The Best Bad Team

The '99-00 Orlando Magic weren't a good team. They weren't that bad, either. But no mediocre team was ever more memorable.
Share |

Illustration by Henry Kaye.

Seasons change, and they don't. You follow your team, your team loses. Follow them the next year, they lose again. Rinse and repeat for the rest of your life. This is being a fan: tempering losses, coming to grips with defeat, and enjoying the odd intermittent triumph. After a while, or at least after ten or twenty or thirty eliminations, the losses don’t sting so much. They're the background, or the foreground, but they're just what they are.

The exception to this is the team that should have gone all the way. It's a lucky thing to have this team, in a way—the one that should have won it all, that could have changed everything, and didn't. Five, ten, twenty years and it's still too much and too fresh. Shun the highlights, dodge the memories, burn the tape.

Maybe that team is the 2001-02 Sacramento Kings squad that got screwed by the refs. Or maybe it’s the 1990 Buffalo Bills, fragged by their own kicker. Or the 2003 Chicago Cubs, or the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, or the 1986 Boston Red Sox. Or it's another, un-beautiful loser. Maybe it's the 1999-2000 Orlando Magic.

By no means was that a great team. They weren’t terrible, either, of course. They were right where NBA franchises try not to be: not good enough to make the playoffs, not bad enough to demand a high draft pick. That’s what was amazing about them. They were supposed to be bad. They were designed to be bad. The fact that they were merely “okay”—a prototypically okay 41-41—is in its way one of the greatest success stories in the history of the NBA.

Anyway, that’s one way to look at it.

Reconstruction

The 1998-99 Magic, featuring remnants of the team that went to the 1995 NBA Finals, had done well in the lockout-shortened season, finishing second in the East with a 33-17 record. But they were amazingly, almost implausibly old, led by 1980s-vintage fossils such as Dominique Wilkins, Gerald Wilkins, Danny Schayes and B.J. Armstrong. They bowed out swiftly to the seventh-seeded Sixers, who were quicker and (of course) younger, in the first round of the playoffs.

Magic general manager John Gabriel surveyed the landscape and decided it was time to blow it all up, and get the team on the footing it had struggled to find since Shaq had departed for Los Angeles. There were big free agents looming in the summer of 2000, such potential franchise centerpieces like Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Gabriel was sure he could reel in at least two of those, but he knew he would never be able to afford them unless Orlando’s payroll shrank significantly. So Gabriel tore the roster apart, trading player after player after player until the team was almost unrecognizable.

Penny Hardaway, the face of the franchise, was unceremoniously jettisoned to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Pat Garrity, a 6-9 perimeter player who’d been coming off the bench. Horace Grant, another member of the '95 Eastern Conference champions, was dealt to Seattle for Corey Maggette, a teenaged rookie out of Duke. Nick Anderson, the organization’s very first draft pick, was sent to the Sacramento Kings for the French shooting guard Tariq Abdul-Wahad, formerly little-known as Olivier Saint-Jean.

Those were just the notable moves. In total, the Magic completed 57 transactions over a 15-month period, giving their roster one of the most drastic overhauls the league had ever seen. The result was the result.

That is, it was a team effectively built around Darrell Armstrong. The de facto best player on the team, Armstrong had won both the Sixth Man and Most Improved Player awards in 1999, but hardly had a franchise player's pedigree. Undrafted in 1991, Armstrong had played in the United States Basketball League, and in the Continental Basketball Association, and in the Global Basketball Association, and in Cyprus, and in Spain. He finally latched onto the Magic in 1995, but he’d barely gotten into games prior to 1998. He was 31 years old when the season started.

At shooting guard was Abdul-Wahad. He’d averaged 9.3 points per game in Sacramento. At small forward was Bo Outlaw, a goggle-wearing fan favorite with one of the ugliest offensive games in NBA history. Outlaw would shoot his free-throws by arching the ball over his head and then catapulting it, one-handed, at the basket; he would retire with one of the 10 lowest free-throw percentages ever, lower than even Shaq’s. What he lacked in skill, though, he made up for in effort. Fans were right to love him, and opponents were right to foul him.

At power forward was Ben Wallace, who'd arrived in Orlando via a trade with the Washington Wizards. Wallace would become the league’s most prolific rebounder with the Pistons later in his career, but at this stage in his career he was just another unknown, and the owner of career averages of 3.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He would retire with the worst free-throw percentage of all time.

And finally, at center was John Amaechi, freshly plucked from Europe and out of the NBA since 1996. Amaechi was basically the only member of the Magic with any semblance of a post-up game. He could spin in the paint and get away from defenders, and maybe hit a turnaround or a hook. But he he’d make some dumb mistakes and was a notably weak defender; in his career, he averaged just 5.8 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per 36 minutes.

The Magic bench was comprised of nomads of equal prestige/obscurity. The backup point guard was a shot-happy dude named Chucky Atkins, who’d spent the previous year playing in Croatia; there was Monty Williams, a former benchwarmer for the Spurs and Knicks who was, without irony, considered the team “veteran” because he’d witnessed the most playoff games; there was Garrity, the jump-shooter, and Maggette, the rookie; there was Michael Doleac, a tall, skinny center from Utah with a little bit of a mid-range touch; and lastly there was Chris Gatling, the designated bench scorer and headband aficionado.

Of the five starters, all but Abdul-Wahad had gone undrafted (as had Atkins), and the most any of them had scored the year before was Armstrong, who averaged 13.8 points in '98-99. The Magic made so many trades that by the end of the year, they'd had 31 different players under contract; of the ones who were still on the active roster, Orlando was only paying them $17 million. (Which means that if you do the math, Joe Johnson is worth more than the entire 1999-2000 Orlando Magic, by about $4 million.)

The man who most epitomized the Magic’s lack of experience was not a player, but the coach. In the offseason, Chuck Daly had retired, and Gabriel filled his position with the vastly more personable Doc Rivers, a former player who’d been working at TNT as a color commentator. These days, Rivers is considered one of the best coaches in the league. At the time, he had no coaching experience at any level and was being handed a roster utterly devoid of talent. His role, it seemed, wasn’t so much to make the Magic a better team, but to keep the players from wanting to commit seppuku as their doomed season progressed. He would learn on the job, and do some on-the-fly grief counseling and motivation as he did so.

Everyone thought the team would suck, for obvious reasons. Sports Illustrated, in their 1999-2000 NBA preview, pegged the Magic to be the second-worst team in the league, behind only the post-Jordan Chicago Bulls; the magazine listed April 19 as a day for Magic fans to circle on their calendars. That was the last game of the year. Either as an afterthought or subtle sarcasm, SI’s preview ended with an optimistic, platitude-rich quote from Darrell Armstrong. “I've never backed down from a challenge,” Armstrong said, “and I'm going to love this one. We won't be the most talented bunch, but no one will work harder."

Validation

It is not just Magic fans that want to believe an athlete or team of athletes can overcome a disparity in talent with enough effort. This is mostly bullshit, of course, and effort is almost never the deciding factor in a team's success. The Miami Heat aren’t great because they try harder than every other team or "want it more." The Bucks are not worse because they don't. Everyone knows this, including the columnists filling inches by pretending not to.

On the other hand, there were the '99-00 Orlando Magic. The usual treacly attributes applied ex post facto to champions—determination, bravery, unity—were all there in spades, but as inevitably subjective as ever. But, more objectively, the Magic managed not just to stay in games but win through sheer headlong effort.

Rivers coached as well, and maybe more to the point coached as much, as he could, altering the lineup on a game-to-game basis. He went with an 11-man rotation, with every player getting at least 15 minutes and none averaging more than 31. Rivers' achievement was in discovering the motivational power of his players' precarious professional situations. When Rivers made substitutions, he wasn’t just subbing in a fresh body. He was subbing in someone whose career effectively hinged on his performance, and who could have easily been cut had he stopped giving it his all.

It showed. The team dove for loose balls and took charges and played as hard and as fast as they could. They weren’t a good offensive team, and yet because of their frantic pace, they were seventh in the league in scoring. They weren’t a good defensive team either, and yet they forced a ton of turnovers. What's a cliché on the page was something like a fact on the court: the Magic simply outworked teams.

With Armstrong as the posterchild, the Magic front office branded the team as “Heart & Hustle,” and it stuck. The ad copy became synonymous with Rivers’ squad as it hovered around the .500-mark further and further into the season. Eventually, people took notice. In January of 2000, the New York Times praised them, saying, “What Orlando has done in less than a year approaches the amazing.” Those words were supposed to follow the offseason shopping spree, not a total personality transplant during a season that was built to fail.

Go-To-Guy

In February, Orlando made their one and only in-season trade, not including an otherwise forgettable deal that brought in Anthony Johnson, who they never used. For all the wheeling and dealing they did in the offseason, the Magic were careful not to disrupt the nucleus that was working wonders for them. But they felt they needed scoring, and so they traded Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Chris Gatling to the Denver Nuggets for shooting guard Ron Mercer.

In hindsight, it was a pretty inconsequential move. Mercer averaged 15 points per game in Orlando, which was slightly more than the 13 and 12 points Abdul-Wahad and Gatling were averaging. But the team was so devoid of scoring options though that menial Ron Mercer became the team’s go-to-guy almost overnight.

Mercer wasn’t the only player the Magic got from Denver. They also acquired Chauncey Billups, who would have been the real prize of the transaction had he been healthy. Billups, however, was out with a shoulder injury and never played a second in Orlando; he was waived during the offseason. It would be another two years before he'd reunite with Ben Wallace in Detroit.

The Penultimate Game

80 games into the season, with the team holding a 40-40 record, the Magic’s season came down to one final, decisive home game against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were also 40-40 and in possession of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. The Bucks had manhandled Orlando in their previous three encounters, and thus owned the tiebreaker. The Magic had to win to keep their season alive, and then beat the Raptors—which had already clinched a playoff spot and was likely to rest its starters—at home in Game 82. The Bucks just had to win and they’d be heading to the postseason. 

This was as close as the NBA’s ever come to having a one-game regular season playoff. It was a moment for the Magic to finally silence their doubters, to prove that a team of unwanted spare parts could actually amount to something. It was not important, not by any stretch, but I was 10 years old when it happened, and so did not know that.

I’m not sure what the hell I was doing on April 17, 2000, although as I was 10 years old I assume it wasn't anything especially exciting. I'd programmed the family VCR to record the game, and the result was the only Magic game I recorded during the Heart & Hustle year. This is just as well, since the game manages to sums up their season beautifully.

On April 18, I got up early in the morning, pressed rewind, and watched the Magic-Bucks game from beginning to end. In that pre-spoiler era, I didn't know the outcome. Fourteen years later, for this piece, I dug through a box lodged in the farthest reaches of my bedroom closet and exhumed the VHS tape. The video is scratchy as hell, and the volume is barely audible, but it works just fine. It's agonizing.

***

The starting fives came first. Orlando rolled with the usual: Armstrong, Mercer, Outlaw, Wallace and Amaechi. Milwaukee’s featured a Big Three of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, along with the smaller two of Darvin Ham and Ervin Johnson. A year later, that lineup would get to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks showed right away why they were the superior team—hitting jumpers off curls, scoring in transition, contesting inside shots. The Magic, in contrast, seemed frazzled, overmatched and very much out of place on a big stage. They missed open shots, fired up airballs, turned the ball over and did it again. Eight and a half minutes in, the Magic had committed seven turnovers and were 1-of-10 from the floor. With 1:12 left in the first quarter, the Bucks had a commanding 24-5 lead.

Gradually, Orlando started to play like a basketball team again. Garrity made a floater on the wing; Maggette hit a pair of free throws, and Monty Williams converted an open layup. A minute into the second period, the Magic had cut the lead to 13. Three straight Chucky Atkins jumpers cut the lead to 10 with 7:17 left in the quarter. When Garrity threw down a one-hand slam with 4:20 to go, the home crowd erupted, possibly because Garrity—outside of an inexplicable posterization of Samuel Dalembert—had basically never dunked the ball while anyone was watching.

At halftime, Milwaukee was leading 43-36.

The Bucks held the Magic at bay through the third, but with 36 seconds left in the quarter and the Bucks holding a 68-64 lead, Atkins launched a 30-foot heave just before the shot clock expired. The ball caromed off rim and was briefly handled by Ervin Johnson before it got slapped out of his hands in the direction of Ray Allen. Before Allen could grab it, Mercer dove for the ball and slammed into Allen’s left leg. The diagnosis turned out to be rather light—a simple sprained knee—but it was still painful enough that Allen sat out the rest of the game.

Orlando capitalized. With 7:30 to go in the fourth quarter, Armstrong hit an open baseline jumper, tying the score at 73-73 and forcing the Bucks to call timeout as the crowd gave a standing ovation. This could have been the moment when the Magic took control of the game; Allen’s injury could have been the death knell for the Bucks’ season. But, out of the timeout, Tim Thomas hit a floater in the lane to give Milwaukee back the lead.

Thomas filled in for Allen; otherwise the Bucks went with their starters down the stretch. Orlando’s closing lineup was unorthodox: Armstrong, Atkins, Monty Williams, Garrity and Outlaw. Williams very nearly played his way back to the bench, fumbling a pass under the basket and stepping out of bounds on the next play. Rivers sent Mercer to the scorer’s table to check in, but Williams got a redemptive layup in transition, tying the score at 77 with 5:10 left. Rivers, again going with his gut, decided to call Mercer back to the bench.

Williams made him look like a genius. With three minutes to go, the future-NBA-coach—who'd played all of six minutes before being waived by the Denver Nuggets a year earlier—hit a floating hook over Johnson, giving the Magic their first lead of the game.

And again, Tim Thomas—then still just 22 and not yet the recipient of what's considered one of the worst contracts in league history—dragged the miracle back into reality, leaning into Bo Outlaw and banking in a five-footer, plus a foul. Thomas missed the freebie, but after an Armstrong layup gave the lead back to Orlando, Thomas iced an 18-footer right before the shot clock expired to regain the tie.

It went on like this for what seemed like a very long time. With the score tied and 25 seconds left on the clock, Armstrong turned the ball over on a drive. A series of tips and passes led to a two-handed dunk for Glenn Robinson and a two-point lead at 85-83, with 21.2 to go.

Darrell Armstrong sprinted up to half-court called timeout with 18.9 seconds left in regulation. But then… something interesting happened. After the clock was stopped, it inexplicably and immediately began running again, and didn’t stop until it had trickled down to 14.8 seconds, when a referee blew another whistle. Lost in the commotion of the Magic wanting an impromptu timeout and Robinson's dunk was the fact that the referees had inadvertently sliced a full 4.1 seconds off Orlando's final possession. Astonishingly, nobody caught this: not the refs, not the timekeeper, not Rivers. It was never remedied.

Who knows what would have happened had this error been corrected. Maybe nothing. Either way, it was with 14.8 seconds on the clock, and not 18.9, that Atkins was given the ball, his team trailing 85-83. He dribbled aimlessly for a few seconds, and then passed it over to Garrity in the top right corner, who was being hounded by Ham.

8.2 seconds left.

Garrity then passed it back to Atkins, who was wide open on the wing for a three. It was long, and with 4.2 seconds left, the ball bounced to Darvin Ham, who did something that was equal parts brilliant and cruel. Ham, a terrible foul-shooter, swatted it like a volleyball towards the other end of the court. Atkins made a valiant effort to corral the basketball, diving for it and keeping it in play. But just as Atkins had control of it, just as Atkins was lying on his back, the basketball in his hands, time expired. It was over. Milwaukee had won, 85-83.

The Milwaukee Bucks, underachieving and overqualified, were going to the playoffs. Chucky Atkins looked up at the rafters, agape. The camera cut to Darrell Armstrong, who was sprawled out on the court, face-down, crying like a heartbroken kid.

***

As an adult, let alone an adult that writes about sports for work, it's easy for me to detach myself from the people on the court. They're the story, for better and worse, and cogs in a bigger machine. At the age of 10, I couldn't do this. And, in retrospect and where this team was concerned, that was perhaps not wrong.

These were not lottery winners, or even the sort of team of distracted demigods that moonwalk into mediocrity. Their best player was an undrafted walk-on from Fayetteville State, a man who'd spent most of 1993 working the graveyard shift at a textile mill, making yarn for a living. Monty Williams nearly sent them to the playoffs. They deserved more.

But they got what they got. As the fans streamed to the exits, Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” played over the PA system; it was the year 2000. I thought it was the most depressing thing I’d ever heard in my life.

Game 82

The last game of the year felt sort of like a high school reunion. Ben Wallace, who’d been playing with a fractured foot for most of the season, got his first and last DNP with the Magic, allowing the perennially-benched Derek Strong to get into the game for once. Anthony Johnson even made an appearance, as did Johnny Taylor, the other and less memorable return from the Nuggets in the Mercer deal.

Orlando beat the Raptors 106-100, bringing their record to a cozy 41-41. The leading scorer for the Raptors, with 14 points, was Tracy McGrady.

In the playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks almost became the third team ever to upset a No. 1 seed. They took the eventual Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers to a fifth and final game, and held the lead for most of it. Once again, Tim Thomas played well, scoring 18 points and hitting several clutch shots down the stretch. Travis Best hit a game-winning three with 16.5 seconds to go, ending the Bucks season in a 96-95 defeat. There is a good reason no one remembers any of this.

Illustration by J. Maddison Bond.

T-Mac, And The End Of Heart & Hustle

For a definitionally mediocre team, the Magic did pretty well, and became the most decorated 17th-place team in NBA history. Doc Rivers was named the Coach of the Year, becoming just the fifth rookie coach to take home the award, and the only coach to ever win it despite being on a team that didn’t make the playoffs. (This greatly annoyed Shaquille O’Neal, who, when the Lakers won the championship that summer, addressed Phil Jackson as, “The real coach of the year.”)

Additionally, John Gabriel was named the Executive of the Year, an unprecedented selection given that the Magic not only didn’t have a winning record, but had in fact tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference just one season earlier.

As it turned out, I was more right than I knew at age 10 to be incredulous about Gabriel's honor. Much of the Magic’s success in 2000 was more blind luck than brilliant foresight, a fact Gabriel conceded in an interview in 2012. "We sort of didn't know what we had," he said. "We wound up with players who were better than we thought they were."

Which is not to say that Gabriel didn't deserve the award. He took an aging group with no long-term prospects and, in one year, assembled a roster with an enormous amount of cap space and equity. The Magic had three first round draft picks, a slew of future second round picks, and enough spending money to afford Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady and potentially even Tim Duncan. The Magic were exactly where they needed to be by the summer of 2000; that they were decent in 1999-2000 was an incidental, pleasant bonus.

In the offseason, Orlando ditched Maggette, Mercer, Wallace and Atkins and signed Hill and McGrady to long-term contracts. They very nearly locked up Duncan too—he happened to have the same agent as Hill—but he ultimately chose to stick around in San Antonio. Even without the best power forward of the era, the Magic were a potential powerhouse. McGrady, it turned out, was better than anyone could have possibly imagined; he averaged 27, 26, 32 and 28 points per game from 2001 to 2004, and was, during his time in Orlando, the best scorer in the entire league.

Had Grant Hill been healthy, the Magic could have been something. Hill, it’s easy to forget, was an All-NBA First Team talent, and was coming off a year where he’d averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game, while shooting 49% from the floor. He is one of only four players in history to have averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists over his first four seasons, the others being LeBron James, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. Hill was the Hall of Famer; Tracy McGrady had signed on with the intention of being his sidekick.

Everyone knows how this ended. Hill's injured ankle never quite got back in working order, and he played in just 47 games in his first four seasons with the Magic, and just 200 of the team's 574 regular season games during the duration of his contract. Through his first six seasons in Orlando, he played just one game in the month of April.

Without Hill, the Magic were essentially the Tracy McGrady Show—good enough to make the playoffs, but that was about it. Gabriel, for his part, took the lessons of the Heart & Hustle squad and burned them to the ground. A 39-year-old Patrick Ewing joined the team; Shawn Kemp, who weighed a stout 320 pounds, followed. Dee Brown and Rod Strickland and Horace Grant (again) joined up. The strivers of the Heart & Hustle teams were back on the margins.

It should also be noted that Gabriel made some truly horrendous draft moves following the 2000 season. From 2001 to 2003, the Magic drafted Steven Hunter, Jeryl Sasser, Omar Cook, Curtis Borchardt, Reece Gaines and Zaza Pachulia. Fans that don’t who any of those people are, with the exception of the dapper and weirdly durable Pachulia, are excused. I was actually following this team at the time, and I don’t know who the fuck half these dudes are.

For the record, the scoring average that each player accrued in Orlando reads as follows: 3.5 (Hunter), 2.5 (Sasser), 1.8 (Gaines), and 3.3 (Pachulia). Cook was traded for a far-off draft pick. Borchardt was dealt for Ryan Humphrey and Jamal Sampson; Humphrey averaged 1.8 points per game in Orlando, and Sampson never put on a Magic uniform.

By 2004, the Magic were an unmitigated disaster. They lost 19 straight games early in the season, fired Gabriel and Rivers, and went on to post a 21-61 record, the worst in the entire league. McGrady was finally, mercifully, traded to Houston during the offseason.

It’s for this reason, among others, that we will never see a 30-for-30 about the 1999-2000 Orlando Magic. These are good reasons, honestly. The '99-00 Magic were a transitional team that fought hard without ever really transitioning into anything. They finished with exactly as many wins as losses, and that they worked as hard as they did to get there doesn't change a thing about the record. The only time the ‘99-00 Magic have ever entered the public conversation since was when Amaechi came out of the closet in 2007. Suddenly, the minutia of a .500 team's locker room dynamics were relevant to people who hadn't felt so much for the team at the age of 10.

And yet, for Magic fans and those that happened into a relationship with these misfit overachievers, the Heart & Hustle team endures, maybe even more than the Magic teams that made the NBA Finals in '95 or '09.

This makes sense, in a way. The Magic have been perhaps more readily and painfully spurned than any team in the league. The best players in franchise history—Shaq and Penny, Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis and Dwight Howard—all eventually demanded to be traded. Every single one of them was loathed by the fanbase by the time they left. Even Grant Hill fled to Phoenix after his seven years were up.

The Magic have been in the NBA for 25 years and have made the NBA Finals twice, but have no “real” franchise greats. To commemorate the milestone, the team trotted out McGrady and Penny and Shaq last season, pretending that they weren’t booed viciously the first time they returned to Orlando, and that it’s merely a coincidence that none of them have had their jerseys in the rafters. The organization is forced to suck up to these apostates because without them, there’s almost nothing left to celebrate after a quarter century in the NBA.

The Heart & Hustle team will never see a jersey retired, either. They didn't earn it; they couldn’t get any farther than a two-point regular season loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. But there is more hope in the memory of this team than in every just-passing-through legend the Magic have ever employed. The '99-00 Magic defied every reasonable expectation seemingly just by playing really, really hard, and believing it could work as if their jobs depended upon it. They tried. They failed. They won, and they endure.


Share |

Comments

No comments yet. Login to post comments.