There is such a high-tech, futuristic quality to the Orlando Magic that if the team didn't exist, some science-fiction writer would surely invent it. Perhaps the aura comes from Shaquille O'Neal, who, in case you can't see him in person, is also available on compact disc, videocassette and CD-ROM. Or maybe it derives from Anfernee Hardaway, the prototype for the 21st-century player, so versatile that he renders conventional positions obsolete. The Magic shouldn't be atop the Atlantic Division, it should be on exhibit at Orlando's EPCOT Center.
It's only natural, then, to think of the youthful Magic—O'Neal is 22, Hardaway 23 and Orlando's oldest starter, power forward Horace Grant, 29—more in terms of the future than the present, as being destined to win championships later rather than sooner. There are older, more experienced teams that have been waiting for their turn at the top, and the Magic hasn't served the lengthy apprenticeship that seems mandatory before winning an NBA title. In its five-year history, Orlando has been in only one playoff series, an embarrassing three-game sweep by the Indiana Pacers last spring. "Our immediate goal," says Magic player personnel director John Gabriel, "ought to be to win a playoff game."
However, through the first six weeks of this season, Orlando gave every indication that its future is now as it burst out of the gate with a 17-5 record that tied it with the Phoenix Suns for the NBA's best mark. While championships are won in June, not December, there's no ignoring the fact that the Magic has been the best team in the league. It has won convincingly—only five of its victories have been by fewer than 10 points—and it has thrashed both of last season's NBA finalists, beating the defending champion Houston Rockets by 23 and the New York Knicks by 25. True, befitting a maturing team, Orlando has also been thumped twice on the road, losing by 27 to the lowly New Jersey Nets on Dec. 12 and by 40 last Saturday to the Seattle SuperSonics. Nevertheless, Grant, a collector of Sam Cooke recordings, borrowed a line from the late soul singer to describe the Magic start. "We're having a party," he says.
And everybody's swingin'. At week's end the Magic was the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 113.2 points a game. Despite having sat out large parts of blowouts, center O'Neal led the league in scoring (29.7 points a game) and was in the top dozen in rebounding (10.7), field goal percentage (.604) and blocked shots (1.95). Hardaway was averaging 21.9 points a game. The MVP of last year's rookie All-Star game, he is a sure bet to play in this season's main event, in Phoenix on Feb. 12. Together, O'Neal and Hardaway have been the most spectacular duo in the league. O'Neal was the NBA player of the month in November, and Hardaway was the first player of the week named in December.
In fact, Orlando has been so dominant that even the most hardened observers tend to gush with praise. When Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, whose Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA championships and 11 in 13 years between 1956 and '69, was a guest on Magic general manager Pat Williams's radio show recently, he told Williams he never thought any team would approach the Celtics' success. "But after watching your team on TV," Russell said, "I'm not so sure."
Even the Orlando players are somewhat surprised at how quickly the pieces have fallen into place. "We're a little ahead of schedule," says forward Donald Royal. "Nobody's putting us in the finals already, but I don't think anyone assumed we'd be this good this early, not with the new guys having to work their way into the system."
Indeed, free-agent acquisitions Grant and backup point guard Brian Shaw, veterans whom Magic coach Brian Hill refers to as "character guys," have performed exactly as Hill had hoped when they were signed in the off-season. Shaw, late of the Miami Heat, has relieved the 6'7" Hardaway of the burden of running the team and allowed him to concentrate on scoring, which he often does with breathtaking slashes to the basket or by posting up smaller defenders.
Grant, who came to Orlando after winning three championships with the Chicago Bulls, has been the tough rebounder (9.4 per game) and scoring threat (12.3) the Magic had been looking for to complement O'Neal, and he has been a voice of reason and experience in the locker room. "Horace has kept everybody from getting ahead of themselves," says Shaw. "He's already called a couple of meetings, even though we're winning, when he saw us getting into bad habits on defense. And he always wears one of his championship rings. Sometimes that's all that needs to be said." After Hardaway had missed most of the preseason in a contract dispute, Grant quietly but firmly told him it was time to get signed and into camp. Hardaway summoned his representatives to Orlando and told them not to leave until they had reached a deal.
There are only a few areas in which the younger Magic players refuse to follow Grant's lead. For instance, he hasn't been able to get them to fully appreciate the musical talents of Cooke. "When I'm listening to Sam, they've got some rap thing going on," says Grant. "It's not that I'm old, it's that they're so young."
And Grant is alone in his fascination with Greek mythology. "I've always been interested in the Greek gods and their power, their ability to control the sun, the wind, the fire," he says. "When Jeopardy! is on and one of the categories is mythology, don't talk to me." So far, none of his teammates have joined him in one of his favorite pursuits, watching Adventures of Hercules on Saturday mornings. His scouting report on Hercules: "Incredible strength. Half man, half god. One adventure after another."