By April 28, the Magic was drowning. Trailing two games to none in their best-of-five Eastern Conference first-round series with the Heat, the Magic players were bickering over their poor performance, smarting from renewed criticism over the way they pushed for the dismissal in February of coach Brian Hill and wondering aloud how they could win a game without forward Horace Grant, who was out for the series with a severe sprain of his right wrist. (Adding to the turmoil, Grant claimed that he had suffered not a sprain but a fracture that was misdiagnosed by the Magic's doctors.)
Orlando's Penny Hardaway, an emotional 6'7" All-Star guard, had been identified by the media as the ringleader in the mutiny against Hill, and he was crumbling under the weight of that notoriety. The fickleness of the Magic fans rankled and distracted him. Furthermore, before Game 2, Hardaway was asked by NBC's Jim Gray if he would like Magic interim coach Richie Adubato to return next season. "I can't say," Hardaway answered.
Naturally, it wasn't the response Adubato had hoped for. "At first I was thinking, Geez, Penny, an endorsement really would have helped," he said a few days later. "I was disappointed. But then I started thinking about the pressure he was under, and I realized it was too much for him to deal with at that point."
Hardaway's inability to handle that pressure left rival teams' general managers questioning not only his character but also his leadership skills. Wasn't this the player who had promised the Magic he would carry the load when center Shaquille O'Neal jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers last summer? Wasn't Hardaway supposed to challenge Michael Jordan for the scoring title? Wasn't he an elite player who made everyone better?
There was little evidence of that in Games 1 and 2 against Miami, in which Hardaway's averages (19.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 44.4% shooting) were underwhelming. Adubato, sensing that his best player was overloaded, pulled him off the point before Game 3 so he wouldn't have to chase Miami's 6-foot point guard, Tim Hardaway, and wouldn't have to concentrate on distributing the ball. "All of a sudden," Penny said, "my mind was clearer."
In the next four days Penny almost single-handedly reversed the Magic's fortunes—and redeemed his own reputation—with performances in Games 3 and 4 at Orlando Arena that were Jordanesque in their brilliance and courage. In Sunday's decisive Game 5 in Miami, Hardaway (33 points and six assists, both team highs) and Orlando came out 91-83 losers, but they had gained some needed respectability. "If we hadn't forced Game 5, all the old stuff would have started cropping up again," Penny said after Game 4. "We put the questions to rest. The respect is ours now."
On April 29, when Magic center Rony Seikaly went out early in Game 3 with torn ligaments in his right foot, Penny assumed the offensive load, pouring in a game-high 42 points and knocking down every big shot that mattered in Orlando's 88-75 win. Two nights later, with Seikaly and Grant in street' clothes and Magic forward Derek Strong hobbled by a hip pointer, Hardaway exploded again, racking up 41 points, four steals, three blocks and seven rebounds and basking in the roar of a frenzied O-rena crowd.
Magic officials were relieved. They had fretted over the thin-skinned Penny ever since Orlando fans had booed him on draft day in 1993 because they wanted Chris Webber instead. (Webber's draft rights were traded to the Golden State Warriors for the rights to Penny.) Early in his career, when Penny's ability to play the point was questioned around the league, he dwelled on the doubts.
Penny was also bothered when, the night after Hill was fired, fans at the O-rena booed every Magic player except newcomer Seikaly. For weeks afterward in the Orlando locker room, Seikaly felt shunned by his own teammates, a situation that could have been avoided had Penny stepped forward to defuse the tension.
Will Penny be able to forget this tumultuous season? His seven-year, $70 million contract has an escape clause following the 1998-99 season. As recently as last month, according to sources close to him, he was thinking about playing elsewhere. Magic management is aware that he might bolt, which explains in part why there's an urgency to draw a big-name coach—Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson were the names being bandied about last week—to Orlando. "I think Penny will stick around," says his close friend and teammate Nick Anderson. "He has some things to take care of here."