Unlike in ’95, Magic fans earned this trip to the NBA Finals


This run by the Orlando Magic has the city caring about its basketball team more than it has in a long time. It’s not rare to see a “Go Magic” sign in a random front yard, businesses are representing the Magic out front, and I’ve seen several Blue and White Ignite shirts over the past couple weeks. You could say the local team spirit has returned to the glory of 1995, the last time the Magic reached the NBA Finals. Only this time, it’s better. Orlando earned this one. Back then, the city didn’t really know what to think. The sudden trip to the NBA Finals was unexpected, exhilarating, and spoiling for the Magic fan base, which didn’t understand how lucky it was. After all, some franchises go decades without reaching the NBA Finals. The Magic franchise was only five years old then, and there weren’t any lifelong fans who suffered through bad times. The team wasn’t good before Shaq, but it’s OK for an expansion team to lose. That’s why this one feels so good to Orlandoans. Current fans of the team — the ones who’ve been following the team since the Shaq days — have suffered through some pretty upsetting times. Shaq’s departure, Penny Hardaway’s injuries, Grant Hill’s injuries, T-Mac’s falling out, the 21-win season, Fran Vazquez — please, somebody stop me. Now is supposed to be a happy time. The point is, Orlando has been through some bad times. The Magic weren’t just a bad team post-Shaq. They were, at times, a poorly run team that seemed to have little idea of how to build a successful team. The players suffered, the team suffered, and the fans suffered. Of course, the current regime doesn’t fall under that umbrella. These guys have done an amazing job building this team, and here we are: the NBA Finals. It feels good. Dee Gugel, a former assistant sports editor at the Orlando Sentinel and long-time season ticket holder, senses a difference between now and 14 years ago. “There now is a generation of Magic fans who grew up watching their team through its struggles and now really can savor this,” Gugel said. “That plants the seeds for the most loyal Magic fans because Orlando always has been their team. It’s great watching the fans downtown party into the wee hours, and helping the downtown businesses. It’s great seeing the fans behind everyone on the team. I saw a guy leaving the game the other night in a T-shirt that said, ‘Hedo is my homeboy.’” Ken Hornack, who was the Magic beat writer for the Daytona Beach News-Journal from 1989 to 2008, agrees that the feeling is a little different this time around. “It’s not quite the same,” he said. “The franchise was still in a honeymoon period in Year 6, largely because of Shaquille O’Neal. Remember that Orlando was going through its ‘Hollywood East’ phase, where blowing up a downtown building for a ‘Lethal Weapon’ sequel was considered a major civic event. And Shaq had appeared in a movie in which he showed actual acting chops (his ‘rappin’ genie’ abomination was still a good year away). So he transcended sports in a way that Dwight Howard hasn’t — at least not yet anyway.” Hornack brings up a good point. Orlando felt like it was on the cusp of a major uprising in the mid-90s. The basketball team was great, the job market was booming and the amount of growth in the area was unprecedented. Disney put the city on the map in the 1970s, and 25 years later the city was set to grow beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Of course, it didn’t happen like some optimists thought it would. Shaq left, “Hollywood East” never happened, and downtown Orlando has yet to expand to its fullest potential. But things could be looking up. It starts with the Magic, who have the ability to turn Orlando into a respectable sports town. There are several gorgeous new venues being built in the downtown Orlando area, including the Magic’s new arena. And Dwight Howard is primed to become one of the nation’s biggest sports icons. Gugel adds that — while not taking anything for granted — now might be a good time to jump on the Magic bandwagon. This team is set up for years of success, and that makes her feel really good about this team. “The last time, they only had one more season with Shaq and Penny, and Shaq had one foot out the door,” Gugel said. “This time, they have most of their core intact for at least the next four seasons, and Dwight and Jameer want to carry the responsibility of leading the team. They are getting ready to go into a beautiful new building. Otis Smith has an excellent feel for the people (not just as players) and a vision for the team. Now the team has to continue to build around them and keep quality players around them.”