The Disappearing Act or: How I Learned to Stop Believing in the Magic and Love Chris Paul

I was born and raised in Central Florida, on the Atlantic coast, and I am more excited about the NBA now than I ever have been.

But it’s not for the reason you might expect.

I’ve never been that big an Orlando Magic fan. I could put some stock in the team and would maybe watch their opener if it fell on Halloween and I was on give-the-candy-to-the-rascals duty, but I’ve never been able to really expect anything out of them.

I started really watching sports when I was about 6, in 1996 (I apologize for making you feel old), which explains my dearest rooting interests: I loved Brett Favre and those fearless, dominant Green Bay Packers, the guile of Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves, the arrogance and derring-do of Steve Spurrier, his Eagle Scout helmsman, Danny Wuerffel, and those “hang half a hundred” Florida Gators.

They were my first sporting loves, my dear ones, my “we” teams, when I do, very rarely, attach myself that firmly, and they persist to this day. I’ll be fans of those teams until I die or attendance goes negative for Braves games, whichever comes first.

But I never got that close to the Magic.

I didn’t start watching basketball at the same time as the other sports, and when I did, I was a Michael Jordan fan; I vaguely remember the “flu game,” and I vividly recall watching the push-off final shot in Utah live.

When Jordan retired, I couldn’t quite bring myself to root for the Chicago Bulls, because without Jordan, they obviously weren’t the Bulls.

So I took my approach from what I read.

See, though the Orlando Sentinel gets a deserved rap for helping shape public opinion with an infamous 1996 poll asking whether a soon-to-nova Shaquille O’Neal was worth $115 million (the answer, of course, a resounding “Nope!” that led to ridicule even from The Sporting News), they recognize that, and play with it, as part of their typically very good Magic coverage.

The Magic are the only horse in town, and, when not whining about that fact, the Sentinel hitches up, year after year, to cheerlead or castigate, rarely in between, sometime vacillating from one to another from game to game.

That’s the sports section I have read every day I’ve been home from 1996 until today; I used to sit on the floor in our living room, poring over it. Now, as I am bigger than the broadsheet, I usually sit up and leaf through it.

And I think because the paper’s attitude has always been aggreived following of a team destined for disappointment, sprinkled with a bit of eternal optimism at the beginning of every year, I’ve had that same tack, too. I can’t love this team or get too close to it, because I know how the story ends: At odds with unrealistic expectations and with cries for change. (You want star-crossed history, read former Sentinel columnist Jemele Hill’s piece after Billy Donovan’s cold feet episode.)

I’ve known that ending with my other fanhoods, certainly: I cried after that dastardly John Elway turned into a Chinook at the goal line and stole the Super Bowl repeat from the Pack; I get angry, still, thinking about Gators losses to Florida State (the Swindle in the Swamp) and to Tennessee (this thread makes me grit my teeth) and to Auburn (seriously, Tommy Tuberville, I don’t like you) and to Alabama (same goes for you, Shaun Alexander); and if any Braves fan knows anything, it’s that the October collapse happens and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

But that line about the Braves can be tweaked to be true for me about the other teams, too; I knew as a Packers fan that Favre, without the defense he had in 1996-97, would always be just good enough to torpedo the fourth-quarter comeback in a big game with a wildly overthrown interception, and I knew Spurrier’s teams would find a way to lose one or two games at just the wrong moment and get knocked out of the national title chase.

And, in accepting that, I was able to rationalize not being able to cheer a champion as part of the natural order of the fan’s world. Losses crush me a little bit less than most, because I look forward to the storylines of the next year, or of the championship team, after mine bites the dust.

Occasionally, I get rewarded, as with the ’04s in Gator basketball, an heirloom fanhood that spilled over from the Swamp, or with the redemption of Chris Leak in 2006, or with the renaissance of Favre and the Pack this year, or with John Smoltz’ remarkable refusal to go gently into that good night.

But if I don’t, I understand. I congratulate the victorious fans on their team’s superiority.

I don’t cry anymore, and I don’t riot. Ultimately, these are games.

Last Saturday, I realized I could articulate why Magic fanhood wasn’t for me.

After a Game 3 blowout of a largely Chauncey Billups-less Detroit Pistons squad, spirits in the Magic Kingdom were high. This was the signature win this team, led by Dwight “Superman” Howard, needed to get over the hump. Thursday, David Whitley was writing big; on Saturday, Mike Bianchi was crowing about the balletic Magic’s ability to turn Game 3 into a “dance recital.”

But it was Whitley’s Friday column, somewhere between congratulations for a successful season and advance notice that nothing more would be necessary, that summed up what it is to be a Magic fan, the concoction of hope and disappointment that turns a second round playoff win that cuts a series lead to 2-1 into the biggest victory in franchise history.

The killer line? “Wednesday night’s win is empirical proof the Magic are off the old treadmill to mediocrity. Anyone who can’t see that simply doesn’t want to.”

I watched most of the first half of Game 4, and even though the Magic took an 11-point halftime lead, I noticed that ESPN was showing Pistons highlights in montages at the half. I knew Rip Hamilton was on his way to a great game. I knew Tayshaun Prince was playing at another level.

So I vamoosed for the vanishing act of the second half, retreating to my room to chat on the phone with my girlfriend. I knew what was coming.

Check the live blog. Check ESPN. Check Bianchi’s obit, teased on the banner of Sunday’s Sentinel front page, under the tag “MAGIC CHOKE.”

It’s not like it was a surprise.

That’s why I’m off that wagon, unsure if I ever was on. This team is a perpetual also-ran, Charlie Brown on his umpteenth try with the football, except that every so often, as in Game 3, he actually boots it high and deep, only to have it run back in a heartbreaker.

I walked out of my room after seeing the final score online.

My brother, 16 and hopeful, a Magic fan who’s starting to bleed blue and white, approached me with vacant eyes. “Did you see the end of the game?”

No, I hadn’t, I said, I’d just seen the score.

He said no more. His eyes told the story.

Fast forward three days: He’s just watched the Magic commit 21 turnovers and force only three against a rookie point guard from Eastern Washington, yet still rally just furiously enough in the dying moments of Game 5 for Prince to dash legitimate hopes with a spectacular swat of a go-ahead Hedo Turkoglu lay-up.

Not more than ten minutes later: “Well, I guess I’ll join the Hornets’ bandwagon, then.”

I sighed, because the charge I gave him in my head in that second is the same one I’ve gotten for renouncing my Magic allegiance and hitching up to the New Orleans Hornets: Fair-weather fan.

After all, the Hornets now stand one game from eliminating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs; the Hornets have one of the most electric players to enter the league in a long while; the Hornets were a team without a home, and now, with the triumphant full-time return to New Orleans, have their Hive buzzing.

(Note: As amateur entomologists Reggie Miller and Marv Albert were explaining last night, hornets are wasps, and, as such, have nests, not hives, something anyone in the South who has ever had a problem with wasps probably knew at some level. But then, there aren’t any hornets that come in blue, green, and white, so I think we can dismiss scientific inaccuracy when looking at this team. Also, after fact-checking that on Wikipedia, I am now scared of giant hornets, so thanks, TNT, for adding another fear to my life.)

But I noticed Paul and the Fleur-De-Bees a while ago (that’s the third post on this blog), partly because of that logo, which has grown on me, especially as a patch, and though I thought I was being bullish on them in saying they could be “just rugged enough to be playing in April and May,” I watched and followed them for much of the year.

It’s no doubt because I’m anachronistic in still reaching for a newspaper before my laptop in the morning, but it was harder for me to follow the Hornets than the Magic. I’m not well-versed in basketball blogs, and I was only tentatively dipping my foot into following a team, so I didn’t immediately consume everything.

Yet Chris Paul got the Hornets on SportsCenter and the Four-Letter’s website just often enough for me to get my fill, and I watched the games when they were on TNT or ESPN and I wasn’t doing something else; this team wasn’t appointment viewing then.

Then I fell in love.

I can explain that in two words: Chris Paul.

I love the word “mercurial,” but I never know quite how to use it; Merriam-Webster’s second and third definitions, though, fit Paul perfectly.

He’s eloquent, acquitting himself nicely on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me and in various post-game interviews, as at the post-Game 4 press conference, when he wryly celebrated an unexpected end to questions with a smirky “Cool” and a hasty retreat that made me smile. He’s certainly ingenious, knowing the game of basketball well enough to draw laughter from a Toronto viewer, the Globe and Mail‘s Michael Grange, for the ludicrous plays he makes; the paragraphs about Paul are buried in that article, but the section beginning “There was one” is required reading. And, of course, he’s got a bit of theivishness, leading the Association in steals in the regular season and averaging 2 thefts per game in the post-season.

And he plays the game at Formula 1 pace with constant dynamism, always looking for holes, opportunities, slivers of space to slither through. That suits the “rapid and unpredictable changeableness” part.

Hell, he’s got the typically cynical blogosphere cheering him: Look at this Deadspin article and its comments, and be sure to click on that Eric Neel article for some really good ESPN hyperbole.

Neel writes that Paul is a “miracle” because he’s “being Chris Paul,” who is small, ordinary-looking, and yet gifted beyond measure on the basketball court, and counsels us to enjoy it while we can.

And, yeah, Paul is a miracle, but for slightly different reasons than Neel asserts.

Paul will forever be the underdog in the NBA, a shrimp in a game of titans. He will not wow with abnormal physical grace or build; for all his talents, Paul is, in essence, a very fit young player who stands six feet tall on a good day and can run for ages.

If America valued sustained greatness rather than moments of the extraordinary, though, triathletes would be our ultimate heroes.

Instead, we have the SportsCenter top 10, a cultural institution that will always catapult sensational split-second acts like LeBron James’ spectacular hammering dunk over Kevin Garnett past any savvy move Paul can pull.

But what Paul does is great not in spite of its lack of believability, but better for it. He’s the Everyman Baller, a step or two (or three, I’ll be honest) faster than the fastest guy in high school and has developed peerless court vision; if you played basketball for as long as he has, and focused like he did, and did some running, you could be Chris Paul, too, you think.

Therein lies the rub, of course: Paul is renowned for his work ethic and his competitive streak, and was great enough in high school to pay tribute to his grandfather by pouring in points for every year of his life. Clearly, he’s got talents that can’t be fathomed at first sight, talents that are rare and wonderful.

Just for a second, though, the thought flashes through your head:

Chris Paul being Chris Paul could be you being you.

His team (and it is his, maybe more so than any other team, save LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers or Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, belongs to one player) is mostly the same way: There are few high-flying scorers and there is little sizzle to their uptempo game besides the usual assortment of aerial moves in transition.

It could easily be your rec league crew, if everyone were seven to nine inches shorter.

It’s a hodgepodge of good-to-great role players, with a jump-shooting power forward with touch near the basket in David West; a tenacious, tireless rebounder and defender in Tyson Chandler; a designated three-point sniper in Peja Stojakovic, with understudies in Morris Peterson and Jannero Pargo; and players like Bonzi Wells, Julian Wright, and Melvin Ely from the bench, who come in as infusions of energy or youth.

There are no showy stars here, no outsize players too big for the team.

This is why building your team of solid players from Accounting around that one new waterbug worked.

In fact, this Hornets squad reminds me greatly of none other than the Spurs team they’re playing against; it’s a highly competitive team of great talent from top to bottom that is precise and disciplined, best when its swarming defense shuts down opposing offenses and its offense takes advantage of opportunities from turnovers, but capable and comfortable in a number of styles. The thing this team is missing is a dominant big man, and their success despite that hole makes them all the more inspiring.

It’s like your team having no one above 6’2″.

Maybe most refreshing, there is neither an air of pretension or resignation about the Hornets; they certainly could be just happy to be here, playing with the established powers in the West, and get caught staring at the great teams around them, but they’ve never let up in these playoffs, and have those greats on their heels.

Just like your upstart team taking on the big boys from Corporate, these guys aren’t scared.

They don’t expect to get every call, and don’t whine when they don’t; Byron Scott was understandably upset he had to send Tyson Chandler to the bench after picking up a second quick foul last night in Game 5, especially since the first came from a dubious whistle on a “moving screen,” but he was perfectly cordial with the official and argued his case without screaming or profanity. Plus, while Paul did barrel-roll deliberately from one foul in the lane earlier in this series, the Hornets are, for the most part, not a team of floppers.

They’d yell “Foul” when there was one, but not every trip down.

And, of course, the team has a future. Minus Stojakovic and Wells, the team’s core is very young, almost all under 30, and will, because of smart dealings and contracts, be together for years if New Orleans GM Jeff Bower chooses to keep them together.

But Paul is the key to all that; he’s their creator. (And that’s a great nickname for a guy who deserves a little better than the rather generic CP3, even if it a family heirloom.

Nah, you’re not Chris Paul. Or God. That’s where the dream ends.

If they don’t win a title in the next five years, I will be greatly surprised.

Certainly, their great promise makes the Hornets easy to root for starting now. But their team’s makeup, their style, their philosophy, and their star makes them a squad to follow through thick and thin.

Now, they’re my squad to follow through thick and thin.

The Magic can have Bianchi’s optimistic look forward and John Denton’s rose-colored forecast. Theirs is still a horizon of great potential.

But I’ll never believe in them.

I believe in Chris Paul. I believe in the New Orleans Hornets.

And I believe, from now on, my basketball fan’s heart lives on Bourbon Street.

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7 Comments

Filed under Columns

7 responses to “The Disappearing Act or: How I Learned to Stop Believing in the Magic and Love Chris Paul

  1. thearenaonline

    ” … or with John Smoltz’ remarkable refusal to go gently into that good night.”

    Why is it so remarkable that Smoltz still has something left in the tank? He was a 70-inning-per-year reliever for four years in his mid-30s. Smoltz has worked fewer innings in his career than Don Drysdale, who retired at age 32, or Catfish Hunter, who retired at age 33.

    “[Orlando] is a perpetual also-ran …”

    Orlando has the best record of any of the seven franchises that have joined the NBA since 1982.

  2. Smoltz has seemed like the old pro for years and years now; when young and a 20-game winner, he was a fireballer, and he’s only modified that game to get where he is.

    The combination of relief work and starting he’s done has been remarkable, I think, and I think at his age (he IS 40, and IS in his 19th year) his ability is remarkable (2.00 ERA and 36 Ks over, admittedly, just 27 innings), too, even in our era of shorter and fewer starts and better recuperative medicine.

    And, yeah, Orlando’s got the best record of teams to join the NBA since 1982.

    But look at the other teams: Charlotte’s only four years old and on its third coach; Minnesota’s been cursed by really awful management; Vancouver/Memphis was a team without a home for a while that was mismanaged and got punked by Steve Francis, and has probably wasted the window Jerry West opened for them with that pathetic Gasol trade; Toronto got similarly taken for a ride by Vince Carter and couldn’t have done anything about McGrady staying, but they’re on the rise; the Hornets, after bouncing around the league, have found a home, an identity, and a savior (I doubt there’s that many diehard Hornets fans who would trade their franchise history with the Heat, despite the title); and, of course, the Heat were a longtime contender in the ’90s with Mourning, Hardaway, and Riley, then won a title with Wade and Shaq.

    The Heat have more playoff berths and division titles than the Magic; the Hornets have just as many playoff berths, though just one division title, and have had the difficulty of playing in the rugged West of late, while the Magic get fat on the terrible Southeast Division.

    But maybe most importantly, the Magic, before this year, lost 5 straight opening round playoff series. Only twice has the team advanced as far as the Conference Finals, in 1994-95 and 1995-96, and each year, their season ended in a 4-0 sweep to the NBA champion.

    That record of playoff futility makes them both promising (for getting there) and perennially disappointing (for acting like getting there was the goal).

  3. thearenaonline

    “The combination of relief work and starting he’s done has been remarkable, I think …”

    Just off the top of my head, guys other than Smoltz who were both excellent starting pitchers and excellent relievers — Jim Kaat, Johnny Sain, Dennis Eckersley, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Carl Hubbell, Pete Alexander … the fact that hardly any good pitchers are asked to do both anymore doesn’t mean that we should be astonished that Smoltz can do it.

    ” … when young and a 20-game winner, he was a fireballer, and he’s only modified that game to get where he is.”

    Not really. Even when Smoltz was young, he had command of two fastballs plus a splitter, a slider, a curve and a circle change. The biggest thing he’s changed over the years is that the slider has become his strikeout pitch instead of the splitter (especially after his Tommy John surgery.)

  4. So are we dropping the Magic points?

    Yeah, I realize Smoltz (and, really, pretty much every other pitcher today) pales in comparison to the past greats who pitched more and longer. But he’s what we’ve got; I’ve never been “astonished,” per se, but I really respect him and have greatly enjoyed his career.

  5. rbrandall

    I truly believe the problem with the Magic is with the community itself. Going to games (at least regular season, but still that should provide some insight), the fans are so quiet, in comparison to other NBA cities. It just seems like they’re not as interested. Combine that with what has seemed to be the lifetime belief of settling (some people still talk about how the team went to the 95 Finals… it’s time to move on), and I think we see part of the reason why Orlando disappoints come playoff time.

  6. Pingback: NBA: 2008-09 Season Preview: Western Conference « The Arena

  7. Pingback: NBA: 2008-09 Season Preview: Eastern Conference « The Arena

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