Remembering Heart & Hustle

Ask Magic CEO Alex Martins what team fans remember most in the Magic’s history and the answer will inevitably center around three teams. The two Finals trips in 1995 and 2009 stand out. Obviously. Those were dream seasons.

The other season though? It would hardly count as a blip on most franchise’s radars. A .500 season that saw the team fall a game short of the Playoffs. Again, hardly remarkable. Not in the least.

Yet, the 1999-2000 season is still one of the most fondly remembered and talked about teams among Magic fans.

It was a season of low expectations — extremely low expectations. The lockout season the year before saw Anfernee Hardaway and Nick Anderson briefly resurrect their careers and lead the Magic to a tie for the best record in the Eastern Conference. That success was quickly snuffed with the first round exit to Allen Iverson and the 76ers. Orlando decided to clear all the decks.

Everyone was traded and an entirely new roster of cast offs and veterans on expiring contracts was assembled. This was a team full of players who knew full well they were not likely to remain on the roster the following year — only Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Monty Williams and Pat Garrity would remain — as the team positioned itself for the Draft and the upcoming year’s mega free agent class.

It was, in every sense of the word, a major tank job.

But something funny happened on the way to the top overall pick and free agent glory. The team actually pulled together and played well, creating one of the more memorable seasons in team history.

“The thing I remember about that team is there were low expectations externally for what we could do,” Pat Garrity said. “In one of the first practices, I think  [Doc] opened up the Sports Illustrated that had us threatening the all-time loss record in NBA history. That was kind of the external expectations and contrast that to the bar that he set internally as a team. If we lost a certain number of games in a row, it was unacceptable. It wasn’t expected that we were going to lose. He didn’t expect it and guys who were leaders like Darrell and Bo, they didn’t either. They demanded a lot from each other. That’s what I remember, it was a rebuilding season, but Doc didn’t approach it that way.”

That shows just how special Doc Rivers was as a motivator and a coach early on. Remember, this was Rivers’ first turn as an NBA coach — or a coach at any level, really. He turned this ragtag group of misfits into a 41-41 team that sat just a game from making the Playoffs. That was unthinkable in November even to the most optimistic observers when looking at that roster.

The season became stuck in the entire fan base’s mind.

To the rest of the nation, it was a season that fell into oblivion. Barely even a footnote in the annals of even modern NBA history.

David Pincus of The Classical called the Heart & Hustle team The Best Bad Team.

Of the five starters, all but [Tariq] Abdul-Wahad had gone undrafted (as had Atkins), and the most any of them had scored the year before was [Darrell] Armstrong, who averaged 13.8 points in ’98-99. The Magic made so many trades that by the end of the year, they’d had 31 different players under contract; of the ones who were still on the active roster, Orlando was only paying them $17 million. (Which means that if you do the math, Joe Johnson is worth more than the entire 1999-2000 Orlando Magic, by about $4 million.)

The odds of this team doing anything were astronomically low. As Pincus describes in painstaking detail, that final game against the Bucks (really the penultimate game of the season) was a microcosm of the whole season.

It showed the never-say-die attitude of this team. Its willingness to sacrifice everything for that one moment of glory. And ultimately how talent mattered in the end and the team did not have it.

For Garrity, who would spend eight more seasons with the Magic after that year, that game stood out among all the moments he had in a Magic uniform.

“Honestly, I think both personally and with the Magic, it’s actually the game that we lost to Milwaukee in that 99 season to miss going to the Playoffs,” Garrity said. “Because that was the only time that I have experienced more than one guy in an NBA locker crying after a loss. It was just an unusual team. You knew things were going to change after that. It just kind of capped the end of it.”

That camraderie and passion is why Heart & Hustle — again, a 41-41 team, continues to stand out in the annals of Magic history.

Their offense was abysmal. Their defense was pedestrian. You would not be able to get many people outside Orlando to name anyone on that team aside from Darrell Armstrong perhaps.

In Orlando, however, that team is still among the pantheon of greatest teams in history. One that will never be forgotten.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily