When most people think of Orlando, they think of Mickey Mouse, not sports.
So when the Orlando Magic entered the NBA in 1989, no one was quite sure how the team would fare.
After a few years of struggle, though, the luck of the ping-pong balls landed Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway—and off to the Finals they went.
The rest of the story is well known. The Magic were swept by the Rockets, Shaq bolted for Los Angeles, Penny got injured, and the team quietly faded into salary-strapped mediocrity.
But the breaks have gone Orlando's way once again, and the Magic are now back in position to make a run at the Finals in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Leading the way for Orlando is Dwight Howard, who's putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds every night. Throw in Rashard Lewis' 21 points a game and a solid supporting cast, and the Magic have turned themselves into a well-rounded team.
But is the Magic's success really due to their players?
Almost six months ago, the Magic signed Billy Donovan, the hottest college basketball coach in America, to a monster contract.
Luckily for them, Billy the Kid had second thoughts.
While I think Billy Donovan is an excellent coach who's largely underrated despite all his success, we’ve seen the college-to-pro song-and-dance before.
The Magic signed Donovan for the sake ticket sales and SportsCenter segments. Donovan’s return to Gainesville was about as fortuitous as the bounce of those lottery balls back in the days of Shaq and Penny.
Enter Stan Van Gundy, who was mere hours away from taking the Sacramento Kings’ offer before he signed with the Magic. In Van Gundy, the Magic got a guy with playoff experience and an understanding of NBA egos.
Donovan possessed none of that.
Look at Van Gundy’s haircut, his mustache, his wardrobe—they're everything the NBA isn't.
And that’s what makes Van Gundy such a good fit in Orlando.
The Magic needed a roll-up-the-sleeves, drive-a-Honda-to-work kind of coach. Van Gundy’s workingman approach has made the Magic the biggest surprise in the NBA—and caused all of the Rashard Lewis naysayers to praise Otis Smith’s clever signing.
While it might be a year or two before the Magic actually get to the Finals, they've already found an identity—and there's no reason to think that'll change with Van Gundy at the helm.