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Penny Hardaway started his courtship of free-agent center Isaac Austin back in 1997, when the two met at Hardaway's charity basketball game in Memphis. "Come on, big dog," Hardaway said then and during the frequent phone calls that followed. "You gotta come play with me in Orlando." Since franchise center Shaquille O'Neal's signing with the Lakers in 1996, the Magic had fallen on hard times. Last season, with Hardaway limited to just 19 games because of knee and calf injuries, Orlando finished fifth in the Atlantic division. It was the first time Chuck Daly had coached a full season and failed to reach the playoffs.
So during the off-season Penny invited Austin, the NBA's Most Improved Player in 1997, to stay at his house in Orlando, where his private chef saw to Austin's every culinary need. The lesson: The way to every 270-pound pivot's heart is right through the gullet. After his last visit to the Hardaway house in mid-January, the 29-year-old Austin called his agent and told him to cut a deal with the Magic. The two sides later agreed on a three-year, $15 million contract. "If Penny ever needs to get another job outside the NBA, sales may be the perfect opportunity for him," says Daly. "Without him, we don't even get close to signing Ike."
"We haven't had any respect since Shaq left," adds Hardaway. "I think we're going to regain a lot of respect from around the league with a guy like Ike Austin. This team is going to be pretty scary."
It sure was last year when the Magic lost 277 player-games to injury, forcing Daly to use 20 lineups and six point guards. Those hardships may, however, have long-term benefits for the Magic. For one, all that downtime seems to have lit a fire under Hardaway, who is running out of opportunities to prove he can lead an attack without Shaq. "You can just tell he is delighted to be healthy, playing again and taking a leadership role," says Daly.
Penny's absence also forced his teammates to raise their games. After the All-Star break fellow guard Nick Anderson scored 23.9 points per game—a quantum leap from the 7.9 he averaged in the first half of the season. Even more impressive was the emergence of 6'8" forward Bo Outlaw, a CBA alum and former Clipper whom Austin calls a "chiseled basketball machine." Outlaw wound up leading the team in rebounds, blocks and steals.
What Ike really liked about Orlando—even more than access to Hardaway's chef—was the Magic's supporting cast. The talent includes forwards Horace Grant and rookie Matt Harpring. "I'm not Shaq," says Austin. "And I'm not the Man. I'm not going to save this team by myself. Every time we talked, Penny said I only had to do one thing: Just come here and play hard and help us get Orlando back on top."
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