Magic signs and trades the unhappy All-Star guard to the Suns as expected for Manning, Garrity and two future first-round picks.
The era that seemed so promising for the Magic ended Thursday evening.
In a move that has sent its last key holdover from the team that reached the 1995 NBA Finals, the Magic shipped star guard Penny Hardaway to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade deal.
"Clearly, the goal for this franchise, No. 1, is to win a world championship, to still win a world championship, even though that may not come next year," GM John Gabriel said during a news conference. "The trade of Penny Hardaway sets the foundation for us for the relaunching of this franchise."
Although the Magic lost a four-time All-Star, it gained a solid, albeit oft-injured veteran in forward Danny Manning, a young shooter in forward Pat Garrity and two first-round picks.
In fact, the Magic has 10 first-round selections the next five years, including three next year. The Magic has its pick plus Golden State's and Denver's. All could be lottery picks. Perhaps most importantly for future wheeling and dealing, a must for a team that is in need of offensive punch, the Magic was granted a $1.2-million trade exception for this season (it gained a $3.5-million exception when it dealt Nick Anderson to Sacramento this week) and has "major" salary-cap flexibility.
Gabriel said the team could be as much as $9-million under the cap once Manning's contract expires after the 2000-01 season.
Meanwhile, Phoenix gains a dazzling talent in Hardaway, who received a seven-year, $86.6-million contract and joins Jason Kidd in one of the better backcourts in the league.
"I have nothing against Orlando. I came to Phoenix and fell in love with Phoenix," Hardaway said. "I thank the Magic for going through with the deal because they didn't have to. They saw the same thing I saw; it's time for me to just move on and start a new career. I wanted to do it here in Phoenix."
"It fits our goal and our plan maybe more than what one would perceive as you have to get a superstar for a superstar," Gabriel said. "We're on two different tracks, for sure, the Magic and the Phoenix Suns."
But not that long ago, the Magic seemed to be on a fast track to building a dynasty.
It had dominating center Shaquille O'Neal and Hardaway. It had forward Dennis Scott, a pre-eminent three-point shooter. It had Nick Anderson, a do-everything swingman. It had power forward Horace Grant, a savvy, unselfish defender and rebounder who at 29 was the elder statesman.
In the franchise's second playoff appearance, those players powered into the NBA Finals.
Although defending champion Houston swept the Magic, Rockets star Clyde Drexler echoed the sentiments of many others by opining that Orlando had a great "chance to go back to the finals for the next 10 years."
Yes, the Magic reached the Eastern Conference final the next season, but a rash of injuries and Michael Jordan were too much to overcome. Since then, the Magic has advanced no further than the first round.
The five starters from its halcyon season a scant four years ago are gone, leaving behind the disappointing promise of a dynasty that never was, a young, revamped team that undoubtedly will struggle for a while and a perplexing question:
What went wrong so quickly?
"We peaked early in the franchise's history," senior executive VP Pat Williams said. "We really hit the heights quickly and then there was an enormous fall back that we've been laboring with."
Go ahead and lay the blame at the sizable feet of O'Neal for walking away in July 1996. Although offered a more lucrative deal to stay in Orlando, O'Neal signed a seven-year, $123-million free-agent contract with the Lakers, a team he had pined to join for years.
Gabriel said from the day O'Neal bolted, he and the basketball operations department felt the most pressing need was to make sure it didn't lose its other marquee player.
"But things happened; things did not go quite as smooth as we wanted," he said.
Hardaway, a sensitive young man, never forgot that fans booed when the team announced it had acquired him from Golden State in exchange for Chris Webber and three future first-round picks.
Then, in just his second season, he helped win the East title. The expectations for O'Neal, Hardaway and the Magic soared.
"Sometimes, the best thing that happens to you is in reality the worst," Gabriel said.
Neither O'Neal nor Hardaway was mature enough to handle the responsibility of being the leader of the next-great team. They grew to look upon themselves as "bigger than any team and bigger than each other," Gabriel said. That hurt team chemistry.
Even after O'Neal's departure, Hardaway seemed to grapple with his role as the leader. He did, however, help orchestrate the ouster of coach Brian Hill midway through the 1996-97 season.
Hardaway also needed a pair of knee surgeries, which cost him a quarter of the 1996-97 season and nearly the 1997-98 season, exasperating his frustration.
Gabriel said he spoke to Hardaway late Wednesday to make sure he did not want to remain in Orlando and eschew Phoenix, the lone suitor.
"I believe it's the best thing for him to go there and get a fresh start," he said. "Knowing Penny and how he plays with other players on the floor that are maybe a little bit more talented than him, that fits his role. I'm sure he'll do well."
Gabriel is convinced the Magic will, too. In the wake of its first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia, Magic officials decided it was time to go in a new direction.
Grant was dealt on draft night to Seattle for rookie swingman Corey Maggette and a trio of veterans, Dale Ellis, Billy Owens and Don MacLean. Tuesday it traded Anderson to Sacramento for second-year G Tariq Abdul-Wahad and a future first-round pick.
"It's happened quickly, there's no question about that," Williams said of the Magic makeover. "I guess the lesson is you can't anticipate in this league."
_ Information from Associated Press was used in this report.