By Tony Lesesne
Hip Hop Vibe Staff Writer
On Thursday, ESPN will document the early/mid-1990s Orlando Magic in their “30 for 30” series. Those old enough to remember know this team was one of the NBA’s most-exciting squads. With the way the current NBA landscape is set up, they would have won multiple titles.
Founded in 1989, the Orlando Magic were one of four NBA expansion franchises. Alongside the Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Minnesota Timberwolves, the Magic soon took over the league. Their struggle did not last long, unlike two of the other expansion teams.
In 1992, the Magic finished 21-61 and landed the first pick in the draft, selecting Shaquille O’Neal. Immediately, the team became playoff contenders, but narrowly missed, due to the Indiana Pacers. The following year, Afternee “Penny” Hardaway was selected and the Magic rose to 50 wins, making their first playoff series, but the Pacers interfered again, sweeping.
During the 1994 offseason, the Magic acquired Horace Grant who left the Michael Jordan-less Chicago Bulls and he proved to be the X factor. Following two straight seasons of disappointment, O’Neal, Hardaway, and Grant turned the Magic into title contenders. Going 57-25, they won their first division title and rolled through the playoffs, defeating the Boston Celtics, the Bulls, and the Pacers, setting up an epic showdown in the NBA Finals.
Facing the defending champion Houston Rockets, Shaq, Penny, and company were expected to dethrone the outfit, led by Hakeem Olajuwon. Given their dominant record over Houston, including a 2-0 regular season record, the media bought into their “Why Not Us? Why Not Now?” campaign. Unfortunately, the matchup of O’Neal verses the veteran Olajuwon proved to be too much and the Rockets swept the Magic.
At this point, there should be much more to the story, but there isn’t. When the 1996 season rolled around, the Magic set another franchise record for wins, going 60-22 and this remains their best regular season record. Unfortunately, this was the same season where the Bulls went 72-10 and Michael Jordan used the Orlando Magic as his target, sweeping them in the Conference Finals, after they defeated the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks.
During this offseason, Shaquille O’Neal made a big decision that changed the course of the NBA. He decided to leave the Magic, during free agency, to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers. The move proved to be right for O’Neal, as he teamed with Kobe Bryant to go to the NBA Finals four times, winning three championships, but the Magic struggled, soon losing Hardaway, and would not recover until the Dwight Howard era.
In light of ESPN soon premiering their documentary on the Orlando Magic, Hip Hop Vibe decided to reflect on the golden era of the franchise. This can serve as a preview, of sorts, for the Orlando Magic, as Hip Hop Vibe is chronicling key moments in the 1992-1996 Orlando Magic franchise history.
Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Scott, and Penny Hardaway reminisce on their time with the Magic
Rivalry with the Indiana Pacers
Before the Orlando Magic even scored a playoff berth, the Reggie Miller-led Indiana Pacers made it their personal mission to make life for O’Neal and the Magic a living nightmare. The addition of Shaquille O’Neal brought the lowly Magic from 21-61 to 41-41, good enough for playoff contention and a playoff spot. However, this didn’t happen, due to the Indiana Pacers posting the same record and owning the tiebreaker over the Magic, thus dashing their hopes.
The following year, the Orlando Magic had a very strong season, finishing 50-32 and landing the fourth seed in the playoffs. Expected to make some noise, the Magic did receive strong playoff performances from Penny Hardaway, but they did not show up properly. The Pacers made quick work of the series, sweeping the Magic, despite them having home court advantage.
Horace Grant joined the Magic in the 1994-1995 season and Shaquille O’Neal had an MVP-caliber season, narrowly losing the scoring title to David Robinson, mainly due to his 71 point game. Regardless, O’Neal had more success than Robinson in the postseason, as they eliminated the Hawks, the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, and then faced off with the Pacers one final time.
Historically, the Indiana Pacers during the Reggie Miller era were the spoiler team. Definitely, they ruined every pivotal moment in Magic franchise history, heading into the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals. But, change was soon to come, as Shaq and Penny grew tired of losing to the Pacers, so they handled their rivals in seven games before moving onto the NBA Finals.
Eliminating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls
Internally, defeating the Pacers and going to the finals was the biggest moment in the Orlando Magic’s franchise history. But, their 1990s run will be noted for them being the only team since 1990 to defeat the Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan on the roster, in 1995. Of course, Jordan had only returned in February and the Bulls were only 47-35, but fans grew used to MJ’s Bulls always winning, thus making them favorites over the young Magic.
Historically, this moment motivated Michael Jordan to come back, stronger than ever to lead them to the all-time best season in NBA history as of April 12, 2016 3:28 EST at 72-10. During the series, Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, and Nick Anderson all made comments about Jordan that are said to have fueled him. Still, the young team had a right to be excited for such a major win.
The 1994-1995 season was one where the entire Magic organization came together for the “Why Not Us? Why Not Now?” campaign that built around Shaq and Penny. This was destiny and not even Michael Jordan was going to stand in the way. A key note in this series was Horace Grant defeating his former team in this series, which is now being regarded as a classic.
NBA Finals vs. Houston Rockets
For fourteen years, the Orlando Magic’s appearance in the 1995 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets was their lone Finals trip. Diehard Magic fans seem to favor this trip over their five game loss to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, back in 2009. There is always something special about the first time and the Magic had something cooking, after defeating their rivals from the past three seasons, the Indiana Pacers.
The 1995 NBA Finals was the chance for Shaquille O’Neal to show the world he was truly the best center in the NBA and deserved MVP over David Robinson. For starters, the top centers in the NBA (in no particular order) were Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets, Patrick Ewing of the Knicks, Robinson of the Spurs, and the Magic’s O’Neal. At the time, Olajuwon was the only champion among them.
Shaq had the chance to prove himself versus Akeem The Dream, as Robinson lost to the Rockets in the Conference Finals. Defeating Olajuwon and the Rockets would have been what Ewing failed to do in the 1994 NBA Finals, on top of everything else. Unfortunately for Shaq, experience won out and the Magic were meekly swept, but Olajuwon assured Shaq he would win in the future and he proved right, as O’Neal won four titles.
Instead of looking to the future, the 1995 NBA Finals proved to be the beginning of the end for the young Magic, as the team soon had a whole new roster. Nick Anderson, one of the top free throw shooters in the league, missed four pivotal free throws in a row, costing Orlando game one after they held a 20 point lead. It would go from bad to worse, as the tension with Shaq and Penny soon began.
The upside of this series was Shaq learning how to be a champion, but the downside is that he displayed this skill alongside Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade for the Lakers and Heat, respectively, from 2000 through 2006.
The aftermath of the 1994-1995 season is the beginning of the end, with the only difference being the three additional regular season wins. Because of everything in the 1995 season being the Magic’s first time ever, it was highlighted as pivotal moments. Conversely, the 1996 season was a been there, done that, with a sour ending at the hands of a sweep from Michael Jordan’s Bulls, followed by Shaq leaving in free agency.
Following the 1996 season, the team didn’t experience any true success until the Dwight Howard/Jameer Nelson era.
Follow Tony Lesesne on Twitter @TonyCLesesne.