Doc Rivers tries to set the record straight on Orlando Magic’s Tim Duncan miss

Tim Duncan's career nearly detoured to Orlando but a last-minute press kept him from joining the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
Tim Duncan's career nearly detoured to Orlando but a last-minute press kept him from joining the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic nearly pulled off a coup signing Tim Duncan from the San Antonio Spurs. They almost had him until Doc Rivers made a critical mistake.

In the summer of 2000, the Orlando Magic were preparing to unleash a plan on the rest of the NBA.

The beloved Heart and Hustle team was never meant to last. It was never meant to be more than a clearinghouse for the team’s bid to make one of the biggest free-agent splashes in league history. All those expiring contracts were going to give the team the room to sign the three biggest fish on the market.

Three Hall-of-Fame players in Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady all considered Orlando as viable landing spots in their first free-agent forays. And the Magic had plans to land all three.

They put out the red carpet for all three. They had banners inside the practice facility at RDV Sportsplex with all three wearing Magic jerseys. No one could blame John Gabriel for his ambition — that was always his m.o., the way he acquired Horace Grant was a story of CBA-manipulation in itself.

The Magic quickly got commitments from the hometown hero in Tracy McGrady and from the superstar-in-waiting in Grant Hill. Duncan was the big fish that seemed to elude them.

After wining and dining him, they believed they had him. And then suddenly, Duncan was back with the Spurs. There are a number of reasons why people believe the Magic lost him. The popular belief was that it was coach Doc Rivers‘ policy not allowing players’ families to travel on road trips.

Doc Rivers though tried to set the record straight. It was not any of that. It was a recruiting mistake letting the San Antonio Spurs get the last word. He explained with Ernie Johnson on #NBATogether:

The Magic tried and certainly came very close.

They gave him the full-court press. They flew him to Isleworth (a private golf community outside Orlando — Anfernee Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal and Ken Griffey Jr. were among its residents at the time) where Tiger Woods was waiting for him with a tee-box demonstration.

From there, the story goes everything went south. They had the wrong food for Duncan — the cold cuts they set out for him for a lunch meeting were apparently a bad idea sending the team scrambling for a replacement — and they reportedly told him that family were not allowed to fly with the team. This is the reason Hill believed the Magic did not get him.

Everyone with the Magic said the team left those meetings feeling like they had him despite it all.

Of course, they did not.

A last-minute intervention from Gregg Popovich and David Robinson, who cut his Hawai’i vacation short to meet with Tim Duncan personally, brought Duncan back to the Spurs. And that was it.

Fans have long blamed Rivers for holding to his policy of not allowing family on team flights. This has long been the line — the easily correctible error — that cost the Magic a generational superstar.

It always seemed a bit too convenient. And something that they could break — Rivers would break it when he became the coach of the Boston Celtics on several occasions. He is at least clarifying now that it was not some hard and fast rule.

Doc Rivers said he spoke to John Calipari shortly after the Magic finished their meeting with Tim Duncan. It was there that Calipari revealed his mistake allowing Duncan to speak with the Spurs one final time.

It is easy to get lost in the sliding doors of this moment.

The Spurs went on to win the title in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014. Duncan is considered one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history. The Spurs are the envy of the entire league for the culture they built, all surrounded by Duncan.

It is crazy to think all of that could have crumbled with this decision.

Instead, the Magic still felt pretty good about their summer. They picked up an All-NBA player in Grant Hill and a future superstar in Tracy McGrady.

Of course, Hill was on crutches at the time and never truly regained his level of play. He struggled to stay on the court throughout McGrady’s four years. He was healthy and productive in his final years in Orlando, but the team was ready to move on.

That crazy free agent summer that still won John Gabriel the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award ended up being only a bridge to Dwight Howard‘s ascendance.

Next. Lessons from The Last Dance -- There is no other Michael Jordan. dark

There was a lot of missed opportunity in that promising era. And one can only wonder what Duncan would have done in a Magic uniform.