COMING OFF a season that saw the team collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs for the second straight season, the Orlando Magic was looking to 22-year-old Fran Vazquez to help them contend again. They chose the 6'10" power forward, who had been playing in his native Spain, with their first pick in the draft (the 11th overall) and giddily slapped him on the cover of Magic Magazine, an in-house publication designed to stoke the enthusiasm of season-ticket holders. The accompanying story said that when Vazquez walked into the Magic's locker room for the first time shortly after being picked in June, he "displayed a smile that was Eddie-Murphy-Coming-to-America-esque. It was as if he was living his dream, precisely at that moment. The NBA. I Love This Game. It's Fantastic."
Not fantastic enough, apparently. Vazquez announced last week that he had signed with Girona, a semiobscure Spanish team that plays in a 5,000-seat arena and hasn't finished higher than eighth in its domestic league in a decade--essentially the Orlando Magic of the Iberian Peninsula. The snub caught his would-be employers off guard. A Magic insider swears the team "had every assurance he was coming to the NBA this season," and Vazquez was expected to play significant minutes as a rookie. Vazquez certainly acted the part of the delighted draftee--attending the draft in New York, sitting in the greenroom, even visiting Orlando for a press conference.
So what happened? Like so much of life these days, it came down to real estate. Orlando was left with egg on its face, and a hole in its frontcourt, because a small Spanish land-development company called Akasvayu recently bought Girona's sponsorship rights--and dumped a huge amount of money on the team, hoping to increase the company's visibility by making sports-page headlines. Girona was thus able to give Vazquez a four-year deal reportedly worth almost $10 million, far more than the three-year, $5 million deal he'd receive under the NBA's rookie salary scale. (Girona also snapped up former Jazz point guard Raul Lopez and Spanish team mainstay Roberto Due�as, whose rights are held by the Heat.)
Not even a personal visit from Magic assistant G.M. Dave Twardzik could persuade the lottery pick to return to Orlando. "He felt at this time in his life it was best for him to remain in Spain. He was very apologetic," says Twardzik, who returned to the U.S. with only a hard-earned lesson in the danger of overestimating the allure of the NBA. -- Lang Whitaker