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Original Issue


By April 28, the Magic was drowning. Trailing two games to none
in their best-of-five Eastern Conference first-round series with
the Heat, the Magic players were bickering over their poor
performance, smarting from renewed criticism over the way they
pushed for the dismissal in February of coach Brian Hill and
wondering aloud how they could win a game without forward Horace
Grant, who was out for the series with a severe sprain of his
right wrist. (Adding to the turmoil, Grant claimed that he had
suffered not a sprain but a fracture that was misdiagnosed by
the Magic's doctors.)

Orlando's Penny Hardaway, an emotional 6'7" All-Star guard, had
been identified by the media as the ringleader in the mutiny
against Hill, and he was crumbling under the weight of that
notoriety. The fickleness of the Magic fans rankled and
distracted him. Furthermore, before Game 2, Hardaway was asked
by NBC's Jim Gray if he would like Magic interim coach Richie
Adubato to return next season. "I can't say," Hardaway answered.

Naturally, it wasn't the response Adubato had hoped for. "At
first I was thinking, Geez, Penny, an endorsement really would
have helped," he said a few days later. "I was disappointed. But
then I started thinking about the pressure he was under, and I
realized it was too much for him to deal with at that point."

Hardaway's inability to handle that pressure left rival teams'
general managers questioning not only his character but also his
leadership skills. Wasn't this the player who had promised the
Magic he would carry the load when center Shaquille O'Neal
jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer? Wasn't Hardaway
supposed to challenge Michael Jordan for the scoring title?
Wasn't he an elite player who made everyone better?

There was little evidence of that in Games 1 and 2 against
Miami, in which Hardaway's averages (19.5 points, 2.5 rebounds,
2.5 assists, 44.4% shooting) were underwhelming. Adubato,
sensing that his best player was overloaded, pulled him off the
point before Game 3 so he wouldn't have to chase Miami's 6-foot
point guard, Tim Hardaway, and wouldn't have to concentrate on
distributing the ball. "All of a sudden," Penny said, "my mind
was clearer."

In the next four days Penny almost single-handedly reversed the
Magic's fortunes--and redeemed his own reputation--with
performances in Games 3 and 4 at Orlando Arena that were
Jordanesque in their brilliance and courage. In Sunday's
decisive Game 5 in Miami, Hardaway (33 points and six assists,
both team highs) and Orlando came out 91-83 losers, but they had
gained some needed respectability. "If we hadn't forced Game 5,
all the old stuff would have started cropping up again," Penny
said after Game 4. "We put the questions to rest. The respect is
ours now."

On April 29, when Magic center Rony Seikaly went out early in
Game 3 with torn ligaments in his right foot, Penny assumed the
offensive load, pouring in a game-high 42 points and knocking
down every big shot that mattered in Orlando's 88-75 win. Two
nights later, with Seikaly and Grant in street clothes and Magic
forward Derek Strong hobbled by a hip pointer, Hardaway exploded
again, racking up 41 points, four steals, three blocks and seven
rebounds and basking in the roar of a frenzied O-rena crowd.

Magic officials were relieved. They had fretted over the
thin-skinned Penny ever since Orlando fans had booed him on
draft day in 1993 because they wanted Chris Webber instead.
(Webber's draft rights were traded to the Golden State Warriors
for the rights to Penny.) Early in his career, when Penny's
ability to play the point was questioned around the league, he
dwelled on the doubts.

Penny was also bothered when, the night after Hill was fired,
fans at the O-rena booed every Magic player except newcomer
Seikaly. For weeks afterward in the Orlando locker room, Seikaly
felt shunned by his own teammates, a situation that could have
been avoided had Penny stepped forward to defuse the tension.

Will Penny be able to forget this tumultuous season? His
seven-year, $70 million contract has an escape clause following
the 1998-99 season. As recently as last month, according to
sources close to him, he was thinking about playing elsewhere.
Magic management is aware that he might bolt, which explains in
part why there's an urgency to draw a big-name coach--Chuck Daly
and Phil Jackson were the names being bandied about last
week--to Orlando. "I think Penny will stick around," says his
close friend and teammate Nick Anderson. "He has some things to
take care of here."


The fun is over for the Timberwolves. Now the real work begins.
Although Minnesota's first playoff appearance ended in a sweep
by the Rockets, the young T-Wolves earned the adoration of their
fans, the endorsement of Charles Barkley ("They are not only
great players but great kids," said Sir Charles) and a rare
visit to the Target Center by commissioner David Stern. However,
the Timberwolves are acutely aware that to keep their fans
passionate and retain their 20-year-old stars, small forward
Kevin Garnett and point guard Stephon Marbury, they must take
another step upward and make roughly a five- to six-victory
improvement over this season's 40-42 mark.

The immediate priority is to sign Garnett this summer, a goal
Minnesota is not as confident it can attain as it was two months
ago. Garnett, who can be a free agent in the summer of '98,
loves Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin
McHale and loves playing alongside and hanging around with
Marbury. But Minnesota is a small market, which limits Garnett's
endorsement opportunities.

To attract free agents, the T-Wolves will try to clear some
salary-cap room. If, as expected, center Stojko Vrankovic
returns to Europe, that will free up $4 million of cap money.
Minnesota also hopes to address the nettlesome situation caused
by guard Micheal Williams, who has played just 10 games in the
past three seasons because of a left plantar fascia injury and
refuses to retire. Williams has two years left on his contract
at $2.7 million a season; the Timberwolves plan to petition the
league to remove him from their cap.

If it succeeds in these cap maneuvers, Minnesota will have
significant money to spend in the free-agent pool. Look for the
team to make a big push for Bulls forward-center Brian Williams.


File this under "Truth is stranger than fiction": The Greek team
Panathinaikos, which last October accused Dominique Wilkins of
feigning injuries as an excuse to return the U.S. and took him
to court over the dispute, hopes to woo him back. Wilkins bailed
out on a two-year, $7 million contract in Greece to play for the
NBA minimum ($247,500) in San Antonio. Wilkins will not be with
the Spurs next season (he'll look for bigger money
elsewhere)--nor, we can assure you, will he be with
Panathinaikos.... Center Robert Parish, a 43-year-old
grandfather and the oldest player in the NBA, quietly told Bulls
officials he'll retire at the end of this season, his 21st.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Shaking off Miami defenders and skeptics, a Jordanesque Penny buffed up his tarnished image. [Penny Hardaway in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO The high-flying Garnett must decide if Minnesota is big enough for him. [Kevin Garnett dunking basketball in game]