ESPN 30 for 30’s “This Magic Moment” captures the moment

This Magic Moment tells the story of the 1990s Orlando Magic, their rise, their fall and the lessons learned. Photo by Philip Rossman-Reich.
This Magic Moment tells the story of the 1990s Orlando Magic, their rise, their fall and the lessons learned. Photo by Philip Rossman-Reich. /

The Orlando Magic will be featured in ESPN 30 for 30’s ‘This Magic Moment.’ It is a tragic tale of youth and unfulfilled promise that hits each moment.

ESPN’s latest 30 for 30, This Magic Moment, opens with two men, weathered with experience reminiscing on what could have been.

What if Shaquille O’Neal never left, Anfernee Hardaway asks. What if Anfernee Hardaway never got hurt, Shaquille O’Neal asks back. These are two of the great questions left from the Orlando Magic of the mid-1990s. The questions that could never be answered properly.

What would have happened if these two great players had stayed together? What would have happened if things broke the right way and the inevitable ascendency of one of the youngest, most exciting teams of a generation had continued on its seemingly endless upward trajectory?

These are the questions directors Gentry Kirby and Erin Leyden ask looking back upon history. And these questions frame the regret, possibility and story of the Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway in ESPN 30 for 30’s This Magic Moment.

The story begins with the founding of the Magic and the circumstances that led to their back-to-back Lottery wins. It winds its way through with what the Shaquille O’Neal pick meant and the noise that began as this young franchise prepared for its first big (and young) star.

It continues with the familiar story of Hardaway’s five-on-five workout with the Magic that convinced them to invest in the young point guard from the unknown program in Memphis.

And then hits the familiar notes of the rise to a Playoff team, the trip through the 1995 Playoffs. It hits the turn with the 1995 NBA Finals disappointment and then the breakup of the team.

The lesson is that nothing is inevitable, egos clash and success can be fleeting if you do not know how to take care of it.

The realization that comes from unpacking and watching these events recounted in sequence is just how complex and how layered this time for the Magic was. The theme that comes throughout the film is just how young everyone is.

Horace Grant talks about trying to tell his teammates to enjoy the moment in the Finals because no one knows when you will get back. The young man, as the movie says, takes that and enjoys the moment too much, not taking care of the task at hand. The veteran man knows the opportunity is fleeting and does not give it up.

One of the many lessons as the Magic’s downfall eventually takes over.

O’Neal left. Hardaway’s body broke down. The story is familiar to Magic fans. The championship dreams went unrealized.

For the national audience, they will get the story they may not know by heart or have experienced firsthand. This story is not burned into their psyche, governing so many decisions down the road. They will learn how the Magic came to exist and rose to contender and then how things fell apart again.

The story is well told. For Magic fans, the emotions will be especially poignant.

The raw joy of having a basketball team and becoming a major league city is captured. The thrill of winning the Lotteries is experienced all over again. The push for a title and just how easy it seemed to come is felt. The ecstasy of it all is there.

And then the crash. Like a drug, success came with its bitter pill. And the knife gets twisted again as old wounds are re-opened. The fact this movie is able to re-open those wounds and bring that sense of regret and pain is a good thing. It hits those notes and captures that moment for fans again.

O’Neal goes deeper into what led to his decision to leave Orlando than perhaps he has ever done before. He reiterates what he said last year as he was inducted into the team’s hall of fame. He wanted to stay in Orlando, but his youthful ego got in the way.

Hardaway also speaks very openly about his departure and the injuries that sapped him of his identity, seemingly.

Just as Nick Anderson speaks very openly about the free throws that made him nationally infamous. Others speak about the effect that moment had on Anderson’s career — on a similar upward trajectory stopped too soon.

There is new information and honest discussion about this team that has not been seen elsewhere. It may make the pain worse, honestly. But that is part of the story too. A part that cannot be ignored.

The story of the early Orlando Magic is a tragedy, after all. A lesson to be learned.

Related Story: What we learned about the Orlando Magic from Jonathan Abrams' Oral History

If This Magic Moment has a shortcoming it is that it jams everything in without clearly stating what the lesson the audience should take from this sotry is. There is a lot to jam in too — from the Magic’s history, to Orlando’s history, to O’Neal, to Hardaway, to the collapse.

Is this a story about unfulfilled potential and what could have been? Is this a story about the folly of youth — both of a franchise and of the players trying to make their own name? Is this a story about how success can be fleeting?

All these issues are touched upon, but perhaps not fully explored.

The documentary simply tells the story as it happened and tells it well. The three players — the Magic, O’Neal and Hardaway — all get equal weight to draw whatever lessons we are supposed to draw from this tale.

It is quite a story. The kind of story ESPN 30 for 30 was supposed to tell. It is the the story that is not the main story of sports history — the Magic are merely a footnote in the story of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers dynasties. But this team resonated with NBA fans around the world and still holds a place in the conversation about the 1990s.

This documentary helps tell the team’s story — the good and the bad.

Overall the film is good. It hits all the notes and recreates the feelings of that time and that team well. It will be an entertaining, exhilarating and emotional ride.

Next: Appreciating the tragedy of the 1995 Orlando Magic

The film premieres April 14 at 9 p.m. on ESPN and is well worth the watch, even if it opens up old wounds anew. A must-watch for young Magic fans especially who only heard the stories of this 1995 team.