It was a cool night in September 2022. A trophy game was in Orlando for the first time it seemed in forever and there was the whiff of a championship in the air.
It did not really matter what that trophy was or whether it was the ultimate prize for the season, it was a title nonetheless. One that would come with small parade the following day.
Orlando City played that evening against Sacramento Republic, a team from the lower tier USL Pro, in the U.S. Open Cup final that night. Even among those reporting on the team for the local TV broadcasts, it took a while to get everyone bought in.
What was this in-season tournament and why should they care? Why did this different competition matter?
But then the trophy was in the building touring the city before the championship game. It was all part of the build-up for the game. It did not need much for the passionate Orlando City fan base. Exploria Stadium was sold out to see the Lions win the U.S. Open Cup, their first trophy since joining MLS, over Sacramento that evening.
Nobody would have known that this was not the trophy for the league they were in. It was a trophy nonetheless.
And it has meant everything to the franchise as they now seek the MLS Cup this year. The same way the Orlando Magic are preparing to prove themselves too.
The In-Season Tournament is well underway. While the midseason trophy is a foreign fascination to the NBA, it is a chance for the Orlando Magic to prove themselves worthy in the league.
That is as important a message anything. Now nearing the end of the group phase of the In-Season Tournament, a lot of the skeptics are starting to become believers and see what the competition is bringing out in these teams. It brings out the best in these teams and allows the cream to rise to the top.
That is indeed the magic of the cup — a saying in soccers’ FA Cup and adopted by the U.S. Open Cup to signify that anything can happen in these single-elimination tournaments. And anything can indeed happen.
The Magic may not have known how their first two In-Season Tournament games would go. But by the end of them they felt how big they can be. They at least felt how quickly games with meaning can turn and how quickly a series can go belly up or be saved.
The Orlando Magic are now 1-1 in the In-Season Tournament after the win against the Chicago Bulls on Friday. They do not quite control their own destiny — their -14 point differential puts them behind the 8-ball not only to win the group but to compete for the wild card spot.
There is a lot of math and permutations to go through to get to that point. The Magic’s focus is really only on winning. These are still regular season games after all. And the team itself is trying to learn how to win and build on its strong start to the season.
"“I think we just focus on our process,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after shootaround Tuesday. “There is obviously an energy and an excitement about the in-season tournament. Some of that goes without having to say. They are watching the standings, they are watching the other teams, the different courts so you know when it’s an in-season game. It’s going to continue to be about our process and how we continue to improve.”"
Then again, why shouldn’t anyone start believing in this team? Why wouldn’t this be the moment that everyone starts to see this team as something a bit more?
Orlando is 8-5 and off to its best start in some time. And the team has established itself as a player in the conference. This six-game homestand is certainly an opportunity to do that beyond the In-Season Tournament games.
Still, the tournament is something else. The tournament itself is something that makes you believe that a team can win a trophy and win something with meaning.
That is ultimately what this team is going for. And that is something that is still very much on the table.
The beauty of a single elimination tournament is that results can get weird. Anybody can beat anybody else in one game. That is what the NBA is going for and hoping raises the intensity in these games.
And the Magic are certainly still alive to win something. That should be plenty of motivation for them to get after it.
It is not even about winning the tournament, it is about establishing who this team is and can be. Advancing deep into the tournament — even finishing with a 3-1 record and having a chance to advance — would be a statement.
It is exactly what Orlando City did in 2013 when it advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup as a member of USL PRO, defeating a pair of MLS teams on the way. It told the rest of the soccer world the franchise was ready to be promoted.
The Magic are not jumping up a league — and their marquee matchup Friday against the Celtics is their only game to punch up, so to speak — but they have that chance to make a statement.
The focus might be small but the opportunity remains big.
"“The way I understand it, it would help a lot if we win the next two,” Franz Wagner said after shootaround Tuesday. “That’s always the case with these tournament things. You lose energy if you try to do the math. At the end of the day, you try to play good basketball and hopefully, we can do that tonight.”"
That is what this tournament represents and what the Magic have been building this week with such a fast start. Orlando is very capable of making a statement.
Players have been hesitant to say there is much different between In-Season Tournament games and regular games. They want to try to treat them all the same. But they do have to admit, the new courts have added some intensity. Fans are certainly paying more attention as TV ratings would attest.
This thing might be a gimmick to add attention to the league earlier in the season. But it is working.
And it is working too by giving a team like the Magic a chance to prove itself on a bigger — or different — stage. Orlando has taken advantage of those opportunities so far.
Coming home now to the Amway Center, the Magic can keep building and make everyone believe in what this team is capable of doing.