000's. But all of the talk of the inevitable Orlando Magic dynasty came to one NBA Finals appearance, and the run to the Eastern Conference Finals the next year. Both series resulted in the Magic getting swept.

Then, slowly but surely, the talent that the Magic were so blessed with went away, and all that remained from their tremendous great fortune, and the hype that followed, were memories and thoughts of what might have been...

Here is the full episode of 30 for 30 on those Orlando Magic of the 1990's:

No comments:

Post a Comment