Rarely does a team that missed the playoffs feel firmly entrenched in the franchise’s history. Especially a team that finished a mere 41-41. Those seasons, especially in a franchise with any kind of history, are typically forgotten and discarded. Blips on the road to eventual ascendance or championships.
These teams are not meant to break through.
Yet, the team led by Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw stands the test of time. It is the standard for effort with this team. Any underdog or team that defies the odds, inevitably gets compared to that group.
They were not supposed to do anything of course. They were a group of cast-offs, brought together by the Magic’s desire to clear out as much cap room as possible for a big offseason — where they were chasing Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady (they would get two of the three in one of the first successful feats of free agency grooming).
The team did not think much of the players who were on the roster and made that season so special. Outside of popular mainstays in Armstrong and Outlaw, everyone was disposable.
The one thing that became clear in the aftermath of that team was that Ben Wallace was not disposable. Wallace, a star defender on a team full of strong defenders, was not the heart or soul of that team. He was the brick wall that teams ran up against and could not solve.
Ben Wallace will enter the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend and is the ultimate legacy of the Orlando Magic’s beloved Heart & Hustle team.
In 24.2 minutes per game that season, he averaged 4.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He had a +2.1 defensive box plus-minus and accumulated 3.9 defensive win shares. Those were strong numbers on an otherwise strong defensive preview.
That was only a preview for what he would become.
Traded to the Detroit Pistons as part of a sign-and-trade deal to acquire Hill, Wallace anchored a Pistons defense that went to six straight conference finals, won a championship and appeared in two NBA Finals.
Wallace would go on to win four Defensive Player of the Year awards and four All-Star appearances. Nobody saw that coming from him in his short time in Orlando. Nobody ever saw any of that coming from Wallace.
After all, he was just a cast-off in Orlando.
That cast-off carved out not only a strong career but a Hall of Fame one. Saturday, Wallace will become the first undrafted player to get inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The story of basketball simply cannot be told without Wallace and his presence.
Sometimes, even in a season where a team is valuing what others did not see, a player can slip through the cracks. The Magic appreciated the work of the Heart & Hustle team, but it did not truly appreciate everything it had.
That was always the mistake. It is always a mistake whenever a team builds itself to change in free agency. You forget the players that got you there and lose some of the spark that put the team on the doorstep.
Orlando spent the next five seasons, until the team drafted Dwight Howard, searching for a center. The team cycled through journeymen like Andrew DeClercq and Pat Burke, failed draft picks like Steven Hunter and veterans on their last legs like Patrick Ewing and Shawn Kemp. Wallace was always what the McGrady-led teams needed — a defensive backstop to provide leadership and make life easier for McGrady to carry the offense through Hill’s injuries.
In a weakened Eastern Conference, that might have been enough to make the Magic more than just first-round fodder through McGrady’s own Hall-of-Fame journey.
Wallace was exactly what the Heart & Hustle team was supposed to exemplify.
He went to Virginia Union and flew under the radar going undrafted. He spent his first three seasons with the Washington Bullets/Wizards and slowly built his reputation as a defender as his minutes increased. Getting traded to the Magic was his first real opportunity to start.
Wallace made a mark with fans immediately for his tough defense as much as anything. He fit the pure identity of the team. He was all effort and despite his size, he stood tall defensively, trailing only Outlaw in most of the catch-all defensive statistics.
He started all 81 games that year and made his own mark and his own impact. That is always the story of Wallace. He made his own way through the NBA and made it happen.
The dream started to become a reality in his year with the Magic. He put his roots down in the league. And going to the Pistons, with the culture Joe Dumars and Rick Carlisle were starting to build as an executive and coach, only cemented Wallace’s place not only with that team but in NBA history.
Wallace was just so solid and dependable throughout the season, it was easy to forget he was out there.
Armstrong was the fan favorite and the leading scorer for the team. Outlaw was the gregarious hustle guy — who often got compared to Wallace because they both relied on their defense to make their mark with little offensive abilities.
Wallace was great in how he found a way to still make an impact. Even as he tried to find his mark in the league. He made his presence felt.
In many ways, that was what the Heart & Hustle team was about. The Magic found players who were hungry to make their mark and just needed the opportunity to do so. There were so many stories and players like that on that Heart & Hustle team.
It is still somewhat hard to believe Wallace is the one that broke through more than anyone else. But that was also because he was as much about the team and making others look good as anyone on the team. He embraced the Heart & Hustle culture as much as any player.
And that is on a team full of guys who were about the team.
The Magic, as they go through this rebuild, are looking for players who represent the things that team represented. If they want to surprise teams and have a stunning season, it will start with their attention to detail and effort in executing their system.
The Heart & Hustle team’s legacy with the Magic is as the model for the underdog. Magic fans know that if their team can have even a spark of what that team had, they will have a special season. If a talented team has that spark, they can do something really special.
But the Heart & Hustle team has two ultimate legacies for the league as a whole. The first is Doc Rivers’ mastery as a motivator and coach that led him to a title in 2018 and a likely Hall of Fame enshrinement as a coach.
The other is Wallace and the player he became and the legacy he left. Heart and hustle can get a player from undrafted to the Hall of Fame.