Doc Discussion: ESPN 30 for 30's 'This Magic Moment'
The study of championship windows is fascinating.
Of course, in the moment, championship windows always appear bigger than they are. Sometimes, there’s really only 1 season to get everything right. Even teams like the 1985 Chicago Bears, who many believe is the greatest team in NFL history, only won 1 title. The challenge of getting the right pieces in place to win a championship is a more exact science than we sometimes realize.
It was the legendary Bob Costas who opened the 1995 NBA Finals by describing the Orlando Magic as a team that is “universally regarded as the NBA’s team of the future. There are almost certainly championships ahead for Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and company.”
And then there weren’t.
ESPN 30 for 30’s “This Magic Moment” documented the rise and fall of one of the rarer teams we’ve ever seen in professional sports. That is, a team with 2 superstars under the age of 25 who landed on an upstart team who was ready to take the league by storm. The documentary examined how, 2 decades after it all went down, the Magic went from the team of the future to one of the great what-ifs in sports history.
Promise unfulfilled? Absolutely. A roller coaster ride that entertained the masses for a brief period in the mid-90s? Without a doubt.
Why did I choose this doc?
So many reasons. Seriously. There’s no possible way to list all the reasons the NBA in the 1990s hits me in a way that few things can, but I’ll try.
I learned how to read by collecting basketball cards as a 4-year old. For real. I’d read the back of them and learn all of their stats. If you ever want to know that B.J. Armstrong went to Iowa and that he was 6-2, 175 pounds, I was your guy.
In the basement of my childhood home in the suburbs of Chicago, I had a Little Tikes hoop where I’d impersonate different NBA players. That is, until I got to kindergarten and graduated to the adult hoop … where I still imitated different NBA players.
Those ’90s Bulls teams were everything. Before every game, my brother and I turned off the lights in the living room and we had our parents introduce us as we ran in for the starting lineups, just like the Bulls. I still remember when I was in kindergarten and my mom stormed into the living room as she was on the phone with my dad at work, and she yelled “we got Rodman! We got Rodman!”
I’ll never forget being in 5th grade and getting to do a creative writing assignment on some historic event. Naturally, I chose the classic triple-overtime thriller that the Bulls actually lost in Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals. To that point, it was the first thing I ever did at school that I legitimately enjoyed doing. That assignment was why I wanted to become a sports writer.
My brother and I asked our parents to buy us all the basketball jerseys. We got some, but for the ones we couldn’t get, my mom would buy tank tops in that color, cut out letters and tape them on. I could rep a different Bulls player every day I walked into preschool. Boss, I know.
What does any of this have to do with the Magic?
While everyone I knew picked Michael Jordan as their favorite player, I’m pretty sure I loved Horace Grant as much as anything on planet earth. My mom bought me different pairs of goggles so I could imitate him on my hoop. That was back when I called his alma mater (Clemson), “Clem-Clem” and I pronounced his first name “Horith.”
When Horith — er, Horace — left the Bulls for the Magic after the 1993-94 season, I jumped on that bandwagon, too. I had one of his jerseys in every color. When he was carried on his teammates’ shoulders following the Magic’s 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals win against the Bulls, I still loved Horace (much to my brother’s chagrin). True story; I have an autographed picture of Grant that hangs in my office that I got when I was 7 years old. That’s my “if the place is burning down” item that I risk it all to grab (much to my wife’s chagrin).
The Magic became the other team that I rooted for. It wasn’t just Horace. It was Shaq and Penny. It was watching something that even a 5-year old in a different time zone couldn’t help but want to consume.
Oh, and I’ve also lived in Orlando for the past 5 years and consider myself a casual Magic fan as a 29-year old adult.
But enough about me.
3 things I liked
1. Loved how they used the pingpong ball effects to remind you of the luck
Directors Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby did such a great job reminding the viewer how this whole thing took several different lucky bounces to play out the way that it did. That was such an important reason why the Magic’s rise occurred in such unprecedented fashion.
In Year 3, an expansion team got the No. 1 overall pick. Is that crazy? No, not really. Orlando had the fifth-best chance at 15.1% that year. Still, getting the opportunity to draft that once-in-a-generation big man out of LSU stunned Magic executive Pat Williams. As soon as the Charlotte Hornets logo came up for the No. 2 pick, they dropped the song from the doc’s namesake, “This Magic Moment.”
There’s this great shot of Williams holding up a Magic jersey that read “O’Neal” with the No. 1. After some drama about O’Neal’s potential desire to force a pre-draft trade, they showed his rookie season in Orlando, when he takes a 21-win team to 41 wins.
The only reason the Magic ended up in the lottery and not in the playoffs was because the Indiana Pacers won the tiebreaker. So basically 1 more win that entire 1992-93 season and Orlando never gets a pingpong ball. I say “a pingpong ball” because that’s literally what the Magic got. Just 1 of the 66 pinballs belonged to Orlando, which gave the team a 1.5% chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick … which they did (cue the “This Magic Moment” again).
It’s still the most unlikely No. 1 overall pick in the 35-year history of the lottery. Do some quick math and yep, that was a 0.2% chance of winning consecutive lotteries. That’s the type of thing that a team 4 years removed from its inception can only dream about.
And as crazy as it is, the Magic were even luckier than that indicated because the polarizing draft night trade of No. 1 overall pick Chris Webber for Hardaway actually netted the franchise an addition 3 future 1st-round picks from the Golden State Warriors.
Don’t get me wrong. The Magic deserved credit for having the stones to take Hardaway and picks instead of Webber. That was something that happened in part because Shaq and Penny were introduced on the set of the cult-classic movie “Blue Chips,” and in part because Penny called the Magic to get one last workout in with them — a private 5-on-5 scrimmage with the team that would never happen today — which he tore up.
Still, though. It was important to capture just how fortunate the Magic were with those pingpong balls. As was said in the doc, “you’d have a better odds of getting struck by lightning.”
(Don’t fact-check that.)
2. They illustrated how fun that team was
I don’t need to tell an SEC audience just how great Shaq was. To be honest, I wish we had a few more highlight clips from his LSU days in the doc. But still, it never ceases to amaze me how well he ran the floor and how powerful he was. For those of us who didn’t grow up watching Bo Jackson, Shaq was like our Bo. We had never seen someone who played the game like he did, literally bringing down hoops and shattering backboards with his thunderous dunks.
And once Penny got to Orlando, forget about it. The chemistry that they developed on the set of “Blue Chips” carried into that rookie season in 93-94.
Before “NBA League Pass” became a thing, they were the team who anybody would want to watch. As Penny’s former agent said in the doc, “it was showtime, but it was in Orlando.” The words “basketball nirvana” were used to describe what was built around that duo.
At the root of all of it was Penny’s unselfishness. Here he was, the guy who essentially was taken as the No. 1 overall pick, and all he wanted to do was feed Shaq. That also took the willingness of veterans Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott to recognize how special a couple of kids in their early-20s were.
They made the comp to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook because like Penny and Shaq, they were both elite superstars at such a young age. But unlike Durant and Westbrook, who almost coexisted in this world together as isolation players, Penny and Shaq were a true duo who played off each other.
As I said, there was a reason why a kid in the suburbs of Chicago was so consumed by all things Penny and Shaq. They were exactly what the NBA needed while Jordan was on his baseball hiatus.
3. The breakdown of Orlando’s failed Shaq negotiations
After the Magic got swept by an all-time great Bulls team in 1996, Shaq’s new contract became the top storyline in Orlando. The doc really dug into all the elements that led to Shaq leaving for the Lakers. Getting an interview with his agent, Leonard Armato, was key. He was sort of billed as the villain in all of this. He does fit the description. Between the blazer/$300 collar-less shirt combo and the way he spoke, everything about him wreaked of “Hollywood big-timer.”
What I liked was that they introduced that after Shaq was drafted. The aforementioned drama about getting him to sign was rooted in the belief that Armato was working behind the scenes to force a trade to the Lakers. Ultimately, that didn’t happen, though you got the impression that the Magic front office didn’t exactly look forward to working with him.
Just as it took the Magic to hit on “struck by lightning odds” to end up with Shaq and Penny, it felt like that’s what it took for Orlando to watch Shaq leave after 4 years. The doc outlined why if any one of these things don’t happen, Shaq could’ve signed that extension in Orlando:
- Shaq breaks hand in preseason game in 1995-96
- Penny becomes a star while Shaq misses first 1/4 of the season
- Penny signs Nike shoe deal, launches wildly successful “Lil Penny” ad campaign
- Shaq stars in Reebok commercial, wherein he smacks “Little Penny” doll off chair
- Shaq leaves team for few games during 95-96 season after death of his grandma
- Shaq shows up right before Sunday afternoon game with the Bulls
- NBC reports on broadcast that Magic brass wanted to bench Shaq
- NBA CBA allows unrestricted rookie contracts for first (and only) year ever
- Shaq’s draft classmate Alonzo Mourning signs record 7-year, $110 million deal with Miami Heat
- Shaq tells Orlando that previously offered deal of 4 years, $80 million won’t work
- Magic pause on offering Shaq north of $100 million in hopes of saving for Penny’s next deal
- Orlando Sentinel releases poll asking if Shaq is worth $100 million … and 85% say “no”
- Jerry West trades several players, frees up cap space to offer Shaq max of $120 million
- Magic match Lakers’ offer … after Shaq had already signed with Lakers
And that’s why one of the best players in NBA history left the Magic at 24 years old without so much as a postcard in return.
The doc sort of lets the viewer decided whether it was Shaq’s ego, Armato or the naiveté of the Magic front office who were to blame. To be honest, they all are. Had any one of those things not been in place, who knows what the franchise would’ve become.
Let’s just say polling the public to ask if the superstar is worth the money probably isn’t the smartest thing to do for a media outlet covering a small market team in the midst of negotiations.
A couple of things I didn’t like
1. The scripted stuff with Shaq and Penny
Hated that. If you’ve read any of these “Doc Discussions” yet, you know that there are a few things I’m not a fan of. Narration is too often the crutch for an interview that doesn’t have enough interviews or footage, and reenactments don’t add anything for me.
Thankfully, “This Magic Moment” didn’t have that. It did, however, have that staged shot of Shaq and Penny sitting by the pool that bookended the doc. There’s a hoop sitting in the pool and Penny shoots a ball at that clearly missed, but we instead get a cutaway shot that has Shaq saying “oh, still got it, huh?” Between that and Shaq’s scripted line of “lotta what-ifs when it comes to you and me,” I was slightly bummed that was used. It felt a little forced.
I would have preferred Shaq and Penny reuniting at the arena and having a walking conversation about what could have been. No script, just 2 guys shootin’ it back and forth. Maybe they stop at half court and the producer asks Penny “how many titles would you guys have won together here if Shaq had stayed?” You could have bookended the doc with them walking in and meeting each other in the stadium and closed with a shot of them walking back into the tunnel together. That might still be considered “staged” but it’s surely better than staged dialogue.
Then again, maybe the fact that the Magic played in a different arena back in the day — the new Amway Center opened in 2010 — prevented that from happening. Could they have had some sort of sitdown at local restaurant or maybe shooting hoops at an Orlando-area nearby park? Perhaps.
Whatever the case, that interaction would have felt more organic than that fake poolside chat.
2. Wanted to dig deeper into the what-ifs at the end
From the moment that they covered the “Penny was traded to the Suns” thing to the end of the doc, there were about 3 minutes. That was just enough time to cover the fact that Shaq won 3 titles with the Lakers, and Penny was, as Shaq said “Kobe before Kobe.” We got to hear Pat Williams get his heart ripped out when Shaq said at his awkward Magic Hall of Fame that he wished he would have stayed in Orlando.
What we didn’t get was anyone but my guy Horace willing to answer the ultimate question — how many titles would the Magic have won had Magic stayed?
There’s this belief that Shaq’s departure fueled Penny’s knee problems, and that the window slammed shut as soon as he left for Los Angeles. What didn’t really break down was that the Magic would have been in control to offer Penny a relatively team-friendly deal after his rookie contract was up because the CBA went back to sanity by not allowing players to simply become unrestricted free agents after their rookie deals ran out.
Horace predicted 3-4 championships. It’s a fair thing to wonder about considering the Bulls only had 2 more years of their dynasty. Even as a diehard Bulls fan, I’m not convinced they beat a Shaq-and-Penny duo in 1998. That team was dealing with all sorts of drama and egos, and as great as that dynasty was, they were fortunate to run into an aging Jazz team. (Can you tell I’m pumped for the Jordan doc to come out?!)
Speaking of that, why was Bill Wennington the only former Bulls player that they could talk to? That franchise played such an important role in the Magic’s pivotal years. I get that His Airness isn’t exactly available to do every doc interview, but we couldn’t have gotten a starter? At least give me John Paxson or Steve Kerr. Shoot, what was Ron Harper up to?
OK. That’s enough Bulls talk from me.
My grade — 3.5 out of 4 stars
In case you couldn’t tell from my “why did I choose this doc” section, this doc is all about childhood nostalgia. Some of my best memories growing up were Sunday afternoons watching “NBA on NBC.” That jingle still slams (even though FS1 now uses it for college basketball and I’m totally not bitter about it).
The subject matter couldn’t have been more up my alley, which gives this doc an obvious boost. I thought they accurately told the story of Shaq and Penny so well because instead of going with the angle of “look how special these guys were and everything was great,” they perfectly captured the fleeting championship window. Lives were changed by those teams, and it was evident how those decisions can haunt people decades later.
My critiques were small. Again, scripted commentary isn’t my thing. Sliding doors are.
But ultimately, this doc properly told the story of a sports tragedy. The 90s Magic were, in many ways, like a child star. They got their lucky break(s) and they experienced fame at such an early age. But just like what can happen when a child star gets a lot of money, they make a few bad decisions, then crash and burn just as quickly as they got to the top. We always find ourselves wanting more from them, wishing that could’ve been more mature.
The 1990s Magic are a cautionary tale of how quickly that window can slam shut. “This Magic Moment” couldn’t have been more appropriately named.
And if you aren’t humming that song to yourself as you read this, you’re lying.