What happened to the Orlando Magic?

Most sports stories are about something special. This one isn’t

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Cover art by Peterson J. Guerrier
Cover art by Peterson J. Guerrier

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click to enlarge Dennis Salvagio - Photo by Brian Carlson
Photo by Brian Carlson
Dennis Salvagio

Sure, there have been moments of blissful brilliance for Magic teams over the years. Take the night of May 7, 1995, Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The only thing standing between the Magic's first win of the series was the Chicago Bulls and a 32-year-old Michael Jordan. With 18 seconds left on the clock, the Magic were down by one and the ball was in Jordan's holy hands, but that changed when Orlando guard Nick Anderson swiped it away. Seizing the opportunity, Orlando center Horace Grant raced down the court, finishing off the play with a fast-break slam-dunk, sending Orlando Arena into an all-out frenzy. The Magic would go on to take the series against the Bulls, dropping just two games in the process, only to later be swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals.

Or the night of Feb. 9, 2007: With just tenths of a second left on the clock and the Magic all tied up against San Antonio, Orlando forward Hedo Turkoglu passed the ball as prodigal center Dwight Howard launched himself over the Spurs' Tim Duncan. Howard's aggressive slam-dunk seemed to reverberate – the stadium might as well have shaken – and another win was carved into the Magic's season. Later that year, though they'd qualify for the postseason, the Magic would end up being swept by the Detroit Pistons in the opening round of the playoffs.

The above is nostalgia at its finest, not even counting how the Magic would reappear in the 2009 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers – once again losing the championship series.

Then there's this season, which has been defined by nights like Nov. 18, 2017, when the Magic fell to the Jazz by 40 points – tied for the Magic's worst home loss in franchise history.

For some fans, these recent seasons have been enough to throw up their hands. Magic jerseys began to collect at the backs of closets. Some local sports bars simply stopped tuning into the games unless customers asked, which happened less and less frequently. In recent months, apathy began to set in, or so it seemed as fewer and fewer fans trickled through downtown on their way to games.

"Magic fans have been very, very spoiled," says Philip Rossman-Reich, editor of the website Orlando Magic Daily. "In year four of the franchise's existence, they won the NBA Draft Lottery and got one of the biggest stars in the world in Shaquille O'Neal. Year five, they were in the playoffs. Year six, they were in the Finals. Magic fans have watched this team experience success very, very, very quickly, and things haven't really reached that peak [lately]."

Rossman-Reich has been on the Magic bandwagon for as long as he can remember. He came of age in the Tracy McGrady years, from 2000–2004. (McGrady was recently inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame.) He and his family are longtime season ticket holders; he grew up sitting in literal shouting distance of Salvagio.

He, too, has seen Magic fans begin to fall off the bandwagon.

"I think certainly while there's a number of fans who are staying away and don't want to necessarily invest the money to go to a game until they're winning, until there's a clear path," Rossman-Reich says. "I do think fans want to see that happen and want to still be engaged in that process, even if it means more pain in the short term."

Rossman-Reich likes to note the sociology of Magic fans. He draws a parallel between the fans and their city. The city has always had a chip on its shoulder, he says, and that applies to the local sports world as well.

"I think a lot of us local residents want people to view this city as more than just Disney," he says.

But, Rossman-Reich continues, that same identity crisis explains why Magic fans took it so hard when Dwight Howard left in 2012. Can you blame them? With Howard's departure, they lost not only their franchise player but also a first overall draft pick, an NBA All-Star and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, among a number of other accolades.

Further complicating matters, Howard's departure was ugly. After several seasons of less-than-ideal finishes – not counting the NBA Finals run in 2009 – Howard began knocking the Magic's front office and demanding to be traded. He was off to Los Angeles by August 2012, only months removed from becoming the Magic's all-time leading scorer.

"I think a lot of fans were damaged by how poorly everyone handled Dwight Howard's exit from the team," Rossman-Reich says. "It was handled poorly by everyone: players, coaches, management, everyone just kind of bungled it in this attempt to avoid doing what Shaq did."

It obviously didn't work. Like Shaq had done 16 years prior, Howard was gone like the wind, with dollar signs in his eyes and Orlando in the rearview mirror. It didn't end there, though: Head coach Stan Van Gundy, who had led the Magic to the playoffs in all five seasons of his tenure, was out as well after rumors started flying that Howard gave upper-management an ultimatum between him or the head coach leaving. So Van Gundy was out, but Howard left anyway.

It felt like a slight against the city.

Says Salvagio, who went as far as to trademark the name "The Dwight House" in an effort to convince Howard to stay (he still owns it): "And then Dwight came. And then he left. And it's been bad ever since."

Asked to comment for this story, the Magic front office rejects its premise: "Our fans have been incredibly loyal and shown great passion, while embracing our journey," writes spokesman Joel Glass in an email. "To date, we've averaged 17,947 fans per game, which would be the highest attendance average in six years, while selling out 14 games, which is equal to our most sellouts in six years. In addition, we rank No. 1 in the NBA in group ticket sales and No. 2 in single-game ticket sales."

So too does Orlando's mayor and the city's No. 1 Magic booster, Buddy Dyer. "The Magic are actually number two in the league in attendance, and I think that's pretty remarkable," Dyer says. "When you've had six years in a row without a winning team and you're still second in the league in attendance, it talks about how they have a strong fan base."

Those attendance figures are correct. But do they tell the whole story?

Ticket sales are one thing for a professional sports franchise, but the number of fans actually in the stands is another. If you've taken a look at the stands during a game inside the Amway Center in recent weeks, you'll notice a dwindling population. Indeed, true fans are such a rare breed these days that during a March 22 home game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando fans were drowned out by the dull roar of Sixers fans yelling: "Eagles! Eagles! Eagles!" It wasn't even a reference to the same sport, but a continuing celebration of Philly's Super Bowl win in January.

"The Magic will say that their attendance is still good," says David Baumann, a sports reporter who's covered the team since 2004; he's a part of News 13's panel show Spectrum Sports 360 and writes a column on the Magic for the website 407area.com. "They're able to take a look at ticket sales and say that they're still doing just fine, but everything is still pretty stark and palpable."

Baumann notes how ecstatic both the city and the Magic were when they made their latest run at the Finals in 2009.

"The energy level in Orlando was amazing," Baumann says. "You could feel it; you could see it; you could hear it in the arena."

But he says the difference between then and now is grim.

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