The Orlando Magic's return to the NBA Finals after a 14-year absence is certainly a boon for the franchise. But it's also a big deal for the Central Florida community, which has no other major professional sports team to call its own. Jemele Hill of ESPN.com--an Orlando resident and former columnist for the Orlando Sentinel--touched on that subject more here.
In his postgame press conference after the Magic dispatched the Cleveland Cavaliers to officially reach the Finals, Dwight Howard spoke about the Magic's surge in popularity since the team drafted him first overall in 2004:
"I can remember, you know, coming to the games and nobody is in the stands until we play, like, a Kobe [Bryant] or LeBron [James]. And now the stands are always filled up.
"I think we started to bring back some magic in Orlando, and that's one of the goals that I set out to do when I first got here. I felt that we were a laughingstock around the league. Everybody played the Magic, they thought about Disney World. So I just wanted to change that. We as a team wanted to change that."
And change it, the team has. John Denton reports today that the Magic have sold 400 season tickets since closing out the Cavaliers, bringing their total of season ticket-holder commitments for next season to 11,000, which is almost what it was during the mid-1990s, the last time the team was a powerhouse.
The Magic are selling more than just tickets, though, as they opened a retail store in the Altamonte Mall to sell playoff gear; I recall a similar store opening in a strip mall on Mills Avenue in 1995, and that place was packed when my family and I trekked down there to buy our Conference Championship t-shirts. Further, the team's website's traffic, according to a recent press release, has almost tripled since the end of the regular season.
But it's not just these raw facts that lead me to believe this city is buzzing about the Magic for the first time in years; there's a certain vibe. Playoff banners adorn several buildings in downtown Orlando--this one featuring Hedo Turkoglu popping his jersey after hitting the game-winner against Philadelphia is my favorite--and the presence of what will be the team's new arena only adds to the excitement.
Call me a skeptic, but this reaction doesn't seem obvious to me. After 14 years of relative irrelevance, lowlighted by the Grant Hill/Tracy McGrady spending spree which failed to produce even a second-round playoff appearance, I didn't think this city would ever respond to the Magic, even if they made it this far. But thanks to Howard, himself about to cash-in on the team's emerging popularity, and the rest of his likable teammates, I've been proven wrong. The city of Orlando loves its Magic again.