One Magic Place is more than just the mailing address of Orlando
Arena. At the All-Star break last week the Magic had played 25
games there without a loss. Call it the 25-0-rena. Orlando was
three wins shy of setting the NBA record for home victories to
start a season. Three times at home this year, point guard
Anfernee Hardaway had won a game with a buzzer-beater.
But almost everywhere the Magic had traveled this season had
been One Tragic Place. Orlando lost its first road game in
Atlanta by 33 points. Went belly up in Dallas. Lost by 17 in
Toronto. And on Jan. 13, when Hardaway tried to reproduce his
game-winning magic in San Antonio with the Magic trailing by one
point in the waning seconds, he was stuffed by Doc Rivers.
Orlando had collected just nine wins in 23 games away from home
and had suffered so many breakdowns on the road that it should
consider joining AAA.
The Magic's home record was 15 games better than its road mark,
by far the league's largest disparity in that category. During
one 24-hour period last week, the Magic displayed both sides of
its split personality.
Before Orlando played host to the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 6,
Sacramento coach Garry St. Jean jacked himself up by watching a
Ronald Reagan western and then endeavored to fire up his Kings
with a few words borrowed from the Gipper. Nice try. Five
Orlando players scored in double figures, and the Magic cruised
to its 25th consecutive home win, by a 112-102 margin. "Too many
horses, too many Indians, too many arrows," St. Jean said after
the slaughter. "This is a mean den."
The next night, in Detroit, Orlando led the Pistons 76-73 after
three quarters. Then the Magic offense disappeared. Orlando made
one field goal in the fourth quarter, none in the last 11
minutes. The Magic was 1 of 16 from the floor and clanked 5 of
its 10 free throws. Its seven points was the lowest output in
franchise history, and the result was a 97-83 loss.
What's up? Could it be, as his sneaker commercial suggests, that
when Hardaway hits the road he is dogged by the worry that
Little Penny is throwing a party and trashing his house? What do
you say, Penny? "My feeling is that we are just so comfortable
in our place that we relax and have fun here," says Hardaway of
the arena in which the Magic was 63-3 in the regular season
since the start of last season. "We have an arrogance about
ourselves on our court that's missing on the road."
To truly understand the plight of these road worriers requires
first looking at why they're so dominant at home. The atmosphere
is like a camp for kids with overactive pituitaries. After a
practice in January, for example, each player armed himself with
a Supersoaker squirt gun and proceeded to wage water war games
in the hallways of the O-rena. The players swap comic books
before games. Shaquille O'Neal even treated the Kings to a full
moon during a shootaround last week.
Granted, there's no graffiti on the bathroom walls. Rather,
Magic staffers post malapropic platitudes like SUCCESS IS MORE
APTITUDE THAN OPTITUDE, which, as near as we can figure,
translates to SUCCESS IS MORE APTITUDE THAN OPTIMISM. There are
so many fresh-scrubbed faces, so much insufferable good cheer
around the Magic Kingdom, you expect an Up With People concert
to break out any second.
Games in Orlando are accompanied by a cacophony of deafening
music, bells, whistles and firecrackers, with a few flashing
disco balls and lasers thrown in--Lollapalooza with backboards.
It had become such a circus that the NBA adopted new guidelines
in the off-season that forced the Magic and other teams to tone
down their sound and light shows. Then there's Paul Porter, a
public-address announcer with an attitude. "I guess you could
say I'm taunting the opposition when I announce, 'Nooooo
baaaasket...traaaveling,'" intones Porter. "If the environment
we create flusters a player or upsets a coach, that's great."
Porter believes that the frenzy helps Orlando win games. As
evidence he points to the November night when the New Jersey
Nets, apparently dazed and confused by the pyrotechnics, sent
only four players onto the court following a timeout. The
resulting technical foul against the Nets sparked a Magic
comeback in a game Orlando won in triple overtime.
"Strange stuff seems to happen in this building," says forward
Dennis Scott. "I'm not sure why, but our confidence level is
like the difference between night and day at home and on the
road. At home it seems the coach can go down our bench and say,
'Eeny Meeny Miny Mo, who's going to take over this quarter?'"
Unfortunately for the Magic, on the road Eeny gets
double-teamed, Meeny and Miny throw up bricks, and there's no Mo
at all. Orlando's numbers tell the story (chart, page 39). The
Magic scores six fewer points on the road than at home and
allows eight more points away from the O-rena. "It's all part of
our growth process," says coach Brian Hill. "At home we have a
little bit more of a swagger that says we will beat anybody.
What we lack is maturity, a belief that you can walk into any
building and win. Sometimes people lose perspective because Shaq
and Penny are already household names. But remember, neither of
those guys has turned 25."
The callow Magic sometimes loses its aggressiveness in enemy
territory. Take a 93-82 defeat in Portland on Dec. 3. Orlando
was outrebounded 67-31 and attempted 21 fewer free throws than
the Trail Blazers. Especially in fourth quarters away from home,
the Magic often becomes tentative and unimaginative. Plan A is
to dump the ball down low to Shaq. If that doesn't work, then
the perimeter shooters start firing up three-pointers.
It doesn't help matters that Orlando reached the NBA Finals last
June, only six years after its birth. "In nine months we went
from a team hoping to win one playoff game to sizing our fingers
for championship rings," says player personnel director John
Gabriel. "Many people around the league think we just got lucky
in the lottery. We've become a team that clubs love to hate."
That isn't the only downside to the Magic's precocity. "I think
that because we got to the Finals last season, the heads around
here got a little too big," says power forward Horace Grant,
who, with three championship rings from his days with the Bulls,
knows something about what it takes to win an NBA title. "We're
a little spoiled."
The Magic is certainly pampered. Orlando players live and work
in a sunny boomtown. They travel on a $30 million Boeing 737
complete with big-screen televisions and Shaq-sized beds. They
practice in a state-of-the-art facility. Is the good life making
it tough to concentrate?
Magic coaches have tinkered with lineups, rotations, even
colors. In the first half of the season Orlando was 2-5 while
wearing black uniforms, 7-9 in blue. Gabriel believes the Magic
should be thinking Celtics green. "Larry Bird and Kevin McHale
used to say they got their biggest thrill from silencing crowds
on the road," he says. "That's the state of mind our guys must
It would be easy to blame Orlando's woes on injuries. The Magic
has played only 11 games with the starting lineup that carried
it to the NBA Finals. Grant missed 15 games with various leg
injuries, and Shaq sat out 26 with a busted thumb and leg
ailments. Still, during the first half of the season the Magic
showed about the same spunk with Shaq (19-7) as without him
(15-7) and, despite all the injuries, never lost at home.
"They just don't have that road toughness," says Detroit
shooting guard Joe Dumars, who helped lead the Pistons to two
NBA championships. "It's as if they think these February games
don't mean anything. You can't be smiling and laughing. You have
to be all business on the road."
Yet in the aftermath of the debacle in Detroit, everybody in the
Orlando locker room was smiling and laughing. Everybody, that
is, except Grant, the soul of the Magic and the only guy in the
room who owns an NBA championship ring. "We've won so many games
at home that I think guys believe that we can just turn it on
like a light switch," Grant said disgustedly. "Until we start
playing as a team, until guys stop worrying about their
individual statistics, until we play with some heart and effort,
we'll never win a title."
Orlando's mediocrity on the road is especially troubling because
the Magic will almost certainly need to produce a road win
against the mighty Bulls, who have all but clinched the Eastern
Conference's top seed, if it wants another crack at an NBA title
this season. (That will be no small task, considering that
Chicago was 22-0 at home in the first half.) Hill points out
that Orlando lost 12 of its last 15 regular-season road games a
year ago but in the playoffs won two games in Boston to close
out the Celtics. Then the Magic won twice in Chicago to
eliminate the Bulls. Still, no team has won the NBA title with a
losing regular-season road record since the Washington Bullets
did so 18 years ago.
"We're not panicking because we know the NBA season is about
peaks and valleys, and we're still peaking most of the time,"
says O'Neal, illustrating his topographical theory with his
humongous hands. "We're healthy again, and we're not planning to
go downhill anymore."
Says Magic general manager Pat Williams, "Not that long ago we
couldn't win on the road or at home, and my problem was that I
couldn't figure out any other place to play the games. At least
now we can win at home. That's encouraging."
At One Magic Place there's always some room for optitude.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Hardaway and the Magic have fallen on hard times in hostile territory, losing 14 of 23 games. [Anfernee Hardaway falling onto floor while dribbling basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE If the Magic doesn't get a grip on itself, Grant says, it won't win an NBA title. [Horace Grant] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [Shaquille O'Neal sitting on bench]
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Orlando may be closing in on the NBA record for home victories
to start a season, but Shaquille O'Neal (above) and the Magic
have been anything but dominating on the road. Here's how the
defending Eastern Conference champions stacked up at home and on
the road in the first half of the season.
At Orlando On the Road
Magic record 25-0 9-14
Magic points 105.3 99.0
Opponents' points 95.5 103.0
Magic field goal .475 .460
Opponents' field goal .433 .473
Magic free throw 30.36 26.65
attempts per game
Opponents' free throw 23.72 28.60
attempts per game
Magic rebounds 41.88 38.52
Opponents' rebounds 43.08 43.73
Magic turnovers 14.88 14.09
Opponents' turnovers 16.16 14.35
Source: Elias Sports Bureau