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A primer on the Orlando Magic

Crank up the music. Wake up the neighbors. Put up the puppets.

And, for goodness' sake, could somebody please run out for a little more ice?

This party has officially been crashed. More than that, it has been taken over. From this point on, the NBA Finals have been officially renamed as the Orlando Magic Coming-Out Extravaganza.

And furthermore, "surprise."

As of now, the Orlando Magic is in charge of the punch bowl. And, no, LeBron isn't coming.

Don't you get the feeling the rest of the nation is still getting used to the idea of Orlando playing for the championship? I halfway expect the Magic team to show up at the Staples Center for Game 1 on Thursday night only to have some doorman look at his clipboard and say, "Howard … Howard … I'm sorry, but I don't see your name, Mr. Howard. Are you certain you received an invitation?"

At that point, of course, Dwight Howard would point to his elbow, then to the restructured sinus cavity of teammate Courtney Lee, which would immediately be followed by a mass moving-out-of-the-way by the more intelligent security guards on duty.

Of course, it's hard to blame the West Coast for being slow to catch on to the Magic. Face it, it's a bit of a surprise even on the west coast of Florida. As near as I can tell, the oldest Magic fan in my neighborhood started following the team last Tuesday. For the rest of us, there are two burning questions.

Who in the world are those guys?

And however did this happen?

Let's see. You have the center who isn't Shaq, the point guard who isn't Penny and the coach who isn't Billy Donovan. You have the finest player ever from Turkey (Hedo Turkoglu) and the finest player ever from Guadeloupe (Mickael Pietrus) and the finest player ever from the planet Krypton (Howard's nickname is Superman).

More than anything, they are the redefinition of a franchise that got lost along the way.

When last the Magic was an essential team in the NBA, it was 1995, when Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway were busy getting swept in four games by the Houston Rockets. A year later, Shaq caught the first plane for the coast, and just like that, there was no reason to watch.

For years, the Magic was a nonfactor. It was the team run by John Weisbrod, a hockey guy. It was the team that paid for Grant Hill's Band-Aids. It was the team that drafted a guy named Fran Vazquez No. 1, only to be rejected because Vazquez's girlfriend didn't want him to leave Spain.

It was the team that kept Donovan happy for, oh, four hours until he wanted to go back to school. Once, a $5 million contract wasn't enough to make Chuck Daly coach Hardaway for another season. Five years ago, the Magic was the team that lost 61 times in an 82-game season.

"Back in the '03-'04 season, we lost 19 games in a row once, and after that, we went into a slump," said Pat Williams, a vice president for the Magic. "It was so bad that when we had an off day, we would have a victory celebration. We were horrible. Just a nightmare."

All in all, yeah, this turnaround is fairly impressive stuff.

The Magic that America will get to know during the Finals is a charismatic bunch. Frankly, fans could have it worse.

Start with Howard, that four-story building in the middle who was the NBA defensive player of the year. You could use Howard's shoulders to measure for first downs. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a reputation for smiling his way through the NBA, for a guy once called "an imposter" by O'Neal, he has become a force.

Then there is the remarkable Turkoglu, who has the admirable distinction of being quicker than other big men and bigger than other quick men. He has become the Magic's crunch-time player.

There is the sharpshooting Rashard Lewis, finally living up to his hefty contract. There is the defensive specialist Pietrus, whose job for the next seven games or so will be to be as close as a tattoo on Kobe Bryant. There is point guard Rafer Alston, who saved the season after a trade brought him in to replace injured Jameer Nelson.

Odd, when you remember that it was only a couple of weeks ago when critics were sniping about coach Stan Van Gundy (O'Neal called him the Master of Panic after the Magic struggled mightily in its fourth quarters). Even Howard was grumbling about not getting the ball enough.

At the most important time of the year, however, the Magic is at its best. And looking back, perhaps its success shouldn't surprise anyone. After all, Orlando won 59 times this year. It lost its first two regular-season games, and three of its last four, but in between the Magic had only one two-game losing streak all season. It was the best defensive team in the NBA. It might have come from a traffic jam on I-4, but it didn't come from nowhere.

Still, people were surprised when it beat the defending champion Celtics, who won 62 games. And they were shocked when it beat the Cavs, who won 66. Now it faces the Lakers, who won 65.

Is that going to be enough to impress the casual fan in, say, Dubuque, Iowa?

"If I was that guy, I would like that this is a unit," Williams said. "They seem to genuinely care about each other. They pass the ball. They're not built around one star. I hope the guy in Dubuque likes our funky, funny coach, even though he would wish he could dress better. He love his hoarse voice in the huddle. That's theater, baby."

Does the Magic have enough to get past Los Angeles? Perhaps not. Bryant has a lot more help than LeBron James had.

Still, the playoffs are where reputations are made. Howard's. Turkoglu's. Van Gundy's.

These days, the floor belongs to the Magic.

If Kobe isn't sensational, the celebration might, too.

A primer on the Orlando Magic 06/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 6:30am]
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