Orlando Magic must reforge connection with the city

Orlando Magic guards Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton were front and center for UCF's big win over Boise State. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Orlando Magic guards Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton were front and center for UCF's big win over Boise State. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) /

It feels pretty innocuous and may not be important at the end of the day, but Cole Anthony is all about his team.

Orlando Magic fans know that just from watching him on the sideline during games, seeing how he plays and the way he promotes his teammates on social media.

Anthony is the ultimate teammate. That is probably the biggest thing everyone has learned. If anything, Anthony’s most important role for the team moving forward will be keeping everyone connected and optimistic even through a difficult season.

That is a lot to ask of a second-year player. And the journey of this season will not only test his skills on the court but also where he views himself in the bigger picture and whether that affects his enthusiasm for his team.

The one thing that has become clear to fans though is that Anthony is all in for his teammates and quickly all in on his adopted home. It is hard for any young person to seemingly get wrapped up in a new place.

But there he was on the sideline of UCF’s 36-31 win over Boise State on Thursday, cheering as if that was his school.

It is easy to see why for moments like these why Anthony is quickly one of the most popular players on the team. There is hope that Anthony can figure things out to carve out a role within the team.

But the one thing he has done is embed himself with the city, creating a spark of bravado and community that this city appreciates. Anthony is still getting settled in Orlando — and the pandemic prevented him from really getting out into the community. But his personality has really resonated with fans.

More than anything, this is a vital aspect a player has to have for a small market like Orlando.

The Orlando Magic are restarting their team entering a major rebuild. But the one thing they have to accomplish is to reforge a relationship with the city through their players and play.

Now that the team has hit the reset button, fans are a bit unsure of what to make of this new group. There is obvious excitement for the potential on the court. But one of the things the Magic will have to re-establish is their identity within the community — both of community service and the personality the team takes on.

If the Magic want this rebuild to be successful, they will play an entertaining brand with people who truly connect with the community. This is a much more difficult thing to rebuild and is not even tied to winning completely.

Roots in the city

When I speak with other fans and longtime residents about the team, a player’s performance obviously still matters. But how they are embedded with the community and the personality and effort they display matters too.

There is a reason Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw are extremely popular players. Why fans still clamor for Tracy McGrady or Anfernee Hardaway to get involved in the franchise.

Or why Shaquille O’Neal — perhaps the city’s first athletic love — has pretty much been forgiven for his 1996 departure. He stayed in Orlando and still was a presence with the community. Although it is hard for O’Neal not to be a presence anywhere he goes.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

It is why fans still have an icy relationship with Grant Hill. He suffered through injuries that prevented him from playing — a bitter taste with the max contract the Orlando Magic gave him in 2000 — but there was also a perception that through the injuries, he did not do enough in the community. Never mind, he was a winner of the DeVos Community Enrichment Award.

His exit was also not well received — even if the Magic and Hill both wanted a separation after seven difficult seasons.

Perception though made reality for fans. They do not always get the full story. And they are ultimately the ones who buy the tickets and connect to their team.

This rebuild then offers an opportunity for the team to reconnect with its fans and for the fans to reconnect with a new batch of players. And how those young players integrate into this community.

All Orlando fans have ever wanted are players they can be proud of on and off the court.

Dwight Howard was one of the most popular players in Orlando for resurrecting the franchise and growing up in the city. And that only deepened the betrayal when he left the city twisting in the wind for a year when the writing was on the wall.

That is why things like what Jonathan Isaac has done in the last year are so important.

Sunday, he will host The Global Seafood Festival alongside JUMP Ministries, the church Isaac attends and was ordained as a minister, to benefit Project Life.

It is why it was important to see Isaac delivering meals to students in need after schools shut down and cut off the meals they depend on.

Isaac feels like one of Orlando’s own and is probably the most popular player on the court for the team. And there is genuine excitement to see him return and flourish on the floor. His success will be the city’s success.

Magic fans respond to all of this. And it will be important to build these connections as the team begins to build back up.

Excitement for the city

It is not just about the community that matters. It is the excitement to play for Orlando.

The Magic have been a franchise that is often spurned — Shaquille O’Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard all left in messy divorces. Fans still have this feeling of the next superstar taking his first step out the door — I joke sometimes online that I am a future Los Angeles Lakers blogger (trust me, I am not, it is a joke).

But that speaks to the culture and feeling of Magic fans. Orlando wants something of its own.

That is one of the reasons UCF has taken off and Orlando City has dominated the pro sports scene — it helps that both won. For residents, both these teams feel like something that was truly built from the ground up and Orlando-made.

For a city that is a transplant city with few longtime residents — those bigger markets will always flood opposing arenas in small markets like Orlando — the city is still trying to define something as its own.

There are a new generation of fans who either attended UCF and stay in Orlando or grew up in Orlando with the Magic who are seeking a way to establish and grow their city.

The Magic played a big role in the city’s identity building in the mid-1990s. Sports is again helping define this city.

It has been extremely meaningful to have Markelle Fultz embrace Orlando since his arrival.

Fans have been in Fultz’s corner ever since his arrival, hoping he can reclaim his talent and deliver for the team. He largely has in his one full season with the team. The devastating injury has only put fans further in his corner — even as the point guard situation and team have changed.

But more importantly, there is a feeling that Fultz wants to play for the city that has adopted him.

When the Magic posted a highlight from Fultz, he commented, “Can’t wait get back and put on for the city!!!”


The Magic naturally blew up the comment that Fultz made on their post. It is easy to be cynical about this kind of performative advertising — just like how some criticized the Magic for wishing the area’s college football teams good luck on their seasons.

But, even if performative, this is an important connection the team can make to the city. It shows that they are in it with their audience and fans. And their players are part of their community.

More importantly, it showed players want to be a part of this community. Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton at a UCF game like everyone else — let alone staying through a three-hour rain delay — shows they know what is going on with their city and want to be a part of it.

Even if this is ultimately an illusion, it is vital to building support and connecting a team to its city.

Orlando fans want something they can call their own. And that is part of what is exciting about this rebuild. The Magic can indeed build something from the ground and invite people on board.

That invitation is what they have to send out now. With players whom fans can latch onto and watch grow, the team is selling its future and there needs to be that personal connection to them.

Obviously, on-court performance will determine whether this project actually works.

Next. Jonathan Isaac will have his chance to shine. dark

But with players who are likable, playing for each other and inviting fans to come along, the Magic are reforging a connection with the community that will hopefully fill the Amway Center when the team turns the corner.