I experienced a moment of sheer nervousness scant minutes before the Magic game was about to start. Having arrived ninety minutes before tip-off to catch a glimpse of the five, future Hall of Famers that would grace the floor that evening (none of them unfortunately starting for the Orlando Magic), I figured I had a few moments to kill.
I walked up to the elderly usher standing one row above us to drum up friendly conversation. I hadn’t been to a home game since Orlando’s latest roster dump, so I wanted to check the pulse of the current fan base. Assuming this usher worked most home games, I asked how attendance had been for the lowly Magic, who currently boast the worst record in the NBA and have only won two games at home.
He nodded, hinting fibbingly that things weren’t all that bad, mentioning that attendance was highest on nights like that night.
That’s because the Los Angeles Lakers were in town, the King and his Court, the battle of two Disney’s. It was a high dollar ticket, the hottest commodity in town. As it should be with five Hall-of-Famers in purple and gold: Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Anthony David (injured) and of course, LeBron James.
That’s when the nervousness hit. The usher said soon afterwards “I don’t think LeBron’s going to play tonight. There’s going to be a bunch of disappointed people.”
My heart sank. Months earlier, I had purchased these tickets as a belated Christmas present for the Lovely BCole. We’d been planning this trip ever since the league released its schedule. She’d never paid respects to the King in person and wanted to do so before he called it a career, which could be coming in another year or three. Side note: All you haters will miss him when he’s gone.
We immediately turned to our phones. The injury report read “probable (abdomen).” This is the same issue that’s been bugging him all season.
At age 37, LeBron James is amazingly second in the league in scoring. His having to carry a somehow underachieving Lakers team is apparently giving the old guy stomach cramps. Thinking as positive as possible, justifying that we would have made the best of it anyway but silently agreeing that NOT seeing LeBron play would have sucked hardcore, we looked each other in the eye, agreed that probable was better than doubtful and hoped for the best. In his absence, this could have easily turned into a “How the NBA Needs to Handle Its Injury Issues/Ticket Prices” rant, but…
That’s when we saw him storm the length of the court, alongside his fellow Lakers, rallying up the crowd like few icons can. He wasn’t out for warmups, probably remaining in the locker room for last minute treatment. There’s no way King James would ignore his adoring fans in Orlando who only get to see him once a year. And there were plenty of them.
I didn’t talk to the usher for the rest of the game for fear of what other blasphemous falsehoods he might spread.
The Lakers won handily that night, as to be expected. Despite their relatively abysmal record, a veteran laden team like L.A. (oldest team in the league), night in and night out should be able to toy with a team like Orlando (eighth youngest in the league) as they see fit. And they did.
Although the Magic led by eight at halftime, the Lakers dominated the third quarter with the Magic unable to buy a bucket. That was all she wrote.
Hollywood’s tallest stars did not disappoint. LeBron led all scorers with 29 points, Carmelo went four-for-five from three-point range, finishing with 23, and Russell Westbrook does what he does, missing a triple-double by three assists.
With every authoritative LeBron dunk, the crowd, awash with Lakers fans, chanted “MVP!” as if they were trying to sway the votes of sports writers right then and there. It was not the first time I’d heard fans in the Amway shout MVP for an opposing player. Years ago, I traveled to see Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors dismantle a totally different Magic team. Once again, there were Warriors’ jerseys as far as the eye could see with fans cheering on Curry as he poured in 53.
To be fair, Curry did win the first ever unanimous MVP that year and was as hot that season as any player we’ve ever seen. But to routinely experience the far too welcoming sound of those in Amway cheering for the opposing team is rather disconcerting.
Long gone are the days when Magic fans had anything closely resembling an MVP candidate of their own. The closest they’ve come was 2009 when Dwight Howard, then 23, all but carried the Magic to the Finals, beating KG’s, Ray Allen’s and Paul Pierce’s Celtics, beating LeBron’s Cavs and ultimately losing to Kobe’s Lakers. Speaking of Dwight Howard, now 36, he was still receiving boos from not so adoring Magic fans who remember exactly how he left. If nothing else, we can hold a grudge with the best of them.
It wasn’t as bad as Shaq leaving (also in the arena that evening) but the cupboard was similarly bare back then and has been for quite some time. It’s no wonder that fans of opposing franchises dominate the decibels with nary a Magic chant to be heard.
What I’m getting at is… how did the Orlando Magic let things get to this point?
A long time Magic fan, I’ve never understood why the organization has been unable to attract free agents. They drafted Shaq, couldn’t keep him. They drafted Penny. He got hurt. They drafted Dwight Howard. He jumped ship too. The only free agent that showed any interest in coming to Orlando was Tracy McGrady and that’s because he was raised right outside the city limits. And before you start shouting Grant Hill’s name, I should remind you he wore a walking boot for most of his stay in Orlando.
So why is this franchise perennially unable to attract fans and keep players? This may shock you, but I have a few opinions on the matter.
Let’s start with their marketing plan or absence thereof.
You can literally traverse all downtown Orlando, throw in all the touristy parts, and not find a single piece of Orlando Magic paraphernalia sold anywhere. By comparison, try walking into any store in the immediate Tampa Bay area and finding a place that doesn’t have Lightning, Bucs or even Rays gear. Heck, they’re talking about shipping the Rays to Canada and I can still walk into my local convenience store and pick up a Rays hat or find a sign pleading ownership to move the team to Ybor City.
Miles away from the arenas in which they play, in malls, down sidewalks, hang banners from street poles and giant building sides, that say Go Bolts, with players’ faces, names and uniform numbers. That’s marketing. The Magic has literally done none of this. You can walk the entire grounds of Disney or Universal Studios and not find an inkling of Orlando Magic gear. You might as well not even know the city hosts a professional basketball team – I know, some say they don’t – yet, ironically, the Magic wear the Disney logo on their uniforms. Where’s the reciprocity and why are the Magic not actively pushing for shelf space next to Mickey and Minnie? You literally have to be inside the Amway Center to buy anything Magic related or to see an image of a current or former Magic player.
Do you mean to tell me that a professional basketball team that plays a sport whose athletes are recognizable around the globe and that resides in the vacation capital of the world remains unable to attract players eager to be there? Why is this? One would think the marketing possibilities are endless, yet their images can’t cross the street. Do you mean to tell me that Mo Bamba is not marketable? Have you seen him smile? Have you heard him talk? Why is he not plastered as far as the eye can see? I’ll tell you why. Because the franchise can’t even market itself never mind its meal tickets.
Here’s another thing that perturbs me about the Magic. Do you know how many banners they have hanging from the rafters? Two. One for each of their NBA Finals appearances, not wins.
I take that back. The Magic have three banners hanging in the rafters, one in honor of their fans. That’s perhaps the most nebbish thing I’ve ever seen.
Why are they not hanging names like Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Nick Anderson in these rafters? I don’t care that Shaq only played there for four seasons. He put the franchise on the map. I don’t care that Penny only played there for six. At one time, he was the most exciting young player in the game and gave the franchise some of its most memorable moments, including beating the legendary Michael Jordan upon his initial return to the NBA. I don’t care that Nick Anderson missed those four free throws in Game One of the 1994-95 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. (I take that back, of course I do). But perhaps no player has given more to, or is more associated with, the franchise than he. What of Brian Hill? Darrell Armstrong? Scott Skiles? And I know that Dwight Howard left the franchise disgracefully. But the team also built that new arena for him. It’s time to make amends for down the road, his name also deserves mention.
The fact that this franchise has been around since 1989 and has yet to retire a single player’s number speaks volumes about the organization. It is why fans go to the arena more to see the opponent than the home team. The Magic is holding its former greats to a standard higher than it holds itself. Do you mean to tell me that not a single player that has played in Magic pinstripes is worthy of that honor? Maybe that’s why no one wants to be there.
It’s not all tales of woe. What I saw from Orlando Friday night was encouraging. First round draft pick Jalen Suggs is a talent, yet one that needs to be reigned in. He scored 22 but shot a horribly inefficient 1-7 from three-point land. He needs to remain aggressive but be reminded he’s not going to be able to dunk on everybody he tries to. Mo Bamba is also a fine young player but nowhere near the top of the league’s big men. Who’s going to coach him to get there? Franz Wagner looks like he’ll be a pleasant addition, a lanky forward that can score. But Cole Anthony, goodness. He tallied a -28 in the +/- column that night and while I don’t give much credence to that number, when it’s THAT far in the red, you probably need to have a seat on the bench. Orlando’s starting Anthony scored 19 points less than L.A’s Anthony that came off the bench. Cole scored only four points in garbage time. You’re going to need more than that to beat LeBron James.
There’s lots wrong with the Orlando Magic. I get that we’re rebuilding, again. But I’d like to see good decisions made both on the floor and in the front offices. I’d like to see a franchise that can woo free agents. I’d like to know why players don’t want to play there #ownership. I’d like to see a winning culture established once again and not just because we got lucky with ping pong balls on consecutive draft nights. I’d like to see someone on that roster with league experience that can teach these young bucks instead of them leading themselves blindly. I’d like to see this organization embrace its roots instead of inexplicably painting the floor a different color and expecting a different result.
At 8-39, the Magic have by far the worst record in the league. What’s amazing is, they played hard that night. But playing hard isn’t always enough, not when people are visibly cheering for the visiting team.
I’m not delusional. I know there are always going to be more Lakers, Celtics or Knicks fans than Magic fans. But what about the Hawks? They were irrelevant for years and now have Trae Young. And the Memphis Grizzlies? They have an MVP candidate in Ja Morant. The Mavericks have Luca Doncic. The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic. The Bucks have the Greek Freak… and an NBA title. All these teams have passed the Magic by, all with players 27 years and younger. Will Suggs turn out to be that dominant? Wagner? Bamba? Who knows? Are those guys good enough, or will they be good enough, to be the best player on their team? Who and where is Orlando’s next superstar? And more importantly, will they be able to keep him?
I guess what I’m asking is… where’s our MVP and how soon until those inside the arena are chanting for him instead of the other way around?
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here are some sights from an otherwise perfect night in Central Florida.