It was fitting that Shaquille O’Neal was in attendance earlier this week as the Orlando Magic posted their most important victory in more than a decade with an overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
More than any other individual, Shaq is responsible for the years of futility suffered by the Magic since he left in 1996. He also may ultimately end up being an important reason why this time the Magic won’t let their chance to be among the NBA elite slip through their grasp.
The road to redemption has been a long and winding one for the Magic since O’Neal rebuffed the city and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers after the 1996 season.
Like a bridegroom that had been jilted at the altar by a cover girl, the Magic spent the next several years desperately trying to get back what they had lost.
Previously recognized as one of the NBA’s best franchises and widely regarded for their calculated approach to building a championship caliber squad, the Magic suddenly seemed to try anything that might help them achieve the greatness that had been deprived them upon Shaq’s exit.
The Orlando roster of the late 1990s and early 2000s reads like a “Who’s Who” of past-their-prime NBA stars.
Former stars including Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Smith, Rony Seikaly, Mark Price, Dee Brown, Patrick Ewing, Vernon Maxwell, Spud Webb, Derek Harper and Dominique Wilkins all made their way through the revolving door that was the Orlando lineup.
The Magic also turned to free agency to lure some of the NBA’s top players to Orlando, but that approach produced mixed results.
After unsuccessfully attempting to convince Tim Duncan to leave San Antonio, the Magic made big noise by bringing Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady (T-Mac) to Orlando.
Unfortunately, instead of championships, the signings brought heartaches and headaches to the franchise.
One of the most popular players in the league, Hill was expected to be the Orlando’s next superstar, but injuries deprived Magic fans of ever seeing him at his greatest. A leg injury suffered prior to his arrival in Orlando limited Hill to only 200 games (out of a possible 492) in six seasons with the Magic.
McGrady’s performance on the court was electric as he won two scoring titles and averaged more than 28 points per game. However, by the time his four-year tenure with the Magic ended following the 2003-2004 season he was most often referred to in Orlando as “Me-Mac.”
The biggest problem for the Magic after Shaq left was that they were just good enough every season for the front office to believe that they just needed “one more guy” to get them back to elite status.
In the first seven seasons in the post-Shaq era, the Magic never posted a losing record and reached the playoffs five times. They also never won more than 45 games in a year and never won a playoff series.
Whether you are talking about a professional sports franchise, business or individual, the worst possible result can often be to have just enough success that you are afraid doing something dramatically different could cause it to go away.
It often takes hitting rock bottom before you recognize that things aren’t working and you must make significant changes if you truly wish to see different results.
For the Orlando Magic, rock bottom came during the 2003-2004 season. After winning their season opener in overtime, the Magic lost 19 consecutive games on the way to finishing with a 21-61 overall record.
The team’s first losing season since before the arrival of Shaq came at a precarious moment for the once proud franchise.
While the fallout from losing Shaq had initially been minimal, with each subsequent misstep the relationship between the Magic and the once-loyal fans of Orlando seemed to grow more tenuous.
Just a decade after the city built a new arena to house the Magic, the team started talking about the need for a new venue.
At a time when player salaries and ticket costs were escalating while the nightly effort on the court was often questionable, the request alienated many locals who publicly wondered if having a professional sports franchise was worth the expense when schools and other services were sub-standard.
The 2001 terrorist attacks severely dampened the tourism industry, which is a leading driver of the Orlando economy, and the request for a new arena was quickly withdrawn.
By 2004 the owners of the Magic had briefly thought about selling the franchise and it was widely believed that the team might be headed to greener pastures. The struggles on the court didn’t help as the fan support was at an all-time low.
It was apparent that the team had to make major changes.
A decade earlier, the young Magic franchise had been lifted from mediocrity to the cusp of greatness thanks to consecutive years in which they won the NBA Draft Lottery.
The team built around Shaquille O’Neal (drafted first in 1992) and Penny Hardaway (acquired in a trade after Orlando had drafted Chris Webber with the first pick in 1993), made a rapid rise to the NBA elite as they reached the NBA Finals in 1995 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996.
Unfortunately, the Magic proved unable to handle “first fame” and after Shaq left the team imploded under the weight of unrealized expectations.
When the Magic won the 2004 Draft Lottery few realized that the selection would provide the team with a second chance to build an NBA dynasty.
There was little question that the top pick in the draft would either be Emeka Okafor, a 22-year old center who had led Connecticut Huskies to the 2004 NCAA Championship, or Dwight Howard, an 18-year old 6-11 center from Atlanta, Georgia.
The general consensus was that while Okafur would likely be better initially, Howard had more long-term potential and given the right tutelage could develop into a dominant center.
Given their recent track record of looking only at how to get better immediately, many expected the Magic to play it safe and select Okafur.
However, after experiencing nothing but futility through their “fill the immediate need” approach, the Magic front office finally drew a line in the sand and decided to return to the approach that had turned them into winners in the early 1990s.
Instead of making the pick that might yield the most immediate return, the Magic decided to play for the long-term future of the franchise and selected Dwight Howard.
As predicted, Okafur was named the NBA Rookie of the Year while Howard had the usual struggles seen when a player jumps from high school to the NBA. However, by the end of Howard’s first season—in which he averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds—few were questioning if the Magic had made the right decision.
The Magic won 36 games in each of Howard’s first two seasons before reaching the playoffs during his third season. Orlando then won 52 games in 2007-08 before posting 59 victories this season.
Howard has evolved into the premier center of the Eastern Conference. He has averaged a double-double in each of his five NBA seasons and earned first team All-NBA honors the last two seasons.
This season Howard also emerged as the dominant defensive player in the league and was named the Defensive Player of the Year.
Under the guidance of general manager Otis Smith the Magic front office has built a solid squad around their franchise center. A combination of draft picks, trades and key free agent signings has provided a nucleus that includes Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus.
Much as they have done on the court, the team also has taken great strides to repair their public image in Orlando. After taking their fans for granted for nearly a decade, the Magic returned to the grass roots, community based marketing that had been successful in their early years.
In 2007, the City of Orlando and Orange County approved the building of a new events center that will serve as the new home for the Magic. The center will open in 2010 and make the Magic the first NBA team to play in a Green-certified facility.
Given that Shaq went on to win three championships with the Lakers and another in Miami, you can’t help but wonder how many championship banners the Magic might have been able to move to the rafters in their new facility if he had never left Orlando.
Shaq may not have helped Orlando win a championship, but the lessons learned following his departure might ensure that the current team doesn’t fall short.
It took more than a decade, but the Magic finally seem to have stopped thinking about what might have been and are now concentrating on how many banners Howard and the current squad will get to hoist in their new home.