The great turning point, or at least the first one, in Magic history was undoubtedly Shaquille O'Neal's sudden departure from Orlando.
Horace Grant was as close to Shaq as anyone having played with him for two seasons in 1995 and 1996. Grant's presence helped propel the Magic to the top of the Eastern Conference including a trip to the NBA Finals in 1995, a series everyone thought they would win.
It seemed the championship window was wide open until it suddenly was not. That window closed shut when Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. It changed the franchise's fortune for at least four seasons and then almost certainly for the next dozen years. The Magic did not return to the Finals until 2009.
Grant was on the B.S. Report with Bill Simmons earlier this week and spoke about his glory days with the Bulls and those Magic teams. While there was an ego struggle between O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway simmering, Grant said he believed O'Neal was ultimately going to stay in Orlando. Then he missed a phone call.
He called me, and I didn't return his call, before he signed with the Lakers. And to this day, I wish I had just answered that call, and maybe he still would have been in Orlando. I heard about it and saw it on the news, and it was like Mike Tyson hit me. You cannot recover from a guy that size, in his prime, that dominant to think you are going to win a championship. Absolutely not.
As Bill Simmons asks, the Magic team of the late 90s was worth at least a couple titles. It could have "owned the latter half of the 90s." And, somehow, the NBA has erased all memory of the Magic beating the Bulls in 1995.
History did not work out that way and we are all left to wonder "What if?"
That seems to be the crux of Magic history at this point. A lot of teams surely could say the same thing.
Be sure to give the podcast a listen (or watch). Grant dishes a lot about those glory years with the Magic and how Phil Jackson dared him to beat the Bulls in 1995. He also made the Anfernee Hardaway-Kobe Bryant comparisons as Shaquille O'Neal teammates. That is always fun.