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Postcard From Orlando: Rekindling the Magic

A long-suffering Magic fan returned to Orlando to see his hometown team in the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade. The result wasn’t pretty, but there’s reason for hope.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t know if you are, or have ever been, emotionally invested in a sports franchise that has been truly terrible for an extended period of time, but I do not recommend it. There’s an episode from The Simpsons in which a music festivalgoer asks his friend whether he’s being sarcastic, and the friend replies that he doesn’t even know anymore. That’s a bit like watching the past seven years of Orlando Magic basketball. You’re not sure what to believe. Do I really consider Khem Birch to be a good player or has my brain been poisoned by bad basketball? Wait, do I still think Elfrid Payton could be OK in the right system? NBA basketball is probably at its aesthetic peak right now—almost the entire league is fun to watch. Being a fan of the Magic during this era is like getting really into John Wick but having to root for the other assassins at the Continental Hotel. It’s not ideal.

The Magic played 574 regular-season games between their last playoff appearance in 2012 and Game 1 of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors. Many of those games were unspeakably bad, and the stakes were often unclear. If your team is tanking, you are supposed to root against it, which I did, particularly late in each season. And since the Magic’s rebuild never had much of a clear stopping point, I wasn’t exactly sure when I was supposed to start rooting for them again.

The answer, if it wasn’t clear already, came this spring, when Orlando made its first legitimate run at a playoff spot since Barack Obama’s first term. At the time of their last playoff game, I was a few weeks into dating someone whom I married a year ago. I was not yet an NFL writer. Most notably, I was young, and now I am washed. It was a long time ago. On Sunday, I was in Orlando to watch the Magic in front of a raucous home crowd as they hosted the Raptors for Game 4.

This was it.

Journalists often write paragraphs—sometimes even entire stories!—before the event they’re writing about is completed. It’s a common time-saving technique, one I’ve used sparingly when I’m certain of what’s going to happen. Somewhere in the cloud is a paragraph I wrote about the Seahawks’ emerging dynasty, written a few hours before Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson to seal the Patriots’ win in Super Bowl XLIX.

Before Sunday, I wrote a few paragraphs about what it meant to attend my first Magic playoff game in my hometown in nearly a decade. They were full of hope and generally reflected what I was feeling on the five-hour flight from California to Florida. I attended the game as a fan, with friends, and not as a journalist, but I had some assumptions as to what would happen. In my day job as a football writer, I am neutral, fact-based, and love to report and gather information. I moonlight as an Orlando Magic homer and was convinced that they were capable of upsetting one of the most talented teams in the NBA. The Magic were playing consequential games for the first time in seven years. It meant something, and it was going to be great.

Those paragraphs will not appear here, or anywhere, because I’d forgotten what the experience of watching meaningful basketball felt like after a seven-year absence. I had the most authentic sports experience of all on Sunday night: I had a really bad time. I was looking to be a real fan again, and I got what I deserved. A crushing, 107-85 loss that gave the Raptors a 3-1 series lead, effectively ending the Magic’s season, and leaving a dull ache in my stomach that had been gone for seven years. Hey, the Magic are back, and I got everything that comes with it.

There was progress: The Magic’s players do not, as they had under previous head coaches Jacque Vaughn, Scott Skiles, and Frank Vogel, look like they just met before the game. They run plays under current coach Steve Clifford, an improvement on previous regimes. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and the currently injured Mo Bamba make up a core of young players the team can probably build around.

The Magic, however, have no real edge in the series. There are no positional matchups in which they have a clear advantage. They are decent at shooting 3s—tied for 10th in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season—but the Raptors are better. None of the ingredients for an upset of this magnitude are on their side. The Magic swept the season series against the Celtics and split with the Sixers—and there’s a case to be made they would have been able to steal more games against those teams—but the Raptors are far too good. Kawhi Leonard is averaging 28 points and shooting 53 percent from the field. The fact that D.J. Augustin was the star in Orlando’s miraculous Game 1 win was probably a red flag that the Magic’s performance in that game was unsustainable.

Sunday night, everyone generally agreed, was a pretty dreadful night. But I learned that Orlando is ready to care about basketball again.

My favorite Orlando Magic moment is sort of obscure. Almost all Orlando Magic moments are because it’s the Orlando Magic we’re talking about, but let’s leave that aside. In 2008, Hedo Turkoglu hit back-to-back 3-pointers with about three minutes to go in a second-round playoff game against the Pistons. I’d driven three hours from my college campus to go to the game with my mom. This moment, which came amid a 4-1 series loss, stands out because before it happened, I was absolutely certain there would never be any good times for the Magic ever again. They hadn’t won a playoff series in 12 years. All of their stars—Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady—had bailed. At one point, the team looked likely to move. But that Turkoglu sequence brought a roar back to the old Orlando Arena that I figured I would never hear again. I had a similar feeling over the past seven years—that the old Orlando energy was dead, and that the botched tank had killed it. I was wrong.

This sentiment is important to note because of the overwhelming sense that Orlando had grown apathetic to the Magic. No one hated the Magic. Even at their worst, when Elfrid Payton couldn’t shoot and Mario Hezonja couldn’t do anything, they were bemusing, but not hateable. Instead, the fan base became indifferent, and that’s why Sunday was so unusual. The loss clearly hurt, and that hasn’t been common. If there’s any silver lining, it’s learning that Magic crowds can still feel that way. Raptors coach Nick Nurse said the crowd was so loud during Friday’s Game 3 that it was difficult to communicate with his team during a timeout.

Sports, like politics, is local, so former Magic guard Darrell Armstrong’s appearance on the Jumbotron on Sunday night caused a cheer that would have made one think he was one of the league’s greatest-ever players (which is true). This is in stark contrast to previous years, when the Orlando crowd couldn’t be bothered for much: I remember a home game I attended against the Pelicans, where Jameer Nelson, nearing the end of his career, checked into the game during the fourth quarter and received an ovation from—maybe—dozens of people inside the arena. Nelson is one of the best Magic players in the past 20 years. This tweet from Josh Robbins sticks with me about how unaware the crowds could be:

Magic fans’ renewed enthusiasm for their team, while nice, is a very small consolation prize. The Magic still have a way to go to compete with a team like the Raptors. By the fourth quarter, the energy was zapped from the building. I slumped into my seat. The person to my right, hugely invested when the game started, was clearly shopping on Amazon. My friends and I made a few more second-half beer runs than were scheduled. After the game, everyone quietly headed home. Well, everyone except this brawling Easter Bunny:

The team might have lost, but it was a different type of loss than the hundreds that Magic fans have endured this decade: the type of loss that meant something.

As we left, an Orlando fan, clearly frustrated with the evening’s events, yelled “The Magic suck!” loudly and passionately from the top of a parking garage a few blocks from the arena. People walking below laughed. There were a few years when no one would have yelled that at all. It’s a start.