What happened to the Orlando Magic?

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

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

Dennis Salvagio isn't a bandwagon type of guy, OK?

"I'm living with – what is it? – love, honor and obey," Salvagio says, as he sits at the kitchen table inside his family's large light-pink home in rural Chuluota. It's a secular point of view for a sports fan, borrowed from his lifelong Catholic faith and similar to the time-honored vows he took with his wife of 45 years, Mary, who's standing in the kitchen. "I'm living with that kind of loyalty to my team."

Salvagio, 69, stands at a squat five-foot-four and 240 pounds. Still, his charisma is evident the moment you shake his hand. He's personable but quick and to the point – a mannerism developed through his career as a criminal defense attorney, from which he's now retired. He's outgoing, a competitive ballroom dancer who has traveled to more than 60 countries. He's kind, the type of man who would give you the shirt off his back, with brown eyes that flicker when the corners of his smile twist beneath the mantle of his round face.

As charming as he is, what stands out most about Salvagio is the fact that he's a firebrand super-fan of the Orlando Magic, the type of zealot who only misses three or four home games each season. In fact, if you've been to a Magic home game over the last 29 years, you've probably witnessed Salvagio in action at some point: He's the rabid fan who's usually jogging around the court when the game gets close or heads into overtime, at times fully dressed in custom-made Magic regalia, looking like an Orlandoan Evel Knievel.

But that seems to be happening less and less frequently. Magic games are rarely tight these days. Simply put, the team is downright awful.

"Everybody talks to me. I know when they're doing bad, because people will come up to me and say, 'Oh, they're terrible, blah, blah, blah. They're tanking it,'" Salvagio says. "I hear all that from everybody, OK?"

It's early March, just a couple hours before the Magic tip off against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. Predictably enough, the Magic will go on to lose in ugly fashion.

"We're messing up," Salvagio says flatly.

The conversation feels somewhere between therapeutic and abrasive. Most sports enthusiasts can relate, especially the losing kind, and most especially die-hards like Salvagio. He, like anyone who's had their heart dragged through the muck of suck, understands how the howling pain of defeat is only worsened when a franchise has a long rebuilding process to look forward to. In the case of the Magic, that process has yet to make a difference – not this season, not last season, not the season before, nor the season prior to that. The list goes on in losing accord, as have the bad upper-management hires and wasted draft picks and backfiring trades.

So what happened to the Magic? While hard-core fans like Salvagio have maintained their love, honor and obey approach, other local sports aficionados have opted to cuss, holler and pray. How much longer will fans have to wait until that abracadabra moment, when everything finally comes together? How much longer can the Magic continue its losing ways before a mutiny between team and fans takes place?

Or has it already?

If you're going to understand Salvagio as a fan, you have to understand the folkloric manner in which he earned the nickname the "Fat Guy."

The date was March 3, 1990. The Magic's inaugural season was entering the backstretch. Salvagio, his eldest son, Anthony, and two of Salvagio's close friends were sitting in the stands of Orlando Arena, Section 102, Row L. The first overtime period was underway, a nail-biter against the Washington Bullets, and the Magic's new-to-this crowd wasn't as enthused as Salvagio would have liked.

So Salvagio, being the bon vivant he is, stood up and began to dance. Well, not so much dance. Think of it more like a manic shake of the body, as if the NBA's holy ghost had come over him. His wild mop of hair flew, adding to his off-his-rocker aesthetic. The extra skin on his frame took a moment to catch up to his body's quick jolts. Salvagio was in his element: jovial, merrily manic, loose. Magic fans had yet to see anyone like him.

The sold out crowd – all 15,077 of them – was enthralled. According to an article published in the Orlando Sentinel the next day, when Salvagio stood up to shake out his Magic jitters, Orlando Arena sound technicians said the crowd's roar grew to 120 decibels – then the loudest ever recorded in the arena.

The camera guy noticed as well. "You're up on the screen," Salvagio's friend told him. So Salvagio sat down, but the crowd cheered him back to his feet. He kept on dancing.

The Magic lost in double overtime that night, but it didn't stop there. The next day, as a way to track down the dancing stranger, Sentinel reporter Bill Marx wrote a rather unflattering poem in ode to the man he dubbed the Fat Guy: "The Round Mound of O-Town. To you, Mr. Fat Guy, I give this humble offering, hoping you will accept it graciously and return to the O-rena for more of the Fat Guy Shuffle ... The Fat Guy can boogie, The Fat Guy can dance. ... Weight left – BOOM! Weight right – BOOM! Shimmy shimmy shake shake boom boom boom!"

At the bottom of the poem, a note read: "If the Fat Guy's out there, tell him to give me a call."

As one of Salvagio's sons drove him to Sunday Mass, the newly dubbed Fat Guy noticed Marx's poem while flipping through the paper. He followed up with the reporter.

"So I call the Sentinel and I says, 'Is Bill Marx there?'" Salvagio says, the subtleties of his native Philly accent making an appearance. "And they said no, and I says, 'Well, tell him the Fat Guy called.' And he called me right back."

Salvagio adds: "I thought I would have my 15 minutes of fame and it'd be over. But the next game people brought signs to the arena – 'Fat Guy!' It was incredible."

The rest was history. Salvagio, a natural showboat, couldn't argue with the persona bestowed upon him. The Fat Guy's legacy would only cement itself when he made a tradition out of running laps around the O-rena. He became a sort of cult figure around town, and beyond: In 1991, Salvagio was even named fan of the year by the NBA's television show Inside Stuff.

The Fat Guy's persona helped Salvagio bond with the Magic, and they to him. But that doesn't mean he's been immune to the tragedy that's become synonymous with the team over the past several years. The same goes for his wife, Mary, who's been by her husband's side through thick and thin with the Magic.

"When Shaq left," Mary says in her soft-spoken tone, pausing for a moment as if she's paying her respects to a dead loved one. (She's, of course, referring to Shaquille O'Neal, whom the Magic drafted first overall in the 1992 NBA Draft before he left town in 1996 for a seven-year, $121 million contract with the Lakers.) "I'll never forget it, because I was listening to the radio while they were making that decision. And then, when he picked up the L.A. hat, it felt like I was punched in the stomach."

Salvagio only offers one word on the matter: "Betrayal."

Like a bad taste in your mouth, betrayal has a way of sticking around long after the deed is done. But broken hearts have a way of mending, at least until they're broken again.

In the waning hours of April 11, the Magic put the finishing touches on the franchise's sad 29th season. Since the opening tipoff against the Miami Heat in October, most observers expected a losing season, considering how the Magic have consistently flailed over the past several years.

What wasn't expected, however, was just how badly this season would actually go. By mid-April, the team had only managed to produce 25 wins against 57 losses. They fired head coach Frank Vogel after finishing among the NBA's basement-dwellers, again, second to last in the Eastern Conference – one game ahead of the equally miserable Atlanta Hawks. Which is all just a sports-speak way of tip-toeing around the fact that the Magic are fucking terrible.

At times play this season has been so appalling that some fans have drank the season's-end Kool-Aid, hoping the Magic will tank the remainder of the season for the sake of bettering the team's odds in the NBA Draft lottery. Making matters worse, with a number of NBA teams doing equally as bad as the Magic, they're all essentially in a race to see who can suck the worst.

But even if some folks consider it theoretically sound to finish last for draft purposes, what sort of fan celebrates a team with one of the worst records in the NBA? What's there to hoot and holler over when the Magic can't even win 30 games?