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Original Issue

Come Hill Or High Water With the first big catch of the free-agent season, the tide turned in Orlando's favor when Grant Hill said he'd sign with the Magic

The Orlando Magic may win the NBA championship next season,
but--and for general manager John Gabriel this has to be a
wake-up-sweating-in-the-middle-of-the-night but--if the season
were to start today, the team would forfeit its opening game
because Orlando, for all its great potential, has only four
players under contract. When Magic executives say they need a
shooting guard, it's because they really need a shooting guard.
The players they have under contract aren't exactly Shaq-beaters,
either: Together they averaged 35.4 points for Orlando last
season, less than what O'Neal averaged for the Lakers in the NBA
Finals this year.

"We know this has the chance to work out pretty well," Gabriel
says of his radical plan to alter the NBA landscape by clearing a
lot of salary-cap room on his roster and trying to sign two free
agents from among the cream of this year's crop: Tim Duncan,
Grant Hill, Eddie Jones and Tracy McGrady. "But we also know it
may be one of those things where people look back and say, What
were they thinking?"

Though the 7-foot Duncan--the biggest catch in every
way--informed the Magic Sunday night that he would remain in San
Antonio, executives around the league were still probably
thinking that they'd like to trade places with Gabriel. The
Magic had already nailed down a commitment from Hill, and they
were optimistic about their chances of signing McGrady or Jones.
If they succeed in re-signing some of their own free agents,
such as center John Amaechi (who last week was offered a
six-year, $16.9 million deal by the Lakers), they should become
instant contenders in the weak Eastern Conference. With as many
as nine first-round picks over the next four years, along with
the growing perception that Orlando has turned into the place
for celebrity athletes to live, Gabriel should be able to
upgrade his team and merrily tinker with its chemistry over the
next couple of years.

As promising as everything seems now, Gabriel's rivals weren't so
envious four years ago, when O'Neal left Orlando as a free agent
to sign a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Lakers. When
coach Chuck Daly announced his retirement in May 1999, shortly
after the Magic lost in the first round of the playoffs, Gabriel
decided to overhaul the team with a wrecking ball. "We didn't
just want to make the playoffs," says Gabriel. "We wanted it

His choice to lead the team, Doc Rivers, turned out to be this
season's coach of the year. Gabriel was voted executive of the
year for that move and for assembling, with cast-off parts, an
egoless, floor-burned team that wasn't eliminated from the
playoffs until the regular season's final day.

Gabriel was a frenetic horse trader last year: He signed,
released or traded 28 players, employed 37 in all and swallowed
$32 million in contracts, culminating in the draft-day
trades--Corey Magette, Derek Strong and one of their first-round
draft picks were sent to the Clippers--that put Orlando more
than $20 million under the salary cap and left the team plenty
of money to hire a couple of high-priced stars.

In May, Gabriel took the unprecedented step of hiring a
recruiting coordinator, former communications director Alex
Martins, who was charged with overseeing the final details of
Orlando's brave experiment in free agency. On July 1, the first
day NBA teams could negotiate with free agents, the Magic hosted
forwards Duncan and Hill, the two biggest prizes on the open
market. They were greeted by hundreds of employees wearing
T-shirts with pictures of the two players bridged by a single
word: IMAGINE. On their way to a meeting with Magic owner Rich
DeVos at the Isleworth golf course community, the players
happened by Tiger Woods, who was in the process of hitting his
tee shot on a long par-3 to within two feet of the pin. Woods,
though he is a Lakers fan, then came over and greeted the two
NBA stars. It was the kind of advertising for the good life that
money can't buy.

But two days later Gabriel was escorting the stars back to the
airport with the sobering knowledge that Hill, who professed to
be on the verge of committing to Orlando, was still planning to
listen to offers from the Knicks, the Bulls, the Spurs and the
team he played for the past six years, the Pistons. "It's like
having your girl say she'd like to date these four other guys,
just to make sure," says Gabriel. "She says, 'Do you mind?' and
you say, 'Yeah, sure, honey, go ahead.' You want to go to the
altar with her, but you're waiting to see if she likes someone
else better."

A few years ago a player in Hill's shoes might have jumped into
bed with the highest bidder. But priorities have changed as a
result of last year's collective bargaining agreement, which puts
a ceiling on the number of years and dollars for which he can
sign. Over the next five seasons (when he would again be eligible
to become a free agent) Hill could earn $56.25 million if he
remained with Detroit, or $54 million if he jumped to Orlando or
Chicago, the only teams that now have enough room under the cap
to offer him the maximum salary.

If money is no longer the deciding factor for the top free
agents, what would be the difference-maker? Teams have been
wooing players with every other inducement imaginable. Indiana
free agent Austin Croshere already has received NBA jerseys with
his name on the back from three clubs hoping to sign him. Hill
got personalized videos with appearances by Oprah Winfrey,
recruiting on behalf of the Bulls, and Jerry Seinfeld, who
pleaded with him to become a Knick. "A lot of what we're doing is
analogous to what college coaches do to attract players," says
Seattle general manager Wally Walker, who is trying to re-sign
6'10" forward Rashard Lewis. "I find myself deferring a lot to
one of our assistant coaches, Dwane Casey, because he was a
college coach for years."

When the 21-year-old McGrady landed in Chicago for a recruiting
visit on Friday, he was greeted by a blues band, the LuvaBulls
cheerleaders and a horde of applauding fans, and later threw out
the first pitch at a Cubs game and led the fans in singing Take
Me Out to the Ballgame--all in hopes of persuading him to accept
the Bulls' offer of $9 million plus annual raises of 10% for six
years. The Bulls were optimistic, but when McGrady left Chicago
on Sunday, it was on a plane headed for Orlando, where he has a
new house in Isleworth. Gabriel and Rivers were at the airport to
greet him.

A short time later Gabriel learned that Duncan had decided to
stay with the Spurs. Among other things, Duncan wanted to
maintain his partnership with center David Robinson, who flew to
San Antonio from his off-season home in Hawaii to meet his
frontcourtmate. The 35-year-old Robinson has said he wants to
play four more years; according to early reports, Duncan was
seeking a three-year contract from the Spurs with an option for a
fourth year that would free him to play elsewhere when Robinson

Adding more NCAA-style zaniness to the proceedings is the fact
that players cannot sign contracts until Aug. 1, because the NBA
accountants need the month of July to settle their books and to
finalize the salary cap for next season. So Gabriel works the
phones, trying to keep his options open while he tries to nail
down others.

Sadly, all of this work was superseded by the news Gabriel
received Thursday night. While driving home from work, he learned
that the body of Cory Erving, son of Magic executive vice
president Julius Erving, had been discovered at the bottom of a
pond on the outskirts of Orlando. "We shut down our work at the
office here today," Gabriel said on Friday. "It's been a hard

The next morning he was back negotiating contracts worth many
millions of dollars, which is easier to do once you realize that
it's all just a game.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN VAN HOOK HAVING A BALL With all of Orlando seemingly at his feet, Hill succumbed to a recruiting pitch reminiscent of his college days.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO A DONE DEAL? Hill (33) figures to be in a Magic uniform next season, but he can still change his mind and go elsewhere.

"We didn't just want to make the playoffs," says Gabriel of his
rebuilding plan. "We wanted it all."