by Chris Foss
One of ESPN’s newest “30 for 30” documentaries, This Magic Moment, follows the fashion in American pop culture of late by taking us back to the 1990s (indeed, sometimes I get worried that the Macarena is about to make a comeback), specifically to the time when it seemed as though the Orlando Magic were the team of the future in the NBA. Graced by the presence of most of the core Magic players and executives, the documentary does a superb job of showing one of the great “what ifs” in sports history.
This Magic Moment illustrates how much of a sports backwater Orlando was as late as the 1980s, and therefore the gamble the NBA took in granting prospective ownership a franchise. College football was king in Florida before the Magic and the Miami Heat were formed in 1986. These two teams represented a big breakthrough, though, for pro sports in Florida. In the 1990s, the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and Tampa Bay (then Devil) Rays arrived in MLB, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, not to mention various busted MLS experiments. The Magic led the way in this new wave of pro sports in the state. Even the early years of bad Magic teams saw the Orlando Arena packed to the gills. The club successfully hosted the 1992 All Star Game where Magic Johnson returned for the first time after contracting HIV.
And then there was Shaq. This Magic Moment reminds us of how transcendent a phenomenon Shaquille O’Neal was when he arrived in the NBA. This Shaq looks almost nothing like the megalith that roamed the paint in the 2000s. In his early years, Shaq possessed ferocity, but also speed and nimble moves at the basket, although the documentary provides plenty of looks at the baskets he destroyed early in his career. Shaq quickly crossed over into the mainstream, becoming a rapper and a movie star (alas, too bad Kazaam wasn’t better) and the NBA’s heir apparent to Michael Jordan upon his 1993 retirement.
This was the moment of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, too, however, and the unique contribution of This Magic Moment is in often foregrounding him. The documentary highlights the daring gambit the Magic made to forego the consensus No. 1 choice in the 1993 NBA draft, Chris Webber, and to get Hardaway instead. Interviews with key Magic operatives reveal that Orlando knew Golden State coveted Webber, but the Warriors had the No. 3 pick. So the Magic swung a deal in which each team would draft the player the other wanted, then trade the picks, while Golden State would add two future first-round choices.
This steal of a deal angered Orlando fans at first, but the move later seemed like a slam-dunk. Why get two big men when you can have a big man and a big point guard? The fact that this move angered Magic fans is one of many instances where the fan base is portrayed as naïve and even borderline stupid in the documentary. Magic and Kareem had already shown the path to a big man-big guard blueprint to win five championships in the 1980s.
The Magic were not just a two-man gang, however. Dennis Scott lit up the three-point line, along with the team’s original draft pick, Nick Anderson. Both were also deadly threats in the NBA Jam video game when it debuted in 1994. Tree Rollins provided veteran leadership on the frontline alongside Shaq. A young Brian Shaw capably backed up Penny. The team surged into the playoffs for the first time, winning 50 games. Even though Orlando was swept out in the first round, the timing of their construction and the youth of the team seemed propitious. Of the top Eastern Conference contenders, Chicago lacked Jordan, and the Knicks were aging. With the off-season addition of Horace Grant, the Magic were championship contenders.
The 1995 Magic won 57 games, and even with Jordan returning to the Bulls, they dispatched the rusty superstar in six games. A classic seven-game series with Indiana gets disappointingly little treatment, aside from a still-celebrated Rik Smits buzzer beater that in hindsight was a road bump en route to Orlando’s ultimate victory in the series. Naturally, much of the focus in coverage of the Magic’s Finals loss to Houston is on Nick Anderson’s four missed free throws in Game 1. The argument made here is clear, and logical: lack of mental toughness and luck, more than talent, broke this team. Anderson was never the same player after the misses. The Magic had already blown a 20-point lead in that game. They hung in there in Game 2 and 3 losses, then laid down in Game 4.
Luck played a big role in the way the 1995-96 season broke for the Magic. An early-season injury to O’Neal proved disastrous. Though Orlando went 17-5 in his absence, the fact that Hardaway stepped up so beautifully to fill the void led to a controversy about whose team it really was. Shaq wasn’t the same player upon his return, and seemed like more and more like a prima donna. He wouldn’t commit to re-sign with Orlando after the expiration of his rookie contract, and nearly skipped a late-season game against Chicago, dramatically arriving mid-telecast on NBC. Of course, those Bulls went on to sweep Orlando in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
The controversy over O’Neal’s departure from Orlando is extensively covered in the latter part of This Magic Moment. Shaq seemed ready to re-sign, if unenthusiastic, until the Miami Heat blew up the free agent market in the summer of 1996 by giving Alonzo Mourning the league’s first $100 million contract. Magic management did not think Shaq was worth that much, but Lakers GM Jerry West decided to take what ended up a $121 million gamble over seven years to pluck O’Neal from Orlando.
Again, the Magic fans are played as naïve in this segment. The documentary highlights an Orlando Sentinel poll which showed 85% of respondents believed O’Neal did not deserve $100 million. It then shows Charles Barkley saying that 85% of Orlando residents were “stupid”. The anger of fans at O’Neal is understandable, but there seems to be a lack of understanding that the NBA is, above all, a business. Why shouldn’t Shaq have gone and gotten his own? Magic fans and ownership in 1996 seemed to believe that Orlando’s intangible benefits, team loyalty, and (perhaps) the lack of a state income tax should mean something more than the dollar signs Shaq would earn from a move to L.A., both in terms of his contract and his looming endorsement deals. They clearly misunderstood Shaq, who the documentary shows as possessing a keen sense of the business of the NBA behind his happy-go-lucky visage. And he was well-schooled, too, by agent Leonard Armato, who is seen often in the documentary.
There aren’t a lot of deep revelations in This Magic Moment, but the old game and behind-the-scenes footage is fun to revisit, and the player perspectives are refreshing and honest. You can see, for example, in their one-on-one scenes together that the Shaq-Penny gulf that opened up in the wake of Shaq’s departure isn’t fully healed. How could it have, given that Shaq got his rings, and Hardaway’s career was left shattered by injuries?
It’s also a cautionary story for fans of all teams, in all sports: moments of glory, even when your team doesn’t climb the mountain all the way, should be savored, because they might not come again. Florida’s other teams have felt similar pain: see the Jaguars of the late 90s, the Marlins’ consistent losing punctuated by two sudden World Series rings, the Rays’ 2008 World Series run, LeBron’s sudden departure from the Heat in 2014. Long runs of consistent winning like the Tar Heels women’s soccer team I discussed earlier this year, the Spurs, or Manchester United are the exception. This Magic Moment reminds us that success in sports is ephemeral and is often built just as much on luck and mental toughness as it is on physical prowess and skill. The Magic was arguably the most skilled team in the mid-1990s NBA, but they couldn’t get it done, and their luck evaporated as well.
 As a side note, life was clearly good to Armato in the 1990s. The archival footage ESPN dug up always shows him looking sharp; plus, his wife was a gorgeous Olympic beach volleyball player.