So without the hand check, are the New York Knicks in checkmate? Hardly. The Magic won 50 games last season but was swept in the opening round of its first playoff appearance by the Indiana Pacers. Not since the '77 Portland Trail Blazers has a team gone to the NBA Finals without previously having won a playoff game in franchise history. "I don't think the expectations are realistic," says Magic coach Brian Hill. "There's a certain process you go through, learning how to win in the NBA playoffs. Detroit took three years to get past Boston and into the Finals. Chicago took three years to get past Detroit. And New York finally got through in its fourth year. I don't see any reason why we should be different."
But when you consider that DeVos is the cofounder of Amway, the man who loosed armies of inexorable cleaning-supply salesmen on America, you have to wonder: Will he be content just...knocking on the door?
"The Finals would be a huge leap," the enormously self-assured Hardaway said on a recent night, before driving off in his white Lamborghini Diablo, a vehicle Batman might reject as too ostentatious. "It puts a lot of pressure on us. But we can handle it."
Of course, with Grant signed through 1999, 22-year-old force of nature Shaquille O'Neal also signed through 1999, and Hardaway signed through 2003 and already tooling about in a quarter-of-a-million-dollar car, the Magic may not share the same sense of urgency felt by the veteran Suns. "We have to win it all," Phoenix guard Dan Majerle acknowledges with admirable candor. "We're not playing to get close anymore."
The Suns are far and away the most talented team in the league. They won 56 games last season before folding like lawn chairs to the eventual-champion Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. To a team of past and present All-Stars—Barkley, Majerle, forward A.C. Green and guards Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge—Phoenix grafts the 6'10" Manning, who averaged 20.6 points a game for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks last season. Confoundingly, he can play two-guard, both forward positions and center—though not, as rumor has it, simultaneously. "Been there, done that," says Manning when asked about his willingness to play all of the above. "Been doing it all my career."
"Manning's too big for your small forward to guard," says Hill. "He's too quick for your power forward. Then Johnson, Majerle and Ainge shoot so well." He shakes his head. "And, of course, Barkley," he adds, almost parenthetically. "And Tisdale creates a tough matchup for your center." Hill then curls into a fetal ball, rolls beneath his desk and sobs softly.
In fact, he does no such thing. But Hill does raise an interesting point about the 6'9" Tisdale: He will play plenty of center for the Suns, but he is really a forward who can draw shot-blocking Goliaths away from the basket. So unnoticed were his 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game for the Sacramento Kings these last 5½ seasons that Tisdale was asked by a fan two summers ago to please refresh the fan's memory: When, exactly, had Way-man retired? Tisdale laughs. "A lot of years I was just hoping to win 30 games," he says. "Life is a lot sunnier on this side."
The Magic plays its home games in something called the Centroplex, while the Suns have a Centroplex, a rotating complex of centers that includes Tisdale, Manning and two ivory towers, Joe Kleine and Danny Schayes. Can they stop the league's top centers defensively without cloning Bill Russell from amber? "There are only three or four great centers in the league," Johnson points out. "And only one of them has won a championship, and that was Hakeem last year."
So what's to stop Phoenix? For starters, there's...there's the, uh...there's...what, exactly?
"The revolver is loaded," says Johnson flatly. "It's Desert Storm. We got all kinds of weapons."