The two-year-old United Center, a couple of miles west of the Chicago blues clubs, and the seven-year-old Orlando Arena, 15 miles northeast of the Magic Kingdom, are both monuments to the cookie-cutter mentality that has all but eliminated uniqueness from contemporary arena architecture. But beyond the similarities in these pristine structures are some crucial differences, which say more about the approach of the arenas' principal tenants, the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic, than about the design of either facility.
The United Center bears little resemblance to the Bulls' former home, the charmingly decayed Chicago Stadium, whose most distinctive qualities were the proximity of fans to the floor and the pervasive aroma of stale beer. The United Center certainly has its share of pyrotechnics during pregame introductions, but the Bulls generally favor a subdued, un-Disney-like approach to games. Sometimes they even seem to be trying to convince themselves that they're still playing at the stadium, where they strung together championships in 1991, '92 and '93. "If the United Center makes a difference," says Boston Celtics forward Rick Fox, "it's in what it does for the Bulls more than what it does to the visiting team."
On the other hand, the O-rena—even the nickname is annoying—goes after the visiting team with a vengeance. It features a public-address announcer who turns a first-quarter charging call into Armageddon, blaring technofunk music that provides the game with its own soundtrack, and frenzied sideshows during breaks in the action that make even the most focused player feel like he's in a circus instead of a timeout huddle.
Both approaches seem to work: Only the Bulls, who were 37-1 at United Center after being upset by the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night, had fewer losses at home than the Magic, which was 34-3 at the O-rena. But one of those three Orlando defeats will be particularly hard to forget, and not just because it came on Sunday against Chicago, which extended its record to an almost unbelievable 66-8. More than anything else, the Bulls' 90-86 victory made it clear that regardless of the Magic's home record, Orlando must get its house in order before it can think about repeating last season's playoff elimination of Chicago.
The game was the Magic's first in which the team—or at least coach Brian Hill—might have been better off if center Shaquille O'Neal had not played. O'Neal, who had gone to be with his family in East Orange, N.J., following the death of his grandmother on April 2, arrived at the O-rena during pregame introductions, to Hill's surprise, and took a seat on the bench late in the first quarter.
O'Neal had been given permission by the club to spend as much time with his family as he felt necessary, but his sudden appearance put Hill in an awkward position and raised questions about his control of the team. First, it was obvious that he had no idea of his center's whereabouts until O'Neal entered the arena. In addition, Hill had already said that O'Neal would not play if he did not attend the pregame meeting, but here was Shaq in uniform and ready for action. Hill had the choice of keeping his superstar on the bench and risking his wrath, not to mention putting his team at a disadvantage, or playing O'Neal and appearing to have caved in to the player's wishes.
Hill put O'Neal into the game at the start of the second quarter, and Shaq played all but three minutes the rest of the way, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds. "I'm the coach, and I decide who plays," Hill said. "Case closed." Maybe that's the case, but on Monday another one opened when O'Neal admitted that he had left New Jersey to be with friends in Atlanta after his grandmother's funeral on Saturday. A Magic spokesman said that since O'Neal had been given time off, it didn't matter where he spent it, but the incident raised a few eyebrows as well as the question of just how committed O'Neal is to the Magic.
O'Neal said he didn't decide to play until early Sunday afternoon after his mother contacted him in Atlanta. "She paged me," he said. "I thought something else was wrong. But she said, 'You need to go play. Stop sitting around crying.' " So O'Neal hopped a flight to Orlando and went straight to the game.
O'Neal's actions alone might not have been enough to undermine Hill's authority, but this was not the first time recently that a Magic player has appeared to be in charge. In a March 19 game between the Magic and the Detroit Pistons, Orlando reserve guard Anthony Bowie called time out with 2.7 seconds left and the Magic leading by 20 to give himself a chance to get the assist he needed for his first career triple double. Hill walked away in disgust during the timeout and later apologized to the Pistons. His players had gone against his wishes, and he had been unable, or unwilling, to stop them.
Orlando's headaches were more than a little bit welcome to the Bulls, who realize that the rest of the league is watching them for little breakdowns—whether aging, injury or insubordination (are you listening, Dennis Rodman?)—that could keep them from transforming the playoffs into a coronation. "Showing up in the middle of the first quarter—that's not cool," said a smirking Rodman, Chicago's trouble-prone power forward. "You want a distraction? That's a distraction."