Thursday, July 7, 2016

OKC, we feelin' you. Signed, Orlando.

Stop me if you've heard this one, NBA fan ...

The best player on his team, an icon league-wide, led his team on a(nother) playoff run. All the while, his next contract was a topic of conversation.

His team bowed out of the playoffs, and to make matters worse, as soon as the season ended he flexed his free-agent muscles and signed with another team, one that's had plenty of recent success and expects to have even more by adding this stud player.

His old team? It's actually still in pretty good shape, and should make the playoffs next year. But they know their hopes of finally winning a championship rode out of town on the moving van of its departed star. And since it's the only major-league level franchise in town, all the joy leaves Mudville.

Er, Oklahoma City.

Er, Orlando.

That parable describes Oklahoma City this free agent period, as they watched Kevin Durant head west to the two-time Western Conference champ Golden State Warriors — despite all the well-paid, well-aired talking heads insisting he'd resign with the Thunder for one more year.

It also eerily parallels the departure of one Shaquille O'Neal to Los Angeles exactly 20 summers ago. You've got to be an old Magic fan with a corporate job, kids, a mortgage and maybe a few grey hairs to remember, but if you're at that age and haven't left Orlando it feels like 20 minutes ago.

(And yes, it REALLY HAS been 20 years. Time goes by really, really fast when you aren't paying attention ...)

Longtime, die-hard Orlando Magic fans can feel Thunder fans' pain. Just ask us. In fact, we can set up a direct hotline from the 405 area code. Yanno, if you just wanna talk. It'll help. Just talk it out. Get it out there ...

I'll start the convo. Magic fans, like me, were riding high with the Blue and White in the mid-'90s. We all but had the 1995 title won until Nick Anderson couldn't find the Earth, let alone the basket, with one of four free throws in Game 1 against Houston.

The next year, Orlando went 60-22. SIXTY wins. Best mark in team history. Aaaaand nobody remembers because the Chicago Pissed-Off Michael Jordans won 12 more, then 11 more in ho-hum fashion in the playoffs -- 4 of them in a sweep of the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Bulls' locker room still smelled like champagne when Shaq announced (probably through his agent, hard to remember ALL the details from 20 years ago) he was opting out of his seven-year contract after four seasons. Five uncomfortable weeks (and one dumb Orlando Sentinel poll) later, word came, during the Atlanta Olympics of all things where Shaq was starring for Dream Team II, that Shaq was turning Laker.

The Magic team left behind still had Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant and Nick Anderson and picked up a serviceable Rony Seikaly. They went 45-37 and made the playoffs. They lost in the first round to Miami, but not before Coach Brian Hill got shown the door when the players went behind it to rally a revolt against him.

All this time, the Magic were Orlando's main sports attraction. The Orlando Predators were still an arena football carnival act and wouldn't win an ArenaBowl until 1998. The Orlando Solar Bears were just getting off the ground, but the novelty of hockey in Orlando would wear out quickly.

Damn, this looked good. But it wasn't the answer in Orlando.
But for the Magic, what followed was The Aftermath. Orlando tried Heart and Hustle. They tried a hockey guy as GM. They tried Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady (and nearly got Tim Duncan). They bottomed out, got the first pick in 2004, took Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor, built a team around him and finally got back to the Finals in 2009, a mere 16 years after Shaq turned purple and yellow.

So the mantra is ... it does get better, Thunder fans. I promise, although if you're attending OU or U. of Central Oklahoma right now, it may be when your kids get to college.

But just trust me. I've lived it.

Listen to Ken Jackson, along with Austin David and Juan Bernal, each week on the Community Sports Report on WPRK-FM 91.5, or online at

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