Do You Believe In Magic? Thanks to some coaching sorcery and a sleight-of-hand point guard, Orlando has risen to the top of the Eastern Conference

April 18, 1999

To the untrained eye the Orlando Magic looks suspiciously like a
mediocre team. After all, the Magic failed to make the playoffs
last season, and its only significant free-agent pickup, center
Ike Austin, has been a 270-pound disappointment. Its best player,
guard Penny Hardaway, is in the throes of a schizophrenic season
and, until recently, didn't lead the team in a single statistical
category. Meanwhile, Orlando's top defender, Bo Outlaw, has
missed half of the team's games with a fractured left fibula.

Yet--presto!--the Magic has emerged as one of the darlings of
this foreshortened season and at week's end was proud proprietor
of the best record (28-10) in the Eastern Conference. Orlando's
success is no illuuuusion, as Doug Henning would say, but plenty
of slack-jawed onlookers are wondering how the Magic has pulled
off such a feat. "I think everyone's surprised," says George
Karl, coach of the Bucks, whom Orlando defeated 95-83 last
Friday to push its winning streak to six games. "Especially when
Outlaw went out, I thought they might go down a little bit, so I
don't know how they've done it."

The cardinal rule of prestidigitation, of course, is never
divulge how a trick is done. But a close examination of the team
reveals a number of possible explanations for the Magic's magic.
First, the new uniforms commemorating the franchise's 10th
anniversary may be slathered with stars, but the team itself has
only one, Hardaway. Instead, it's a unit endowed with
experience, depth and balance. Every player in the 10-man
rotation averages at least five points a game; Hardaway, the
team's leading scorer (16.6), is ranked just 29th in the league
through Sunday. "If there's been a key, it's that we've been
playing as a team and winning as a team," says forward Horace
Grant, who, along with Hardaway and guard Nick Anderson, is a
holdover from the unit that was swept by Houston in the 1995 NBA
Finals. "Also, I don't like to think where we'd be without
Darrell Armstrong."

If one player ought to tug at your heartstrings this season,
it's Armstrong, whose metamorphosis from basketball vagabond to
one of the league's most electrifying playmakers makes the
transformation from a handkerchief to a rabbit look positively
mundane. Five summers ago Orlando general manager John Gabriel
was, by his own account, "just keeping busy" when he attended a
USBL game in Daytona. He was drawn immediately to Armstrong, a
puny, 167-pound point guard who, the G.M. says, was "simply
playing at a different speed than everyone else on the court."
Gabriel approached Armstrong and invited him to play alongside
some Magic players in a summer league in Orlando. "When he
introduced himself, I was like, Yessss!" recalls Armstrong. "I
took his business card to make sure we stayed in contact. This
was the break I'd been waiting for."

Armstrong had already toiled in Cyprus and Spain and similar
outposts after going undrafted out of Fayetteville (N.C.) State
in 1991. He had even spent a summer cooking yarn at a textile
mill for $200 a week in his hometown, Gastonia, N.C., after the
Global Basketball Association folded in midseason of 1993. By
August 1994 he was playing in a summer league with Orlando
players, and he made the Magic's roster the following season,
though he didn't play more than 13 games for the club until
1996-97.

While Armstrong has steadily improved his game and recently
signed a five-year, $18 million contract, his values haven't
changed. Most NBA players have developed a fondness for
gas-sucking sport-utility vehicles, but Armstrong prefers to
drive a navy-blue Super Beetle he customized himself. The
manual-shift vehicle created a brief problem last season when
Armstrong suffered a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
But as is his wont, he surmounted the obstacle. "If you saw a
guy driving around Orlando trying to switch gears with his left
hand," says Armstrong, "it was me."

Armstrong's game, on the other hand, goes only at full throttle.
Given that the 6'1" Armstrong swills a cup of coffee sweetened
with seven packs of sugar before games and scarfs a few
Hershey's Kisses at halftime, it's no wonder he's the NBA's most
hyperkinetic player, a laser disc in a 33-rpm league. "He's
irrepressible, absolutely irrepressible," says Heat coach Pat
Riley.

While Armstrong has always displayed unstinting hustle, this
season he has added a deft shooting touch, particularly from
long distance. He also has shown a knack for playing well in
crucial situations; he leads the Magic in fourth-quarter points
and is shooting 90% from the free throw line. On defense he
takes more charges than any other player in the league (33 at
week's end) and ranks third in steals. "I'd say Darrell's been
doing it all," says Grant. "But that wouldn't be saying enough."

If there's any drawback to Armstrong's inordinate energy, it's
that it leaves him little time to rest. Last Friday, Orlando
returned from a road trip at 3:30 a.m. When Gabriel went to work
five hours later, he found Armstrong at the O-rena, lifting
weights. Gabriel and Magic coach Chuck Daly worry that,
particularly because of his slight physique, Armstrong needs to
give himself more time to recuperate from the wear and tear of
games and to treat his body better. But Armstrong is headstrong.
"People forget that in the USBL and overseas, you play 40, 45,
48 minutes a night without even thinking about it," he says. "I
just credit Coach Daly for having confidence in me and giving me
the opportunity to prove I can be an every-day player in this
league."

Indeed, the entire team owes more than a passing debt to its
dapper coach. Chuck D., now 68, is the oldest bench boss in the
league, but he is anything but a crotchety old-schooler. His
approach to practicing, for instance, is right out of the
slacker handbook. "The fatigue level is so high this season and
there are so many games [each week] that it doesn't make sense
to practice a lot," he says. "The goal here is to be as fresh as
possible after the regular season."

Even when the team does work out, it's no Daly grind. A recent
shootaround was temporarily interrupted when Grant and Anderson
put Armstrong in a headlock to get the point guard to stop
singing. This laxity has created an odd role reversal. Several
veterans are quietly wondering if the team shouldn't be spending
a bit more time working on its sets. "I think it's going to be
tough for us to keep up our success without practicing," says
Hardaway. "You're not going to be sharp with your execution
unless you work on it." Even Grant, whose creaky, 33-year-old
knees could use the rest, says, "I welcome the days off now, but
when the playoffs start, we'll have to practice more."

Daly has persuaded his players to buy into his defense-oriented
philosophy, but his true legerdemain lies in managing
personalities and extracting the most from his players. As was
the case when he led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in 1989
and 1990, Daly doesn't suffer softness gladly, but players who
carry their weight can expect to get minutes. "One thing I like
about this job is that you're continually learning about
players," says Daly. "This group is responsive and cares about
winning. If one guy has gotten injured, another guy has jumped
right in."

As one might expect from a unit that includes two Armstrongs
(veteran guard B.J. is the other) and a Strong (forward Derek),
Orlando's bench is a wellspring of strength. What one wouldn't
expect is that two rookies are key members and often figure
prominently in crunch time. One, versatile swingman Matt
Harpring, plays with a perpetually pissed-off look on his face
and absorbs more punishment than a crash-test dummy. The other
greenhorn, Michael Doleac, has been indispensable as a reserve
center and power forward. Though his visage is pure Opie Taylor,
Doleac, unlike Austin, doesn't mind mixing it up underneath. A
biology major at Utah--he needs two classes to graduate--who has
aspirations of attending medical school, Doleac recently sat in
on a surgery performed by the Magic's team doctor, James
Barnett. "He scoped a guy's knee by making a small incision and
working off the monitor," says Doleac. "It only lasted about
half an hour, but I loved it."

One teammate who's less exuberant about knee surgery is
Hardaway. A player whose name was once invoked in those
who-will-fill-the-Jordan-vacuum conversations, Hardaway has
missed 86 games over the past two seasons on account of injuries
to his left knee and leg. Just as his Li'l Penny alter ego seems
a thing of the past, there have been murmurs that Big Penny's
best years are behind him. When Hardaway, 27, started the
season, he looked like a shadow of his former self, settling for
jump shots and getting caught flat-footed on defense. He even
endured the first scoreless game of his career when he went 0
for 7 against the Celtics on Feb. 24.

In March, however, after Anderson was felled by a hamstring
injury, Daly inserted Armstrong at point and shifted Hardaway to
the two spot. Since the switch--which appears to be permanent,
even with Anderson healthy again--Hardaway has reverted to his
old self, averaging more than 26 points a game. "I've always
told people that shooting guard is where I belong, where I play
the best," says Hardaway, who is likely to exercise an out
clause in his contract after this season but re-sign with Orlando.

Hardaway shakes his head violently when asked if this season is
at all about redemption, about getting back to where he once
belonged. But Penny's skin has always been phyllo-dough-thin,
and a few weeks ago he let down his guard after Charlotte's
Derrick Coleman, in a trash-talk monologue, told him he was
washed up. "Apparently a lot of people around the league feel
the same way," Hardaway said afterward. "But I promise you,
you're going to see a different Penny Hardaway. I'm not going to
have people disrespecting me."

How well he sticks to his word may determine the team's fate.
There is no shortage of skeptics who see the Magic's
unremarkable roster and postulate that in the playoffs the
Eastern Conference's surprise front-runners will go poof! and
vanish in a cloud of smoke. On the other hand, with Hardaway on
top of his game, with an endearing point guard on a
caffeine-sugar bender, and, with a deep and well-rested cast of
complementary players, Orlando might just magically reappear in
the NBA Finals.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS Playmaker The heroics of the hyperkinetic Armstrong (10) have left teammates singing his praises--though no one will praise his singing. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Up and down After two injury-plagued seasons, Hardaway is working hard to prove to the rest of the league that he's no spent Penny. COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS Old tricks Grant, 33, appreciates Daly's loose reins but thinks the Magic will have to start practicing more come playoff time.

"This group cares about winning," says Daly. "If one guy has
gotten injured, another guy has jumped right in."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)