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Orlando, like the rest of the state of Florida, is an alternate reality. The city’s largest attractions—Walt Disney World; SeaWorld; Universal Orlando, namely—add to the illusion as much as the palm trees do. For outsiders, it’s very easy to forget that people actually live there. This all makes it the perfect setting for a fable, which is precisely what the Orlando Magic team of the 1990s was, in retrospect.
That Orlando Magic team holds a unique place in the basketball universe. In under five years, they realized the expansion team dream: the lottery to the Finals thanks to consecutive No. 1 picks and one huge draft day trade. Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the outcome of those moves, became pillars of the franchise and pop culture, lionizing the team to fans of a certain age. They had two phenomenal talents, a mesmeric command over two realms, and limitless potential. But, as the new 30 for 30 film This Magic Moment details, the team's ascent was quickly crippled. This Magic team was celebrated for its meteoric rise, but lingering thoughts of what could’ve been coupled with the glossy sheen of nostalgia have produced a legend that has outpaced the reality. Which is unfortunate, since what this team didn't accomplish nearly defines it as much as what it did.
Little is expected of expansion teams. They have meager talent, no history, and, therefore, no bandwagon fans. They’re a blank slate. The Magic front office, left with few other options, took advantage of this from the gate. They worked the phones until they were able to unite the first picks in franchise history (Nick Anderson in 1989; Dennis Scott the following year) with the superstar potential of Shaq and Penny, hoping the latter pair would give the team an identity.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were gone by the time Shaq entered the league in 1992, and, unbeknownst to everyone, Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan were also on their way out. A personality vacuum left Charles Barkley as arguably the league’s most intriguing superstar, and O’Neal—a young, exuberant jester—was eager to assume a large role. He was the franchise’s extroverted anchor; Hardaway the deferential—yet equally exceptional— complement. Anderson and Scott wore those pinstripes first, but Shaq and Penny made them the Magic.
The Magic were the NBA’s Ferrari during the mid-‘90s. Their youth and talent captivated young fans. The Charlotte Hornets, their fellow expansion team, had similar qualities: the same youthful appeal, the same pinstriped jerseys, and they were actually the first of the two to make the playoffs. But Shaq and Penny gave the Magic an edge. The duo made for an outstanding NBA Jam team, which was paramount to the league's younger demographic at the time. Watching Penny throw lobs to Shaq in Blue Chips and IRL elevated them to icons, and they ran with that standing until they dictated popular culture. Shaq, dominant center and personality, released platinum albums and racked up acting credits. Penny, already accustomed to sharing the spotlight with Shaq, did the same with
Chris Rock Lil Penny, resulting in elite sneakers and still-memorable commercials.
This isn't to say their popularity was purely based on mystique—they had considerable on-court talent, too. Shaq was an unprecedented combination of power and agility; Hardaway a blur; Anderson and Scott snipers from deep. Their fast breaks, led by Hardaway's wizardry, were a thing of beauty. Hardaway melded Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan into something new, looking over smaller guards and dunking on defenders with zero remorse. Through pure aesthetic, they captured the attention and essence of youth in the '90s—a sentiment many Millennials cherish to this day.
lingering thoughts of what could’ve been coupled with the glossy sheen of nostalgia have produced a legend that has outpaced the reality.
The Magic’s status as the NBA's new treasure was warranted because they improved so rapidly. Eighteen wins during their inaugural 1989-90 campaign climbed to 41 by 1992-93, O’Neal’s rookie season, then to 50 during Hardaway’s the following year. Seizing the throne as the Eastern Conference's dominant team, they went 57-25 in 1994-95 and started a then-NBA record 40-game home winning-streak. The Magic spoiled Jordan’s comeback that year, joining the Detroit Pistons as the only teams to beat Jordan & Co. in the playoffs during the ‘90s. One year after earning the first playoff berth in franchise history, the Magic were competing for a championship. But despite being favored to win the 1995 NBA Finals, they were swept by the defending champion Houston Rockets. Regardless, it almost felt guaranteed that a team this talented and young was on the cusp of claiming their own title, but what seemed like the beginning of greatness turned out to be the beginning of the end.
Everything the ‘95-96 Magic achieved was outshined by the illustrious '95-96 Bulls team. Their 60 wins? Overshadowed. Their record for consecutive home victories? Broken. And to top it off, the Bulls exacted their revenge by sweeping the Magic during the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
If we take a step back, all of this makes the Magic of the '90s eerily similar to the present-day Oklahoma City Thunder. Dual superstars, regular season sovereignty, and the inability to close the deal on a championship are merely a few of the parallels.
The following season, the Magic's disintegration began. A ring-thirsty Shaq bolted for Los Angeles that summer. Anderson never regained the confidence he lost during the ‘95 Finals, and chronic injuries reduced Hardaway to a fragment of the player he once was. The team with the impossibly-high ceiling was eviscerated in a fraction of the time it took to assemble it, which only made the saga more engrossing.
For all of the mythology surrounding those Magic teams, the resonant truth is that they were good, not great. It was evident, even back then, that they were the resolution of potential versus actual results. They’re in rarefied company as one of two teams to defeat the Jordan-led Bulls in the postseason during their prime, but that—and the subsequent Finals appearance—was their pinnacle. Ousting the Bulls in 1995 was their Larry O’Brien trophy. Their accomplishments now hold more weight in pop culture history due to the brevity of their run—an absorbing layer to their legend. Watching Shaq become a Hall of Famer while injuries ruined Penny's career makes the team's unrealized promise even more compelling. That alone makes viewing This Magic Moment bittersweet—difficult, even—for ‘80s babies who had Penny’s jersey in every colorway and still faithfully defend the myth of their excellence.
From dynasties like the '60s Boston Celtics to the '90s Chicago Bulls, everyone’s run ends at some point. But the Magic didn't really even have a run—they had flashes extinguished by circumstance. And looking back, it's clear the origin of our fascination with the '90s Orlando Magic can be found at the intersection of nostalgia and arrested development. All we—the fans—are left with is a collection of artifacts: retroed sneakers, YouTube highlights, and the unsatisfying lingering question of “What if?”