Shock came over the NBA and the sports world early Sunday as reports surfaced that Los Angeles Lakers’ legendary guard Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine dead in a Los Angeles-area helicopter crash.
That evening and in the days since, NBA teams and players have done their part to honor the memory of Bryant, who passed at just 41 years old. In Sunday’s contest at the Amway Center between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers, the teams traded violations to honor Bryant.
The Clippers controlled the tip and took a 24-second violation. Orlando reciprocated with an eight-second violation. During Bryant’s 20-year NBA career, he wore jersey Nos. 8 and 24. Throughout that career, Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, a five-time world champion, four-time All-Star Game MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP and a league MVP.
With the exception of the 2008-09 season, Bryant and the Magic saw each other just twice per season. Still, there were some connections between the late legend and Orlando that were worth noting.
Over the next several days, we’ll be looking at several aspects of Bryant’s legendary career as it relates to the Magic. In Part I, we looked at how Kobe and Shaq did what Penny and Shaq could not. In this next piece, we’ll look at a great individual match-up.
Tracy McGrady comes home
As former Magic All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant were accomplishing things that Orlando never could with O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, there was hope that a bright future was on the horizon for the Magic.
During the 1999-2000 NBA season, O’Neal and Bryant had won their first championship in Los Angeles. In the Magic’s first season without either O’Neal or Hardaway since the 1991-92 campaign, Orlando exceeded all expectations. Under a first-year NBA head coach named Doc Rivers, a rebuilding team led by Darrell Armstrong, a young Ben Wallace and late-season acquisition Ron Mercer, finished 41-41, narrowly missing the playoffs.
The following offseason, Orlando made major noise with the signings of perennial All-Star forward Grant Hill and the young and promising Tracy McGrady. Hill, a triple-double machine, was the headliner with McGrady regarded as an exciting role player. During his tenure in Orlando, McGrady would blossom into one of the best players in the NBA and a premier scorer.
With the addition of Hill and McGrady, there was an underlying optimism that Orlando could vault into a perennial contender in a maligned Eastern Conference. Over the next four seasons however, Hill fought an ankle injury and played in just 47 of a possible 328 games.
Orlando has a new superstar
While the Hill situation will always be viewed by Magic fans as a case of what could have been, McGrady brought excitement to the City Beautiful. After averaging just over 11 points per game in three seasons with the Toronto Raptors and never more than 15.4 points per game, McGrady averaged nearly 27 points per contest in his first season with the Magic.
Over his four seasons in Orlando, McGrady averaged 28.1 points per game. He capped his Magic career with consecutive scoring titles. During his four years in Orlando, McGrady ranked in the top 10 in scoring each season.
The only other players to do that during that stretch were Boston Celtics’ swingman Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant.
T-Mac vs. Kobe
During his tenure in Orlando, the Magic never really accomplished much as a team. They made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, but McGrady was never able to deliver his team past the first round.
Also over that stretch, the Lakers won the NBA Finals twice and lost on another occasion. While McGrady never enjoyed the team success that Bryant’s Lakers did, the match-ups were fun to watch and seemed to bring out the best in both players.
Over McGrady’s four years with the Magic, Orlando was just 1-7 against the Lakers. Bryant did not play in two of those games. When the two went head-to-head however, McGrady averaged 26.5 points in six games with three double-doubles. Bryant averaged 29 points and recorded one double-double.
In the first match-up between the two in Orlando, the Lakers edged the Magic, 95-90. Although Orlando was unable to win the game, McGrady took the nationally-televised match-up between the two greats.
On 13-for-24 shooting, McGrady finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. Bryant settled for 16 points on 5-for-17 shooting and seven assists. The teams were still far apart, but McGrady showed that he could compete with anyone in the league.
The two meetings the following season saw Bryant edge both match-ups individually and the Lakers win both games easily. McGrady scored 22 points in both contests, adding seven assists in the first and 10 rebounds in the next. Bryant finished with 28 points and eight assists in the first meeting before totaling 23 points and eight rebounds in the second.
McGrady’s lone victory with Orlando over Bryant and the Lakers came on the eve of Thanksgiving in 2002. The Magic raced to an early lead en route to a 112-102 victory, but both players put on a show with each tallying 38 points and filling up the box score.
Bryant added 10 rebounds for his only double-double in the head-to-head battles of McGrady’s Orlando tenure. McGrady added nine assists, six rebounds and two steals.
The Lakers evened the season series less than a month later with a 107-84 win in a contest where both players tallied 21 points. Bryant added eight assists and six rebounds. McGrady finished with a game-high three blocks.
With Bryant out, McGrady put up 35 points, six rebounds and six assists in his final game against the Lakers in Orlando, but the Magic were unable to hold a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in a 98-96 heartbreaking loss. The final match-up between the superstars of McGrady’s tenure was again heartbreaking for the Magic, but an exciting match-up.
McGrady tallied 37 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists for the Magic while Bryant led all scorers with 38 points in March 2004. Orlando led by as many as 19 points in the game and by 15 points after three quarters. With the Magic up 102-92, Bryant scored the final 10 points of regulation to force overtime. In the extra period, Bryant assisted on a three-pointer by Gary Payton that turned out to be the game-winner in a 113-110 victory for Los Angeles.
The Magic may have never advanced past the first round during the McGrady era, but the regular season wasn’t the only time that McGrady and Bryant would square off. The two went at it in four straight All-Star Games with the middle two being quite the spectacle.
Back home in Philadelphia in 2002, Bryant was named the MVP of the game with 31 points in a 135-120 win for the Western Conference, but McGrady paced the East with 24 points. The following year in Atlanta, McGrady finished with 29 points to 22 for Bryant, but the West prevailed in double-overtime, 155-145.
Two Hall of Famers
After his four seasons in Orlando, McGrady would be traded to the Houston Rockets where he would remain an All-Star for the next three seasons. Over that stretch, McGrady and Bryant would meet four times per season. As McGrady did in his tenure in Orlando, Bryant would win consecutive scoring titles during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 NBA seasons.
In McGrady’s final full season in Houston — the 2008-09 season — the Rockets and Lakers would meet in the Western Conference Semifinals, but the former Magic star was unable to play due to injury. The Lakers would win the series in seven games and go on to beat Orlando in the NBA Finals.
McGrady spent almost six seasons with the Rockets, but his best seasons came in Orlando. As one of the last men on the San Antonio Spurs’ bench, McGrady did get to play in the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, but the Spurs were defeated in seven games.
McGrady was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. The NBA recently said that it would make an exception with its eligibility rules to make Bryant a member of the 2020 class.
Throughout their legendary careers, McGrady and Bryant were part of some special individual match-ups. Theirs against one another during their primes was certainly something to see.