When the Orlando Magic entered the league in 1989, there was a lot of excitement here in the City Beautiful. Finally, a real professional “big 3” sports franchise that would be playing downtown.
But the time of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was coming, and nothing was going to stop them. Especially, an expansion team. Everyone here already knew that.
As ESPN kicks off the highly anticipated “Last Dance” documentary series chronicling the final chapter of the Bulls dynasty, here is a quick look at basketball life in Orlando while it was at it’s peak.
The truth is that even when the Magic arrived, we were all Jordan fans. His Nike merchandise was everywhere and he was already considered the best basketball player in the world. There were Saturday morning cartoons (Pro Stars) and slam dunk contests being re-watched on VHS.
Orlando was sadly a non factor when the Bulls finally beat the Bad Boys from the Detroit Pistons and a dated showtime Lakers team. Your casual Orlando basketball fan was interested in their team but simply fascinated with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson.
Other teams had a fan presence here in Central Florida. The Knicks and the Celtics were still popular here as the community filled with northern transplants. The community loved the brand new Amway Arena and the world class events we were finally getting.
But that arena was still Chicago Stadium south when the Bulls came to town.
But there was a person that would finally swing that excitement back to where it was supposed to be.
His name was Shaquille O’Neal.
After the Magic drafted O’Neal, the Amway Center became “The Love Shaq” (I know) and Orlando finally rallied around their own team. Penny Hardaway would also come to Orlando and we would have “Blue Chips” right here in our community. Lil’ Penny commercials voiced by Chris Rock on TV.
After Jordan returned from his retirement, it was Orlando that proved to be their biggest road block from returning to greatness. This lead to the Magic making their first NBA finals appearance where the Rockets easily pushed the younger team aside to cement the greatness of players like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Shaq and Penny would eventually bail on us too. But Orlando was never again in love with another athlete that wasn’t truly their own.
Today, the split over sports loyalty continues in Orlando. As more and more families continue to relocate here, they’re not converting. This is why it’s possible to walk into the Amway Center on any given night against a big market team and see the Magic playing an away game on their own floor.
But Orlando does have a chapter in the Michael Jordan story. An important one. And it will be interesting to see what role they’ll have in this docuseries.