Dwight Howard makes his much-anticipated return to Amway Center on Tuesday, playing his first game at the arena whose construction his success as the Orlando Magic's franchise cornerstone helped make possible. But Howard isn't the only former Magic player to leave the team acrimoniously. Orlando Pinstriped Post takes a look at how other former Orlando stars fared in their first games back in Orlando with their new teams.
Like Howard, O'Neal left the Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers, although he did so in a different salary-cap era and as a free agent; Howard, in contrast, arrived in L.A. via trade.
O'Neal inked his deal with the Lakers prior to the 1996/97 season, but he didn't play as a Laker in Orlando until February 22nd, 1998. He led L.A. with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but the Magic got the last laugh: Nick Anderson drained a three-pointer coming out of a timeout to give Orlando a 96-94 lead, and Eddie Jones' three-point try at the final buzzer missed the mark.
Derek Harper started at point guard for Orlando in that game. "Even though I wasn't around when Shaq played here, it was still just fun to be out there after hearing all of it," he said afterward.
Anderson's 30 points led all players. Bo Outlaw (10 points, 14 rebounds) and Horace Grant (10 points, 10 rebounds) helped Orlando control the boards, as Orlando finished the game with a 47-35 advantage despite O'Neal's strong individual rebounding game.
Hardaway sought a trade from Orlando, an organization and city with which he became disenchanted over his six seasons there. He came up big in his first game at Orlando Arena as a member of the Phoenix Suns, finishing with 21 points, four rebounds, four assists, and two blocks as the Suns held off a late Magic rally for a 117-113 victory on January 31st, 2000.
Behind fan-favorite point guard Darrell Armstrong, Orlando rallied to within two points with 2:11 to play, nearly erasing all of a 25-point deficit, according to Tim Povtak's game recap. The Magic would draw no closer the rest of the way.
Hardaway struggled with his shot, going 5-of-14 from the floor, but he made up for his errant marksmanship from the floor by sinking 11 of his 14 free-throw tries. He had help, too, as Clifford Robinson scored 28 points and Jason Kidd added 20 of his own to go with 14 assists.
Povtak notes that Tariq Abdul-Wahad had the unenviable task of guarding Hardaway. After getting lit up that night, he learned that the Magic had traded him to the Denver Nuggets.
McGrady put together four great seasons with the Magic, two of which could have resulted in MVP awards had the team finished with a better record than it did. But his last season went miserably. Despite adding Juwan Howard in the offseason, Orlando went 21-61 and lost 19 straight games after winning on opening night. McGrady begged out of Orlando even after the Magic won the first overall pick in the 2004 Draft, the pick they used to select Dwight Howard.
Magic general manager John Weisbrod sent McGrady, Juwan Howard, Reece Gaines, and Tyronn Lue to the Houston Rockets for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato. The deal, in which Orlando landed no young talent, drew criticism around the league, but it did manage to divest the Magic of the sulking McGrady and of Howard's mammoth contract. It also gave them, in Cato, a true center with whom to pair the rookie Howard, whose build and skill set at the time suggested that he'd develop into a power forward.
Like Hardaway, McGrady struggled from the floor in his first game back in Orlando: the Auburndale native shot 8-of-21 from the field. And like Hardaway, McGrady's team picked up the win anyway. McGrady's 27 points led his team, while Yao Ming added 20 in just 31 minutes.
Orlando swingman Grant Hill, who joined the Magic with McGrady by signing a matching maximum-salary deal in the summer of 2001, was impressed with his former teammate's performance that night. "I thought it was one of his best floor games," Hill told the media after the game, according to Brian Schmitz. "He was getting guys open looks. He found a great balance."
McGrady's four assists ranked second on the Rockets that night. Bobby Sura led the team with nine. He and Francis nearly finished with triple-doubles in that point-guard duel: Sura was one assist away, with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Francis had a game-high 28 points to go with seven rebounds and nine assists.