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, Hard-away. 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."