Orlando has always loved its Orlando Magic

In the early days of the Orlando Magic, the city fell in love with its first professional team. Even through ups and downs, that love remains.

The tension was clear as the clock winded down toward the end of the game. The crowd at the Orlando Arena was on its feet for the final moments, hanging on every pass and every shot. This was a moment nobody would forget.

The New York Knicks were one of the up-and-coming teams in the league with Patrick Ewing starting to come into his own. The Orlando Magic were the expansion franchise playing their second game.

Like that preseason opener against the Detroit Pistons, nobody would hardly know if it were November or if it were April. If it were the 82nd game of the season or the second game of the season.

This mattered and the people of Orlando back then wanted the world to know how much it mattered to them. The team wanted everyone to know how much it mattered to them.

Even the Knicks after the game had to feel good about the Magic winning their first game. If they were going to lose, they lost to a team playing their hearts out and a crowd whipped into a frenzy for their new team.

Reggie Theus scored 24 points, doing a good job finding gaps in the defense throughout the game. The Magic under Matt Guokas wanted to play an entertaining style that saw the team go up and down the floor and pass through the interior to get shots.

The Magic used Dave Corzine (who would unfortunately injure his knee only a few games later) to pull Patrick Ewing away from the hoop. That gave Jerry Reynolds (19 points) and Terry Catledge (19 points) room to work around the basket.

The crowd at the Orlando Arena, still very new to the idea of professional basketball and professional sports in their home town, did not care what style of play the Magic had. They frankly did not care that this would be the worst Magic team by record in the team’s 31-year history.

It was something their own. Orlando was in love. The city has always been in love with its team.

The Pistons learned that too in the Magic’s opening preseason game. The crowd was legendary that night, celebrating a preseason win over the Pistons like it was winning the championship.

Detroit probably did not put its full effort into that game, although Dennis Rodman certainly got into some incidents with Jerry Reynolds and Terry Catledge throughout the game. But the Magic certainly did. The crowd certainly did.

Orlando laid the foundations for its fandom in those first games.

During the Sunshine Network broadcast of the Magic’s first-ever win against the Knicks, former color analyst Jack Givens said he had dinner with New Jersey Nets center (and fellow Kentucky Wildcat) Sam Bowie. Bowie related to him that the Orlando Arena was already one of the loudest buildings in the league.

That is a pretty ringing endorsement just two games into the franchise’s history.

Indeed, the Orlando Arena in the Magic’s early days became a fortress. It was really one of the most imposing places in the league. The Magic sold out almost every game through the first eight seasons of the franchise’s history.

Orlando has shown up for its Magic.

Yes, there have been fallow times.

After Shaquille O’Neal left, accustomed to seeing championship basketball, the fan base got disillusioned. Tracy McGrady played his four years in Orlando in front of sparse crowds. All while the Magic sought a new building.

Crowds soured over a team that hovered on the fringes of the playoffs and ownership that wanted more from the city.

But it all got put aside once the playoffs came around. The crowds inside the Orlando Arena came alive, buzzing with excitement and frenzy and energy.

That building especially captured that energy better than anything else. It was constructed small with the crowd right on top of the floor. It really got loud there, a reputation it carried through from its beginning until its end.

The fans and the building all came back alive as Dwight Howard came of age and the Magic returned to the championship. The city was buzzing as it had never done before — even honestly in 1995. The city had matured some and was celebrating a return to prominence.

The 2009 and 2010 seasons were a great swan song for the old Orlando Arena (nee Amway Arena nee TD Waterhouse Centre).

The Magic’s rebuild saw crowds thin out. There is so much to do and fans in Orlando are accustomed to greatness. They always needed a reason to come out.

The Amway Center, for all the bells and whistles it provides, does not have the same atmosphere as the old arena.

Yet, fans still showed up for the rebuild years. Things never got as bad as they did during the Tracy McGrady years when even a playoff team struggled to draw.

Orlando ranked as low as 27th in total attendance (in the ill-fated 2004 season) and never ranked as high as 22nd (during the Magic’s run to the 5-seed in 2002) during the McGrady era.

During the Magic’s recent rebuild, their total attendance ranked in the bottom third of the league only once. The Magic were usually still in the bottom half of the league in total attendance, but it was still impressive considering the team’s difficult record.

Magic fans were always a sleeping giant. Yes, the franchise started establishing ticket sales outposts to try to tap into the city’s tourism industry. But the city loves its team. They bring the noise for the big moments.

That became apparent when the city came alive again a year ago for the 2019 playoffs.

As the Magic’s run started to pick up steam during a perfect 5-0 homestand, the crowds got bigger and louder. During a come-from-behind win over the Memphis Grizzlies, coach Steve Clifford told his team this is what playoff basketball in Orlando feels like. He noted the crowd helped give the team momentum to return.

For the first time since Dwight Howard left, the Amway Center became a fortress once again. Fans were fully on board the bandwagon. They filled the stadium and brought the noise, impacting games and lifting the team into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

For Game 1, fans gathered at Wall Street in Downtown Orlando. As D.J. Augustin hit his game-winning shot to deliver the Magic the victory, the crowd erupted as if they were in the stadium. The party downtown had just begun.

The first playoff game in the Amway Center in seven years was every bit as advertised too. The crowd was loud, leaving Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse to say after the game he could barely hear his team or communicate with them.

The Magic may have lost both games — both hard-fought to the eventual champions — but Orlando acquitted itself well.

Attendance has lagged some this year. Orlando has developed discerning interests. The city shows up now when the team is winning and moving in the right direction. There is still a fight for attention in this modern age.

Put an entertaining product — and this year’s Magic team’s style, for the most part, has not been entertaining — and the fans will show up. Win and they will show up.

The Magic were probably preparing for a big stretch with eight home games coming shortly after the season eventually went on hold. That playoff push very well could have given the team the same boost it got last year.

And the playoffs would have been another party for Orlando and Magic fans.

Even through the down times, that passion was always there. The Magic are still trying to build the consistency so fans will show up and be loud like they were in those early days.

The love affair is there, even if things have gone through their ups and downs.

Next: Lessons from the Last Dance: Find your star

Going back to the early days, it is clear Orlando has always loved its Magic. It was truly love at first game.

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