It’s been a tough couple of years for fans of … The last half-decade has been particularly difficult for … Magic fandom was once compared favorably to the act of self-flagellation, but now we can’t be so sure because …
Yeah, I get it. Following the Orlando Magic sucks.
The Gathering Storm
I can see where our own Cory Hutson is coming from. That feeling of waiting for the floor to give way beneath you as a Magic fan is something I’m all too familiar with.
I present to you a list: Nick Anderson’s free throws; Shaq to the Lakers; the 1997 player mutiny; Penny to the Suns; Grant Hill’s ankle; the 19 game losing streak; McGrady to the Rockets; Courtney Lee’s missed layup; the Howard and Van Gundy interview; The Dwightmare; The Whiteboard. Sad Vogel.
Each of these moments can best be described as either painfully devastating or acutely embarrassing or, when the stars align, both. As a collective, they also chart a sadly accurate history of the Orlando Magic, a franchise that is thought about largely in terms of its failures, its irrelevance, and the stars that left town.
To follow the Magic is an exercise in expecting the worst and more often than not being rewarded in kind. Sure there are those bright spots that punctuate the darkness, but a true Orlando fan knows that these moments are but teasing glimpses into a world we may temporarily visit but cannot call home. The organizational professionalism of the Spurs. The glitz of the Lakers. The starpower of the Warriors. The cult-like fervor of “The Process” in Philadelphia. In Florida we’ve heard of these things, but they remain foreign and forever out of grasp.
The Torrential Downpour
After Dwight left town we knew we were in for a rough stretch of rebuilding. It’s part of the cyclical norm for sports franchises. The problem comes when things don’t seem to be getting any better. In this regard, the 2016-2017 season was a particularly excruciating one to follow. After years of rebuilding the team went hard after playoff relevance, making a significant investment in players they believed would deliver them back to basketball beyond game 82. As we now know, it was a disaster. Veteran additions failed to meet expectations, the development of youth stalled, and the coach was unable to get the most out of a mismatched roster. The end result was a 29-win campaign and a thirteenth-placed finish in the East, in a year when Orlando were trying to be good. Ouch.
There wasn’t much evidence to suggest that the Magic would be substantially improved at all in 2017/18. The roster received only a small talent upgrade, and many of the team’s blemishes -- poor shooting and poor defense most prominently -- were always likely to remain. A fast start fueled by absurd shooting numbers from Aaron Gordon and impactful play from new recruit Jonathon Simmons raised expectations in the early going. The tune, however, was a familiar one, with the promising play exposed as a mirage as the team crashed back to Earth by mid-November, and saw the wheels fall off entirely during a stretch over late-December and early-January. Last season it turned out that the Magic were who we thought they were all along. As mentioned previously: expect the worst.
The Silver Lining
I’m lucky enough to be on holidays for the Australian summer, and on my last day of work I wore a Magic-related t-shirt to the office. It’s probably my favorite: one of those Mitchell & Ness draft day designs, this one featuring a rookie Anfernee Hardaway raising a finger to the ceiling and holding a pretty gnarly retro Magic jacket.
Throughout the day multiple people commented on the shirt, some with an appreciative sports-based take and others who just liked the design. Either way, I loved the fact that it allowed me to talk basketball and to wax lyrical about my favorite player of all time. I was absolutely stoked when in passing one of my ninth-grade students spotted the shirt and asked “Penny for your thoughts?” It was a glimmer of franchise recognition, and suggested that the Orlando Magic have managed to retain at least some small niche in the basketball zeitgeist.
Even now, mired in a never-ending rebuild and still on the outside of the playoff race looking in, my spirits were lifted simply by the opportunity to talk about my memories of the Magic. These interactions brought forth a potent combination of passion, excitement and anticipation, and etched a smile firmly on my dial. It reminded me of the love I will always have for this sport and this team.
The Breaking Sun
Sports fandom is a weird phenomenon. As Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, we’re essentially “rooting for laundry.” The best comedy is based on an underlying truth, and it’s absolutely the case here; at various points I’ve talked myself into players like a washed-up Gilbert Arenas, an unqualified Jeryl Sasser, a calcified Patrick Ewing, and a bloated Shawn Kemp. The names and faces may change, the team dynamic and identity may alter, but the uniform remains a (relative) constant. My allegiance is pledged not to any one individual but to the pinstripes.
Despite that previous experience, there is something about this year that feels a little different. Nikola Vucevic has kept up his torrid pace for almost half a season now. Aaron Gordon is showing signs of emerging as the defensive presence we always thought he could be, along with a better all-round game. The youthful play of both Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba have provided just enough flashes of tantalizing potential to keep us hoping. D.J. Augustin has been so good that his contract now seems like a bargain. Steve Clifford is saying the right things and seems to be having an impact. There are tangible things to hitch your hopes to.
Perhaps the greatest thing the world of professional sports has going for it is that it forever promises a better result tomorrow to replace today’s disappointment. And while being a hopelessly committed fan of the Magic has certainly brought with it some dispiriting moments these last six years, I know I’m still going to be here at the end of the day regardless. I’ll always choose to believe in the team that owns my heart.
In 2019, I want to believe in the Magic.
To me, the small moments of success they’ve experienced this season might just be evidence of the brighter future we’re waiting for.