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Great Leap Upward

With Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway soaring, the Magic has hit the heights ahead of schedule

There is such a high-tech, futuristic quality to the Orlando Magic that if the team didn't exist, some science-fiction writer would surely invent it. Perhaps the aura comes from Shaquille O'Neal, who, in case you can't see him in person, is also available on compact disc, videocassette and CD-ROM. Or maybe it derives from Anfernee Hardaway, the prototype for the 21st-century player, so versatile that he renders conventional positions obsolete. The Magic shouldn't be atop the Atlantic Division, it should be on exhibit at Orlando's EPCOT Center.

It's only natural, then, to think of the youthful Magic—O'Neal is 22, Hardaway 23 and Orlando's oldest starter, power forward Horace Grant, 29—more in terms of the future than the present, as being destined to win championships later rather than sooner. There are older, more experienced teams that have been waiting for their turn at the top, and the Magic hasn't served the lengthy apprenticeship that seems mandatory before winning an NBA title. In its five-year history, Orlando has been in only one playoff series, an embarrassing three-game sweep by the Indiana Pacers last spring. "Our immediate goal," says Magic player personnel director John Gabriel, "ought to be to win a playoff game."

However, through the first six weeks of this season, Orlando gave every indication that its future is now as it burst out of the gate with a 17-5 record that tied it with the Phoenix Suns for the NBA's best mark. While championships are won in June, not December, there's no ignoring the fact that the Magic has been the best team in the league. It has won convincingly—only five of its victories have been by fewer than 10 points—and it has thrashed both of last season's NBA finalists, beating the defending champion Houston Rockets by 23 and the New York Knicks by 25. True, befitting a maturing team, Orlando has also been thumped twice on the road, losing by 27 to the lowly New Jersey Nets on Dec. 12 and by 40 last Saturday to the Seattle SuperSonics. Nevertheless, Grant, a collector of Sam Cooke recordings, borrowed a line from the late soul singer to describe the Magic start. "We're having a party," he says.

And everybody's swingin'. At week's end the Magic was the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 113.2 points a game. Despite having sat out large parts of blowouts, center O'Neal led the league in scoring (29.7 points a game) and was in the top dozen in rebounding (10.7), field goal percentage (.604) and blocked shots (1.95). Hardaway was averaging 21.9 points a game. The MVP of last year's rookie All-Star game, he is a sure bet to play in this season's main event, in Phoenix on Feb. 12. Together, O'Neal and Hardaway have been the most spectacular duo in the league. O'Neal was the NBA player of the month in November, and Hardaway was the first player of the week named in December.

In fact, Orlando has been so dominant that even the most hardened observers tend to gush with praise. When Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, whose Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA championships and 11 in 13 years between 1956 and '69, was a guest on Magic general manager Pat Williams's radio show recently, he told Williams he never thought any team would approach the Celtics' success. "But after watching your team on TV," Russell said, "I'm not so sure."

Even the Orlando players are somewhat surprised at how quickly the pieces have fallen into place. "We're a little ahead of schedule," says forward Donald Royal. "Nobody's putting us in the finals already, but I don't think anyone assumed we'd be this good this early, not with the new guys having to work their way into the system."

Indeed, free-agent acquisitions Grant and backup point guard Brian Shaw, veterans whom Magic coach Brian Hill refers to as "character guys," have performed exactly as Hill had hoped when they were signed in the off-season. Shaw, late of the Miami Heat, has relieved the 6'7" Hardaway of the burden of running the team and allowed him to concentrate on scoring, which he often does with breathtaking slashes to the basket or by posting up smaller defenders.

Grant, who came to Orlando after winning three championships with the Chicago Bulls, has been the tough rebounder (9.4 per game) and scoring threat (12.3) the Magic had been looking for to complement O'Neal, and he has been a voice of reason and experience in the locker room. "Horace has kept everybody from getting ahead of themselves," says Shaw. "He's already called a couple of meetings, even though we're winning, when he saw us getting into bad habits on defense. And he always wears one of his championship rings. Sometimes that's all that needs to be said." After Hardaway had missed most of the preseason in a contract dispute, Grant quietly but firmly told him it was time to get signed and into camp. Hardaway summoned his representatives to Orlando and told them not to leave until they had reached a deal.

There are only a few areas in which the younger Magic players refuse to follow Grant's lead. For instance, he hasn't been able to get them to fully appreciate the musical talents of Cooke. "When I'm listening to Sam, they've got some rap thing going on," says Grant. "It's not that I'm old, it's that they're so young."

And Grant is alone in his fascination with Greek mythology. "I've always been interested in the Greek gods and their power, their ability to control the sun, the wind, the fire," he says. "When Jeopardy! is on and one of the categories is mythology, don't talk to me." So far, none of his teammates have joined him in one of his favorite pursuits, watching Adventures of Hercules on Saturday mornings. His scouting report on Hercules: "Incredible strength. Half man, half god. One adventure after another."

That sounds almost like O'Neal. A kind of mythology has enveloped the 7'1", 303-pound (a mere 4% of which is fat) Shaq, including the belief that he relies on raw talent alone and doesn't work to broaden his skills because he's more interested in being a celebrity than a champion. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn't any longer. O'Neal has shown a variety of new moves around the basket this season, including jump hooks, turnaround jump shots and drop steps. He may not be ready to make an instructional video on low-post play yet, but he's more than just a dunker, a tag his critics had hung on him.

"He took a lot of bashing over the last two years, and it was always unjustified," says Hill. "People saw the movie [Blue Chips, in which O'Neal and Hardaway both appeared], the videos, the rap albums, and they just assumed that he wasn't doing anything else during the off-season. They never found out that he was spending a couple of hours on his game every day in the summer, because they never asked."

There is something almost sad in the way O'Neal has hardened to the criticism that he believes he won't ever totally escape. He feels he's destined to be a giant who never quite satisfies everyone, no matter what he accomplishes, in much the way Wilt Chamberlain was before him. Even as he enjoys his brilliant early season, he waits for the critics to begin taking their shots. "It's early," he says. "It'll come. It always comes. They'll say, 'He can dunk, but he can't shoot jumpers. He can dunk, but he doesn't have the jump hook or the baseline fadeaway.' " But he is developing those shots, isn't he? "I have 'em," he says. "I have everything."

He doesn't have a championship, but he doesn't think even that will silence the critics. "Getting a ring won't change it," he says. "Winning MVP won't change it. The same thing happened to Michael Jordan. First they said he couldn't win a championship. Then they said he couldn't win back-to-back. Then it was, 'O.K., but can he win three in a row?' It's going to be like that for me as long as I'm in the league."

But shed no tears for Shaq. He's not asking for any, and not just because the $16.7 million he earned last year in salary and endorsements made him the second-highest-paid athlete in sports, according to a ranking in Forbes magazine. O'Neal is one of the rare big men who is comfortable with and even embraces his fame. "He's feasting on life, he's pigging out on it," says Williams. "But he never forgets that what he does on the basketball court makes the other things possible. Watch him flip in a little jump hook over [the Denver Nuggets'] Dikembe Mutombo or shoot a short jumper in the lane against [the Rockets'] Hakeem Olajuwon. He didn't develop those things while he was rapping in a studio somewhere."

Even before O'Neal expanded his offensive repertoire, characterizing him as merely a dunker discounted some remarkable things he did to get in position for the jam. In a 120-96 win over the Nuggets on Dec. 14, Hardaway threw Shaq a length-of-the-court pass that was behind him. O'Neal reached back on the run, plucked the pass out of the air with one hand, whirled and slammed the ball through the hoop.

But what has gained him new respect around the league is his ability to overcome defensive tactics that once stymied him. "When I was with the Bulls, our strategy was to turn him into a passer," says Grant. "We felt that if we double-teamed him, he'd throw the ball away or, even better, to us." Indeed, O'Neal led the league in turnovers his first season (3.8 per game), largely because of his indecision when doubled. That's no longer true (this season he's averaging 2.3 turnovers). On one possession during a 131-128 overtime victory at Golden State last Friday, he was doubled on the baseline and found Grant cutting to the basket for a dunk. "When Horace made that cut, Shaq had his back to him," says Magic assistant Richie Adubato. "That was a pass he probably couldn't have made at this time last year."

So now how can O'Neal be stopped? "Pray for a hurricane," says Sacramento King coach Garry St. Jean. "Your best bet is still to try to force him to turn away from the basket, but that's easier said than done. His strength is so remarkable that people just bounce off him."

In fact, the best strategy against O'Neal is to foul him. After shooting well from the line in his first few games, he has gone back to laying bricks, shooting .563 through Sunday (as a team, the Magic's percentage from the line was a shabby .657, ranking next to last in the league). In close games opponents send him to the line as often as possible.

That's when Hardaway becomes especially valuable, says Hill: "He can get to the basket, he can shoot over smaller guards, he's a brilliant passer, and, if he's fouled, he can knock down the shots." Hardaway is so skilled that he sometimes seems restricted in the point guard's traditional role of passing first and shooting second. But he's thinking like a point guard. After scoring 38 points against the Warriors, the first thing he wanted to know was how many turnovers he had committed. (Eight was the answer.)

"The biggest difference for me this year is patience," Hardaway says. "Last year I was in a hurry to do everything, but now I'm comfortable enough to take my time and see how to attack a defense."

The one thing that tests Hardaway's patience is the regular season. "I can't wait for the playoffs to start so we can make up for that Indiana series," he says. "I want to rush through these 82 games." But there's no need for Hardaway and his teammates to hurry. The present is awfully sweet, and that promising future may be closer than anyone thought.



Shaq is as immovable on D as he is irresistible on offense; just ask Cleveland Cavalier Danny Ferry.



Hardaway's slam over Knick Patrick Ewing was an early-warning shot.



O'Neal's new wrinkles include a devastating jump hook (right), while new acquisition Grant has been a force on and off the court.



Orlando's huge victory margins often leave O'Neal and Hardaway (third and fourth from left) pining.