Orlando Magic’s expansion team struggled, but had a lot of fun anyway

The Orlando Magic's first team did not make a dent in the record books, but they made a dent in Magic history. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's first team did not make a dent in the record books, but they made a dent in Magic history. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic’s expansion team was the worst in team history by record. But they still created plenty of moments and had a lot of fun that endures today.

Expansion teams are not supposed to win.

They get the cast-offs from other franchises and typically they take on rebuilding teams, looking to build themselves up through the draft instead of trying to get really good really quickly. They want to give fans a taste of NBA life, while planting seeds for the future.

The Orlando Magic’s expansion team was no different.

They went out and acquired a player like Reggie Theus to help give the team some recognizable star power. They added a cast of veterans like Sam Vincent (who played on the championship Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s), Dave Corzine (a veteran center with the Chicago Bulls) and Sidney Green (a journeyman through his first six years in the league).

But this was a young group. They took a chance on Scott Skiles and drafted Nick Anderson 10th overall. Both came off the bench. And both would become fan favorites over the years.

The 1990 expansion year was as bad as anyone would expect. The Magic finished with what is now a franchise-low 18 wins. They were 20th in offensive rating and 27th in defensive rating.

And none of it mattered.

The newness of a fresh franchise was still putting a gleam on the team. Fans packed the Orlando Arena the entire year to see a team that was truly their own.

Even though there were a lot of defeats in that season, there was also a lot of fun.

Coach Matt Guokas built a team that looked to buck the trend of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He ran an up-and-down style that stressed getting out in transition, often sued two ball handlers on the court at all times and fast, athletic wings streaking to the basket. The Magic had Dave Corzine as their initial center as someone who did not look to bulldoze players in the post but step out to free throw line and shoot jumpers.

The team went small often platooning Terry Catledge and Sidney Green as the team’s nominal starting center.

Some of that was by necessity after Corzine sprained his ACL three games into the season (that muted the celebration for the team’s largest comeback in franchise history, a 25-point comeback against the Cleveland Cavaliers). He would return in December for three more games before knee issues again sidelined him.

Nobody used the 3-point line effectively yet and so using even a mid-range shooting center was something revolutionary. It was not going to get many wins, but it gave the team a different feel and look.

Orlando was never quite out of games throughout the course of the season.

Take their December win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Trailing by 14 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Magic slowly whittled the gap down against Magic Johnson and James Worthy‘s championship-test team (albeit playing their first season without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

Orlando slowly climbed back into the game, finally getting over the top thanks to fast-breaks from Sam Vincent and Terry Catledge. Vincent keyed the 23-4 run to win it with some pinpoint passing and opportunistic scoring. Cateldge’s tip-in with 30 seconds left secured the win.

Nick Anderson’s breakaway dunk served as the cherry on top as the Orlando Arena crowd went berserk.

For most of that game, the Magic simply did not have the talent to keep up. When they missed and the Lakers could run, they burned them as Worth scored 31 points. A rookie Vlade Divac came off the bench for 12 points and 13 rebounds.

Like most games of the era, it was fast breaks or post-ups with a lot of physical defense in between. It is easy to see how much the game has evolved since those early days. And the Magic just were not good at what the game was back then and did not have the talent to overcome it.

That win over the Lakers came in the middle of a stretch where the Magic won only four of 26 games. For professionals and veterans on the team, that season was bitterly disappointing.

Yet, most of us look back at that year fondly. Not only because it was the inaugural year and the first time the Magic took the court — although that is definitely part of it. But because there were so many great moments throughout the season.

There is a reason the Magic Classics airing on FOX Sports Florida during this season’s hiatus come from this first year. This was still a highly entertaining team that won some incredible games.

More from History

It was not just the opening preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Or the upset first win over the New York Knicks. Or the comeback win over the Lakers. Or even withstanding 52 points from Michael Jordan to steal a win from the Bulls (airing tonight).

These are moments indelibly printed on Magic history, making this team sentimental for a lot of reasons.

It was indeed a fun group.

Reggie Theus provided some name recognition and flair, even at the end of his career. Terry Catledge was the surprise leading scorer, providing some good grit inside and in transition. He, along with Jerry Reynolds, were not afraid to mix things up.

Future general manager Otis Smith was an undersized shooting guard and small forward who could fly down the wings. He was sneakily athletic, participating in the Slam Dunk Contest that year. Orlando could often get out and run because they knew Smith was running the wings.

Then, of course, there was Nick Anderson and Scott Skiles. Both coming off the bench, they provided energy and promise to a team that was just beginning. It was no surprise that both would step into larger roles as the Magic began to plan their future beyond the initial rush of the expansion year.

It is rare for a team that struggled this much in its infancy to have this many players who could provide intrigue. It is rare for a team that struggled this much to provide so many classic moments and create so many good memories.

Maybe there was a shine to the team’s first season that still glimmers in the light of history.

Next. Redrafting the Weltman Era. dark

But this was a team that tried to be a bit ahead of its time with personnel stitched together through the expansion draft and because of injury. They may not have won, but you were entertained while they played.