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Friday, May 29, 2009

After Shaq: The Rebuilding of the Orlando Magic

It was fitting that Shaquille O’Neal was in attendance earlier this week as the Orlando Magic posted their most important victory in more than a decade with an overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

More than any other individual, Shaq is responsible for the years of futility suffered by the Magic since he left in 1996. He also may ultimately end up being an important reason why this time the Magic won’t let their chance to be among the NBA elite slip through their grasp.

The road to redemption has been a long and winding one for the Magic since O’Neal rebuffed the city and signed with the Los Angeles Lakers after the 1996 season.

Like a bridegroom that had been jilted at the altar by a cover girl, the Magic spent the next several years desperately trying to get back what they had lost.

Previously recognized as one of the NBA’s best franchises and widely regarded for their calculated approach to building a championship caliber squad, the Magic suddenly seemed to try anything that might help them achieve the greatness that had been deprived them upon Shaq’s exit.

The Orlando roster of the late 1990s and early 2000s reads like a “Who’s Who” of past-their-prime NBA stars. Former stars including Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Smith, Rony Seikaly, Mark Price, Dee Brown, Patrick Ewing, Vernon Maxwell, Spud Webb, Derek Harper and Dominique Wilkins all made their way through the revolving door that was the Orlando lineup.

The Magic also turned to free agency to lure some of the NBA’s top players to Orlando, but that approach produced mixed results.

After unsuccessfully attempting to convince Tim Duncan to leave San Antonio, the Magic made big noise by bringing Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady (T-Mac) to Orlando.

Unfortunately, instead of championships, the signings brought heartaches and headaches to the franchise.

One of the most popular players in the league, Hill was expected to be the Orlando’s next superstar, but injuries deprived Magic fans of ever seeing him at his greatest. A leg injury suffered prior to his arrival in Orlando limited Hill to only 200 games (out of a possible 492) in six seasons with the Magic.

McGrady’s performance on the court was electric as he won two scoring titles and averaged more than 28 points per game. However, by the time his four-year tenure with the Magic ended following the 2003-2004 season he was most often referred to in Orlando as “Me-Mac.”

The biggest problem for the Magic after Shaq left was that they were just good enough every season for the front office to believe that they just needed “one more guy” to get them back to elite status.

In the first seven seasons in the post-Shaq era, the Magic never posted a losing record and reached the playoffs five times. They also never won more than 45 games in a year and never won a playoff series.

Whether you are talking about a professional sports franchise, business or individual, the worst possible result can often be to have just enough success that you are afraid doing something dramatically different could cause it to go away. It often takes hitting rock bottom before you recognize that things aren’t working and you must make significant changes if you truly wish to see different results.

For the Orlando Magic, rock bottom came during the 2003-2004 season. After winning their season opener in overtime, the Magic lost 19 consecutive games on the way to finishing with a 21-61 overall record.

The team’s first losing season since before the arrival of Shaq came at a precarious moment for the once proud franchise.

While the fallout from losing Shaq had initially been minimal, with each subsequent misstep the relationship between the Magic and the once-loyal fans of Orlando seemed to grow more tenuous.

Just a decade after the city built a new arena to house the Magic, the team started talking about the need for a new venue. At a time when player salaries and ticket costs were escalating while the nightly effort on the court was often questionable, the request alienated many locals who publicly wondered if having a professional sports franchise was worth the expense when schools and other services were sub-standard.

The 2001 terrorist attacks severely dampened the tourism industry, which is a leading driver of the Orlando economy, and the request for a new arena was quickly withdrawn.

By 2004 the owners of the Magic had briefly thought about selling the franchise and it was widely believed that the team might be headed to greener pastures. The struggles on the court didn’t help as the fan support was at an all-time low.

It was apparent that the team had to make major changes.

A decade earlier, the young Magic franchise had been lifted from mediocrity to the cusp of greatness thanks to consecutive years in which they won the NBA Draft Lottery.

The team built around Shaquille O’Neal (drafted first in 1992) and Penny Hardaway (acquired in a trade after Orlando had drafted Chris Webber with the first pick in 1993), made a rapid rise to the NBA elite as they reached the NBA Finals in 1995 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996.

Unfortunately, the Magic proved unable to handle “first fame” and after Shaq left the team imploded under the weight of unrealized expectations.

When the Magic won the 2004 Draft Lottery few realized that the selection would provide the team with a second chance to build an NBA dynasty.

There was little question that the top pick in the draft would either be Emeka Okafor, a 22-year old center who had led Connecticut Huskies to the 2004 NCAA Championship, or Dwight Howard, an 18-year old 6-11 center from Atlanta, Georgia. The general consensus was that while Okafur would likely be better initially, Howard had more long-term potential and given the right tutelage could develop into a dominant center.

Given their recent track record of looking only at how to get better immediately, many expected the Magic to play it safe and select Okafur.

However, after experiencing nothing but futility through their “fill the immediate need” approach, the Magic front office finally drew a line in the sand and decided to return to the approach that had turned them into winners in the early 1990s.

Instead of making the pick that might yield the most immediate return, the Magic decided to play for the long-term future of the franchise and selected Dwight Howard.

As predicted, Okafur was named the NBA Rookie of the Year while Howard had the usual struggles seen when a player jumps from high school to the NBA. However, by the end of Howard’s first season –in which he averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds– few were questioning if the Magic had made the right decision.

The Magic won 36 games in each of Howard’s first two seasons before reaching the playoffs during his third season. Orlando then won 52 games in 2007-08 before posting 59 victories this season.

Howard has evolved into the premier center of the Eastern Conference. He has averaged a double-double in each of his five NBA seasons and earned first team All-NBA honors the last two seasons.

This season Howard also emerged as the dominant defensive player in the league and was named the Defensive Player of the Year.

Under the guidance of general manager Otis Smith the Magic front office has built a solid squad around their franchise center. A combination of draft picks, trades and key free agent signings has provided a nucleus that includes Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Mickael Pietrus.

Much as they have done on the court, the team also has taken great strides to repair their public image in Orlando. After taking their fans for granted for nearly a decade, the Magic returned to the grass roots, community based marketing that had been successful in their early years.

In 2007, the City of Orlando and Orange County approved the building of a new events center that will serve as the new home for the Magic. The center will open in 2010 and make the Magic the first NBA team to play in a Green-certified facility.

Given that Shaq went on to win three championships with the Lakers and another in Miami, you can’t help but wonder how many championship banners the Magic might have been able to move to the rafters in their new facility if he had never left Orlando.

Shaq may not have helped Orlando win a championship, but the lessons learned following his departure might ensure that the current team doesn’t fall short.

It took more than a decade, but the Magic finally seem to have stopped thinking about what might have been and are now concentrating on how many banners Howard and the current squad will get to hoist in their new home.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Indianapolis 500?

In case you haven’t noticed, and chances are pretty good that you haven’t, the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is happening this Sunday.

It wasn’t all that long ago when the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” wasn’t just a big deal for race fans, it was part of the national fabric and as important a part of Memorial Day Weekend as cookouts, swimming pools and veteran’s celebrations.

Much like the Kentucky Derby, Daytona 500 and Wimbledon Finals, it was one of those annual “sports spectacles” that everybody followed, regardless of whether they paid attention to the sport for the other 364 days of the year.

From 1965 through 1985, ABC televised the race through tape delay on Sunday night, meaning the only way to follow it live was on the radio.

As a kid growing up in Virginia in the 1970s and early 1980s, I remember that regardless of whether we were off on a family camping trip, visiting family, or at a picnic, on the Sunday afternoon of Memorial Day Weekend we always had the radio on and were listening to the race.

I then couldn’t wait until that night when I actually got to see what I had heard through ABC’s coverage of the race. I don’t really remember it bothering me that I already knew the winner.

In fact sometimes, especially in 1981 when Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti were embroiled in a controversial finish, watching it after-the-fact actually made it more interesting and exciting.

It may have just been my childhood belief that everyone cared about the same things I did, but it seemed like listening to the Indianapolis 500 wasn’t just something our family did, it was part of the American lexicon.

In 1986 ABC began televising the race live and the first year of the live broadcast proved to be disappointing as the race was rained out of its original weekend and not run until the following Saturday.

Even though that was certainly not the start to live coverage of this prestigious event that ABC had hoped for, I don’t think moving the television coverage to Sunday afternoon can be blamed for why the Indianapolis 500 no longer carries the national weight that it did in past generations.

For that, there is plenty of blame to pass around.

Even though I grew up in a NASCAR hotbed, with the exception of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, the biggest names in racing weren’t in NASCAR they were in Indy car racing.

A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, the Unser brothers and many others were recognized names in sports and their stories were well known and documented.

Mario Andretti became synonymous in pop culture with speed and his name has been referenced in a number of popular songs.

Over time, that started to change as many of the familiar drivers from Indy’s past started to retire and the growing popularity of NASCAR led to many of the top American drivers gravitating away from open wheel racing and toward stock car racing.

This left the Indianapolis 500 with a noticeable void that seemingly was going to be filled by two sons of Indy legends, Al Unser, Jr. and Michael Andretti, along with a talented group of foreign drivers including Roberto Guerrero, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Villeneuve.

Through the mid-1990s, the race remained a popular national event with these talented drivers providing some of the most exciting finishes in the history of the prestigious race.

However, a dispute between Speedway owner Tony George and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) in 1995 stopped the momentum right in its tracks and created a credibility void that the race is still trying to overcome nearly 15 years later.

Beginning in 1996, George reserved most of the spots in the race for drivers in his new Indy Racing League Series, which led to a boycott by CART. A year later, the two series started using different equipment and drivers with little history or pedigree replaced most of the familiar names in the Indianapolis 500.

Eventually most of the top open wheel drivers in the sport started returning to Indianapolis, but the damage had been done. Interest in open wheel racing in the United States has significantly declined over the last 15 years, leading to the merging of the two series in 2008.

The continued popularity of NASCAR has also hurt Indy’s national credibility as three recent champions: Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Dario Franchitti, have had mediocre –at best– success driving in NASCAR.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity, in 1993 NASCAR moved their regular Charlotte event to the Sunday night before Memorial Day.

While Indy and CART were fighting among themselves, the world also changed. The advent of the internet, cable television and a variety of new technology gadgets are among the many factors that have splintered the interests of the American public and made it significantly more difficult for any specific event to capture the interest of the public as some events regularly did in past generations.

Events like the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby still draw near record attendance, but their appeal beyond the core audience has waned.

Even the popularity of Indy driver Danica Patrick, who has brought sex appeal to the sport, has done little to help the race regain national prominence.

Though Patrick has proven her ability with three top 10 finishes in four starts at Indy, many outside the sport see her as little more than a sideshow and publicity stunt. Her popularity has also been met with resistance by some of the more successful drivers in the sport.

Another popular Indy driver, two-time winner Helio Castroneves, tried to increase exposure for the sport as a contestant on the popular Dancing with the Stars. He won the competition and became more widely recognized, but any positive impact may have been tarnished when he was later charged –and acquitted– of tax fraud.

Though it may not have the national status it once enjoyed, the Indianapolis 500 is still one of the great American sporting events and will always be a big part of my Memorial Day Weekend.

I sure hope I can find it on the radio.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Randy Johnson: Last of His Kind

When Randy Johnson wins his 300th game sometime in the next couple weeks he isn’t just going to become a member of one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs; he is likely to become the last member of that club.

While the once ultra exclusive 500 home run club has suddenly become as crowded as a phone booth during a fraternity pledge night, reaching 300 career victories is going the way of the woolly mammoth.

Earlier this season, Gary Sheffield became the ninth player this decade and 25th player in history to reach 500 home runs. Carlos Delgado of the Mets will probably be joining the club sometime in the next year as he stands only 27 home runs away from the once magical number.

With two more victories, Johnson will become the fourth pitcher this decade, and only the fifth in the last twenty years to collect 300 victories. He will become the 24th pitcher in a club that may never see a 25th member.

After Johnson, the pitcher closest to 300 victories is 46-year-old Jamie Moyer with 249 wins. Entering this season, Moyer needed to average 18 wins per season for the next three years to reach 300.

He has three wins so far in 2009, but considering that he has exceeded 17 wins only twice in his 23 year career, the likelihood that he will achieve 300 wins is pretty remote.

Of pitchers under the age of 40, CC Sabathia, who will be 29 in July, entered this season with 117 victories through his first eight seasons for an average of 15 wins per season. He will have to maintain that average for another 12 years to reach 300 wins.

There are quite a few reasons why these two milestones of greatness have swapped levels of difficulty during the last quarter century.

The combination of performance enhancing drugs, shrinking ballparks and an increase in the number of mediocre pitchers at the major league level have combined to inflate home run totals and elevate players who in other eras would have been lucky to hit 300 home runs to statistical levels once reserved for the greats of the game.

At the same time that forces have combined to increase offensive numbers, starting pitchers have become the victims of a similar convergence of factors.

Once upon a time, starting pitchers in Major League Baseball were considered warriors, heading to the mound every fourth day to carry the mettle for their team. They took the rubber each time expecting to pitch nine innings and some considered it an insult if the manager even thought about taking them out of the game.

Former Baltimore Orioles stalwart Jim Palmer was known for expressing frustration when he was removed from a game before it was finished. Considering that between 1969 and 1978 he averaged 18 complete games a year, you have to wonder how Palmer would react today when most managers are looking to the bullpen by the sixth or seventh inning.

Sending the game to the bullpen earlier is one reason that when a pitcher now wins 16 games in a season he often in the discussion for the Cy Young Award.

The other major reason is that in this era of five-man pitching rotations, pitchers get several fewer starts per season than when most starting rotations included only four men.

When Palmer won 20 or more games in eight of nine seasons between 1970 and 1978, he averaged 37 starts per season and exceeded 300 innings pitched four times.

Johnson is generally recognized as one of the workhorse pitchers of his generation, but he has never started more than 35 games in a season and his career-high for innings pitched is 271.

It is telling to consider that Johnson’s career total of 100 complete games ranks first among active pitchers and is nearly double the second place total. Yet, when compared with the all-time list, Johnson is tied with Dennis Eckersley and two others for 399th place on the career complete game list.

Baseball has always been a game of numbers. Reaching 500 home runs or 300 victories has always meant nearly automatic induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yet, as the value of these milestone numbers becomes a little murky, other factors will have to be used to determine Hall of Fame credentials.

With the recent positive test for performance enhancing drugs by Manny Ramirez, seven members of the 500 home run club have now been linked to PEDs.

The Hall of Fame selection earlier this year of Jim Rice, who hit 382 home runs as baseball’s premier slugger of the late 1970s and 1980s, could indicate a shift away from bloated numbers and toward excellence within an era as criteria for Hall of Fame selection.

A shift toward that kind of evaluation could bode well for some of the premier pitchers of the last two decades.

There has been much debate recently as to whether Curt Schilling –with 216 career wins– is deserving of Hall of Fame recognition. While his win total, along with that of Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz –with 214 and 210 career wins respectively– falls well short of pitchers from previous eras, it looks more impressive when compared with his contemporaries.

Even if Johnson had not been able to continue his push toward 300 wins, a total that Palmer did not reach despite having eight 20 victory seasons and 211 complete games, there is little doubt that his dominance during the late 1990s and early 2000s would have earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

That Johnson has been able to withstand the test of time is a testament to his ability and proof that he is indeed one of the greats of all-time.

He also is going to be the last of his kind, so you won’t want to miss his milestone victory. If you do, it might be quite a while before you see another one quite like it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Walt Frazier – May Vintage Athlete of the Month

Imagine if you played the best game of your career to lead your team to victory in the seventh game of an NBA Championship Series and yet when historians discuss the game you get little mention as they spend most of their time talking about someone who scored only four points in the game and could barely get up and down the court.

Such is the case for the Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month for May, Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

To most, the defining image of the 1970 NBA Finals between the
New York Knickerbockers and Los Angeles Lakers is that of New York center Willis Reed limping out of the locker room prior to game seven and then hitting two baskets that set the tone for the Knicks ultimate victory over a powerhouse Lakers team that included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

However, while Reed’s performance provided the emotional lift the Knicks needed, it was Frazier who dominated the game on the court.

Frazier scored 22 points in the first half as New York raced out to a 61-37 lead.
The Knicks point guard finished the game with 36 points and 19 assists as New York claimed their first-ever championship with a 113-99 victory.

While Reed may have received all the attention during the 1970 run to the NBA Championship, there was no doubt who made the New York Knicks go during the 1970s.

Known for both his offensive and defensive prowess, Walt Frazier was an integral part of a Knicks team that made three trips to the NBA Finals and claimed the only two titles in franchise history. He was a four-time first team All-NBA selection and was an All-Defensive team pick seven times.

On the court, Frazier directed the show and often yielded the spotlight to his well-known teammates, including Reed, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.

However, off the court Frazier’s flamboyant sense of style and classic smile put him in a class with only “Broadway Joe” Namath as the most recognized New York City sports figures of the era. Nicknamed “Clyde” after wearing a similar hat to one that Warren Beatty had worn while portraying folk hero robber Clyde Barrow in the popular 1960s movie Bonnie and Clyde, Frazier was known for his flashy wardrobe and for arriving to games in his Rolls Royce.

Frazier’s Madison Square Garden debut in 1967 was a memorable one that proved to be foreshadowing for his decade of success with the Knicks.

A high school standout in Atlanta, Frazier attended Southern Illinois University and was a Division II All-American in 1964 and 1965. He led SIU to the 1967 National Invitational Tournament (NIT), played at Madison Square Garden, and was named tournament MVP as they defeated Marquette 71-56 to win the title.

The Knicks chose Frazier with the fifth pick in the 1967 NBA Draft and he went on to earn All-Rookie Team honors during his initial season in New York.

As part of a talented young nucleus, Frazier helped the Knicks snap a streak of eight straight losing seasons during his first season with the squad. They won 54 games while reaching the Eastern Division Finals the next season and then during the 1969-70 season won a franchise record 60 games and the first championship in team history.

The Knicks lost the NBA Finals to the Lakers in 1972, but won the rematch the following season for their second title in four years.
Frazier spent 10 seasons with the Knicks and averaged 19.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game during that stretch.

He completed his career with three injury-plagued seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Since his retirement, Frazier has remained visible in New York as a color commentator for Knicks games on the MSG Network. He also has appeared in a number of national commercials, most notably as a spokesman for Just for Men.

He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987.

Each month, Sports Then and Now celebrates and remembers the accomplishments of a notable athlete from past generations. If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Vintage Athlete of the Month, send me a nomination by
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