‘This Magic Moment’ a team that resonates

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary ‘This Magic Moment’ premieres Thursday on ESPN and chronicles a team that truly resonated beyond basketball and its season.

The Orlando Magic have existed for 27 years, but really four seasons of its existence have come to be its lasting legacy.

Talk about the franchise and images of one of the most exciting young teams in NBA history comes fresh to mind. The questions of what could have been and the promise of youth come to mind. The highlights, commercials, animatronic dolls and silky smooth movements of athletes in their prime come to mind.

Around the nation and the NBA nation, no one thinks much about the bitter exit that has come to envelope the franchise left in its wake — and still to some extent does. All they think about is the greatness and the excitement and the fun.

The good times endure. And still have an impact.

The Orlando Magic of the mid-1990s have gained that sort of cult fascination. Shaquille O’Neal‘s Shaqnosis shoes he wore while in Orlando, Lil’ Penny dolls and those wonderful pinstriped uniforms still pop up and certainly fill memories when talking about the Magic around the nation.

Digging into that nostalgia and exploring why this rapidly expanding balloon suddenly burst is what the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary This Magic Moment will explore when it debuts on ESPN at 9 p.m. on April 14.

“I think what made it fit for 30 for 30 so well was that it was a team that was memorable even though it didn’t win a championship,” ESPN Films Vice President and Executive Director John Dahl said. “You can certainly think about what might have been. But beyond the basketball story, they transcended sports. They made their way to pop culture. They were able to break through to the more casual fan. That for us is what 30 for 30 is all about, transcending the sports story and touching larger themes.”

The story as it is told in This Magic Moment — I will be publishing a full review Thursday before the film premieres — begins with how Orlando got a franchise to begin with and began growing as a city and a major-league city.

The focus though is on how his new franchise all of a sudden found itself the recipients of two superstar talents and quickly became a nationally relevant team seemingly overnight. And the fun and promise that brings with it.

It is truly a love story of sorts. A tragic love story, but a love story about how a city grows up, experiences success and figures out how to maintain it. At such a young age — both the players were young and the franchise — no one was quite sure how to maintain and handle this initial success.

The documentary is fast paced and hits every aspect of this story.

“I think just to explain how it all happened because there is a lot to take the viewers through,” Dahl said. “First of all how they got a team, then slowly how they built it over time, then how Shaq and Penny became aware of each other through Blue Chips, how the Bulls factored into all this and what led to it coming undone the way it did. I don’t think I understood that Shaq wasn’t looking to leave Orlando when he did. I think he wanted to stay. Then a series of events turned the narrative. At the time, I didn’t realize that.”

Dahl said this was a documentary ESPN wanted to do for some time. It is the kind of story 30 for 30 was built to tell — not the main story of sports history but one of those memorable stories that often get forgotten through the course of history.

This team was truly a special one that made a lasting impact on the NBA both with its on-court players and the style they employed.

Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Horace Grant. It seemed a roster built so perfectly. Careful and strong draft picks, some lottery luck, the right free agent. Everyone was young and nowhere near their prime.

The sky was the limit.

Orlando fans know what happens next though. The upward trajectory had a sudden stop sign put on it. That tragedy is as much the story of This Magic Moment and part of its continuing allure.

This was a team that transcended the sport in many ways and still does. The 1995 Orlando Magic were one of the first classic teams that did not win a title to get featured in the NBA 2K series. The team still holds that kind of attention.

Of all the teams in all the history of the NBA, this one still matters.

“I think it starts with Shaq,” Dahl said. “It’s young Shaq, right out of LSU, running up and down the court, dominating the way he did. And then Penny coming along. They were really a younger equivalent of Magic and Kareem and what the Lakers were able to do with those two together. Now you can just imagine the possibilities with how quickly Shaq and Penny emerged as top players in the NBA.

“We certainly remember them getting to the 95 Finals and it looked like already they were going to be winning a championship. And then everything turned at the end of Game One and then this guy Michael Jordan decided he was coming back.”

The whole thing does fall apart. There is no avoiding this part of the story. It is the part that gets forgotten some nationally but is still poignantly remembered in Orlando.

That has become the team’s lasting legacy in Orlando, not the success and spirit everyone remembers. Everyone remembers the time nostalgically and thinks what if?

This nature is also part of the team’s legacy.

As Shaquille O’Neal said last year at his Hall of Fame induction and reiterates in the movie, he would have stayed in Orlando if he could do things over again. Youth and ego got in the way, as it would for anyone his age faced with that decision.

“They look back on it fondly with very warm memories of their time together here and I think with some regret,” Dahl said. “They wish they would have stayed together and stayed together longer. They had something special in the works there. Things ultimately did not end up working out. Shaq certainly seems to regard Orlando highly to this day and Penny the same.”

The film touches on so much and is such a dynamic and layered story. This Magic Moment in many ways has a lot on its plate to tell.

What it does do above all else is immortalize the 1990s Magic for a national stage, tapping into that nostalgia and notoriety and getting to the heart of what happened.

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