ESPN 30 for 30: This Magic Moment (2016)

Directed by Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby

Usually when a new professional franchise starts up, there is a decade long struggle for greatness. Building a team from the ground up is no easy task and it certainly takes a few breaks along the way in order to build a champion, especially in quick succession. There have been a few teams who have managed to come into a pro league and win really early on. The most obvious example I can think of is the Arizona Diamondbacks of the MLB. An expansion team in 1998, they quickly were World Series champions in 2001, in remarkable fashion over the dynasty that were the New York Yankees at the time. Another example would be the Minnesota Wild of the NHL, who reached the Conference Finals in just their third year of existence. That one stung being a Columbus Blue Jackets fan, since the Wild came into the league at the same time. But that’s the point, the Blue Jackets are one extreme, still not having found extended success 10+ years after entering the league. The Diamondbacks are the other extreme.

The Orlando Magic fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes, but their fate has more to do with good luck turning into bad luck in the blink of an eye. The 30 for 30 series has been good to this point at chronicling the bad luck stories, as well as some of the more fulfilling success stories in sports history. With This Magic Moment, directors Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby explore a little bit of both, crafting a familiar, but decidedly different type of 30 for 30 film. The Orlando Magic began play in the NBA in the 1989-1990 season, at the tail end of Magic Johnson and the Lakers dominance and decade long battle with the Boston Celtics, and the beginning of the reign of Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the 1990s. After a few poor years, the Magic won the draft lottery and took once-in-a-lifetime player Shaquille O’Neal. The team was immediately better. They then did the impossible and won the lottery again the next year, netting them Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and draft picks through savvy trading with the Golden State Warriors. Shaq and Penny began to build something special in Orlando, but soon the two superstars fairy tale would come to an unfortunate close.

It is hard to call the story of the mid-90s Orlando Magic unknown, but it may be apt to call them overlooked or under-appreciated as history has remembered them. Ardent fans of the game will certainly remember their greatness, but more casual fans may simply remember Jordan and the Bulls, and the two titles Olajuwon and the Rockets won with Jordan playing baseball. This Magic Moment gives the Orlando Magic their due, even if that also means recognizing the fact they got extremely lucky to win the NBA Draft Lottery in back to back years and built a giant with two franchise players. Leyden and Kirby deliver their due diligence by showing the rather procedural segment of how the Magic came to be, both in terms of the franchise popping up in Florida, and the talent making their way to make the team a contender. This background is necessary to then explore the interesting dynamic between Shaq, Penny, the rest of the team, the coaching staff, the front office, and the rest of the league.

I can’t say this documentary doesn’t feel like one of the standard ESPN formula 30 for 30‘s, because it is, but I would say it’s one of the better ones out there. Having Shaq and Penny help produce the film certainly makes one wonder about the “slant” the film gives each player and the team in general, but even if the film is a little biased in favor of the star players and how the team is remembered, it still remains that the Orlando Magic were a great team with a couple of really great players. When the film takes the turn from rising team to dysfunctional, falling team, I think the dynamics between all those involved could have been explored a little bit more than they were, which was mostly Shaq and Penny saying they wish they would have stayed and built something. I’m not sure I buy that. Shaq won four NBA titles. But, whether intended or not, by having these two greats “look back” on the good times in Orlando, the film has a good conversation about the maturity level of elite athletes.

Players in almost all sports are said to be in their prime when they are still in their 20s, when their priorities are very different from more mature players. Shaq and Penny were worried about how much money they were making, whose “team” it was, how many championships they would win together. Often when you take a step back from the rigors of the game years after, you can more easily see what was truly important to you. Shaq and Penny both regret leaving Orlando, they both regret the ego struggle for who the real leader of the team was, but in their defense, that’s just how twenty year olds feel. Even in today’s culture you can find ego’s whose desire for money and fame trump success on the court (and still making lots of money, just not the most). The San Antonio Spurs are the exception. The rest of the league is the rule.

The Orlando Magic under Shaq and Penny works as both a success story and how to build a successful franchise, and a cautionary tale for both young players and front office executives. In one tale, the Magic showed how to build a franchise, and how to unintentionally dismantle the same. The Magic imploded from within, which is unfortunate, as it would have been a wonder to see this team for years and years compete with Jordan’s Bulls and the rest of the league. It is the great unknown. ESPN has explored this angle to a story a few times (The Best That Never WasUnguarded), and This Magic Moment is another solid entry into the series.

*** – Good

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