With the ongoing NBA hiatus, it seems as good a time as any to talk about how each of us became a fan of the Orlando Magic. In Part I of the series, Zach Oliver discusses the impact the Magic have had on his life. In Part II, Garrett Townsend reflects on how the Magic stole a piece of his heart.
As an NBA fan, I was an unrestricted free agent.
I was born and raised in New York, but my dad was a Boston Celtics fan. By the time I was of age to truly appreciate the game, the Celtics had just entered the post-Larry Bird era and I had no generational ties to a New York Knicks team that would soon come within one win of an NBA championship.
Then one afternoon while my grandpa was watching the news, I looked up to see a highlight of an NBA player tearing down a backboard in New Jersey.
Captivated, I instantly became a fan of Shaquille O’Neal, and from that came an allegiance to the Orlando Magic.
And 27 years later to the day, here we are. It was a long-term contract.
That moment, overdramatic as this may sound, altered my life. As a blossoming sports fan, it changed my interests, and as a result, led to lifelong friendships and relationships, shaped my personality, and ultimately placed me on a career path that would lead to me becoming a sportswriter in New York. A job that would one day grant me access to the Magic locker room, and put me on the phone with Shaq himself, and introduce me to the very people that my 10-year-old-self worshipped.
When you get to peak behind the curtain, your fandom fades. You start to root more for the best storyline or whatever will help you make deadline. But it’s still there, dormant at times, but always waiting/hoping to surface and live vicariously for the younger version of yourself that cried after the 1995 NBA Finals and drank too much after the 2009 NBA Finals.
Here are some photos from along the way. Check out that Shaq shirt...
When I applied to be a writer for OPP, I attached my sixth grade school photo (Seth Pollack can confirm), for which I was wearing a black Shaquille O’Neal jersey. I also wore a Magic shirt on photo day the following year before some fashion sense kicked in.
I once went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and while everyone else was in Yankees and Dodgers and Cubs jerseys, I was in full Orlando Magic attire.
I had (and proudly wore) Shaq’s hypnotize sneakers. I possess every Magic warm-up shirt and jacket from the mid-to-late 90s.
I own a Lil Penny doll and a lifesize cardboard cutout of Penny Hardaway.
I have autographed Shaq and Penny jerseys hanging on the wall and pre-ordered their soon-to-be-released Funko Pops.
My childhood neighbor, now in his 60s, to this day calls me Shaq-man. I cried when Shaq left Orlando, and in the days that followed, my bedroom looked like this.
I say that the best Christmas gift I ever received was when my parents got me tickets to my first Magic game in 1995, the only time I got to see Shaq and Penny as teammates in person. I also claim that I’ve been to more Magic/Knicks games at Madison Square Garden than everyone but David Steele, and it very well may be true.
I went to a Magic/Knicks game at MSG in 2000 and brought a bag of Hershey Kisses to give to Darrell Armstrong because he ate them before games. I was denied the opportunity to give them to him in the arena, but the Magic bus broke down outside and I ended up getting a meet-and-greet with the entire “Heart & Hustle” team and got to have a lengthy conversation about Magic basketball with David Steele. I gave Armstrong the Hershey Kisses (he thanked me profusely), and I got his autograph, along with Doc Rivers, Michael Doleac, Pat Garrity and Corey Maggette.
Twice in my life, I’ve flown to Orlando to attend a Magic game, and flown back to New York the very next morning. Since you asked, it was for Game 2 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and for Dwight Howard’s first game back in Orlando with the Lakers. Both were losses, one of which made for a long flight home as I wondered at 30,000 feet what could have been if Vince Carter hadn’t missed both free throws.
And years later. a change in laundry...
But that’s what being a sports fan is all about: cherishing the highs, battling through the lows, waiting for that merciful rise to return.
Sometimes I imagine a Back-to-the-Future-like alternate reality where my grandpa changes the channel before I ever see Shaq rip down the backboard. Perhaps in the pre-Internet era I don’t see it until long after I get wrapped up in the Knicks’ battles with Michael Jordan and eventual run to the NBA Finals, and 30 years later I am a long-suffering, Dolan-hating Knicks fan.
In that reality, I never celebrate Nick Anderson’s stealing the ball from Jordan or shed a tear over his four missed free throws, I never experience Dwight Howard leading the Magic to the Finals or give second thought to the circus that was the Dwightmare, I never have Shaq and Penny as childhood heroes or mourn their departure and remain forever haunted by what could have been.
I wouldn’t care about Grant Hill’s ankle, or Tracy McGrady prematurely talking about the second round, or Fran Vazquez, or Rob Hennigan, or Mario Hezonja, or the whiteboard, or the Shelvin Mack assists graphic, or the Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris trades, or the 2030 championship guarantee.
I wouldn’t be here writing this.
As an Orlando fan, there may have been a little more bad than good along the way, but the good was very good. There’s no championship to show for it, and over the last decade the Magic have made us wonder if there ever will be, but from the cherished experiences I’ve had on and off the court....
I signed with the right team.