Heart and Hustle, still in Orlando Magic fans’ hearts

Mar 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers reacts against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers reacts against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

“Heart and Hustle” is a term familiar to Orlando Magic fans. The 2000 team earned well-deserved title for a squad that finished much better than anticipated.

The 2000 Orlando Magic are a great story in the end. But it was never supposed to be that way. It was supposed to be a year of a complete rebuild and tear down. A chance to clear cap room and start fresh after the breakup of the Finals team from 1995.

Just a few year prior, Orlando was the hottest team in the NBA. After reaching the Finals, the team seemed to take steps backward each year. During the offseason heading into the 2000 season, the Magic made a lot of changes and would continue making changes throughout the season.

While Orlando had a talented roster the year before (1999), which finished third in the Eastern Conference during a shortened season, they were eliminated from the Playoffs 3-1 by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. The continued tumble from their peak of reaching the Finals prompted the organization to hit the reset button.

Cornerstone players like Anfernee Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Horace Grant would be removed from the roster along with many others. From June 1999 to the February trade deadline in 2000, general manager John Gabriel made 37 transactions, involving 38 different players.

The moves not only helped the Magic overachieve, but it earned Gabriel Executive of the Year honors after he secured Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady the following summer. The Magic looked brilliant in their rebuild.

Related Story: 1999-2000 Season Video Vault

One of Gabriel’s biggest moves of the offseason was the hiring of coach Doc Rivers. Rivers, a first time head coach would take over from the legendary Chuck Daly, quite a tall task.

Rivers would be left with a hodgepodge of largely unknown players. Preseason predictions had the Magic finishing near the bottom of the league after all of their changes, but they did not factor in this team’s Heart and Hustle.

The emotional leader and catalyst for the Magic was the smallest guy on the team, Darrell Armstrong. Armstrong’s high energy level and never-quit attitude trickled down to the rest of the team.

Armstrong seemingly outworked everyone on the floor, leading the team in scoring, assists, steals and minutes while being the only player on the team to play in and start all 82 games. He did all this as one of the oldest players on the team at 31 years old (Chris Gatling was 32 and Derek Strong was 31).

Armstrong set the tone for that team in every aspect. Not only was he the leader in several categories for the team, but he finished third in the NBA for free throw percentage, tied for third in steals and 16th in assists.

But it was not just Armstrong keeping the Magic in contention. More than 48 percent of Orlando’s scoring came from the bench. The endless hustle and sweat poured out on the court required the reserves to get a little more playing time for everyone to stay fresh and give it their all. It helped that from a talent level the starters and reserves had little drop off.

Rivers did a fantastic job of managing the team and earned himself Coach of the Year honors in his rookie season as coach.

While going 41-41 is not anything to write home about (especially without a playoff appearance), for a team expected to challenge for the worst record in league history, it is special.

Just think about this, the seventh and eighth seeded teams who made it into the playoffs both had records of 42-40.

One of those teams was the Milwaukee Bucks, which handed the Magic two losses in the final six games of the season right after Orlando won eight out of nine in a final push to shock the league and make the Playoffs.

Orlando was that close to sneaking into the playoffs with pure Heart and Hustle.

That Heart and Hustle team finished better than a Boston Celtics squad featuring Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, a New Jersey Nets unit featuring Stephon Marbury and Keith Van Horn, a Washington Wizards squad featuring Juwan Howard and Mitch Richmond, a Dallas Mavericks squad featuring Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki and the list goes on.

What was supposed to be a team hitting a reset button turned into a memorable season. A season that would then lead to the acquisition of some key free agents the following summer.

The Orlando Magic in its short history has made it to the NBA Finals twice. Orlando has been contenders for the championship for a couple of stretches. The Magic have had All Stars and internationally known players on the roster.

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But the Heart and Hustle team might hold the most special place in the heart of their fans. A season the Magic have always had an eye toward replicating in feeling and desire. It is its own standard bearer in many ways.