Anyone who has followed my Twitter this spring has probably been annoyed with me during the NBA playoffs. Longtime RELEVANT Podcast listeners know I’m a fairly—OK, very—passionate fan of the Orlando Magic. And this year, they’ve had a thrilling, unexpected run to the NBA Finals.
You’ll have to excuse my excitement. I’m a long-suffering fan. The franchise has been mired in mediocrity for the last decade, thanks largely to one bum ankle and Tracy McGrady’s career-long aversion toward anything that resembles hard work.
In 2004, after the worst season in team history, the Magic decided to try a new direction by ignoring the analysts and drafting a skinny, outspoken, Christian high school kid named Dwight Howard—who coincidentally appeared on the cover of RELEVANT the same month the Magic drafted him. As he developed, things started slowly turning for the team. Now, five years later, the unheralded Magic have played the us-vs.-the world card all the way to the NBA Finals vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. You can see why on Twitter, at times, I probably seem more like a teenage girl at a Miley Cyrus concert than a dignified magazine publisher.
Without apology, I’m passionate about this team, and have been its entire existence. I won’t bore you with all the ways the Magic has been woven into my life, but here are a few highlights:
— On Nov. 4, 1989, I was a 13-year-old at the expansion Magic’s first game (sitting on the last row of the upper bowl, mind you), watching a ragtag group of castoffs play their hearts out, narrowly losing to the New Jersey Nets. Two nights later, they beat the Knicks, and the arena erupted like we’d won the championship. We were new to this.
— My favorite all-time Magic player is Terry "Cat Man" Catledge, our undersized power forward from 1989-1993 who had freakishly long arms and instead of out-jumping you or out-working you, would simply out-pump-fake you. I still pattern my game after him.
— On summer break from college in 1995, I was there for game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, when the guys downed Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. We celebrated for hours downtown (I ate a hamburger with peanut butter on it), with cars honking, fans flooding the street and bootleggers selling fake championship gear. I know because I bought some. It quickly fell apart.
— I was there for the Free Throws. (In game one of the 1995 NBA Finals, with five seconds left in the game and the Magic up by 3, Nick Anderson missed four consecutive free throws. One would’ve iced the victory. Instead, the Rockets rebounded the last miss, threw it downcourt and hit a 3 at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. The Magic lost and ended up getting swept by the Rockets, Anderson’s career never recovered, and the next summer Shaq bolted for L.A.)
— I met my wife, Maya, at a TGI Friday’s in 2000 because of the Magic. It’s a long story.
— I proposed to Maya after we went to a Magic game in 2001. That, too, is a long story. And not nearly as unromantic as it sounds. Well, maybe it is.
— During our first year of marriage, Maya actually danced for the Magic. Being newlyweds with her gone at practices until 10 p.m. most nights was hard, but a sacrifice I was more than willing to make. (Free tickets.) Plus, I got to play on that dunk trampoline the mascot uses.
— On the opening day of the 2003 NBA season, I actually posted a brief “Go Magic” blurb on Slices here, which was noticed by Rick DeVos, grandson of the team’s owner. He invited me to hang out in the owner’s seats with him for the home opener the next day. The team subsequently went on a 19-game losing streak, and I haven’t been extended a similar invitation since.
— In 2004, I met Magic VP and Christian author Pat Williams, who invited me to join him at the very first summer league game for our rookies Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson in the team’s practice gym. There were about 30 NBA people there, and I was the only civilian. Dwight looked like a scrawny high school kid, and everyone watching him play was hoping the pick wasn’t a bust. It worked out OK.
— For the last few years, Maya and I have had season tickets about 20 feet behind the Magic bench, on the tunnel where they walk into the locker room. This gives me a good opportunity to give the players and coaches my thoughts at halftime and after each game, seeing as they walk under me and the tunnel acts as a funnel for my voice. I figure they appreciate fresh insight.
— Naturally, I also verbally “encourage” the guys during games when they aren’t playing to their fullest potential, pointing out areas they can exert a little more focus and effort. I have the noblest of intentions, I promise—I’m merely exhorting them to greatness, even if they aren’t always receptive to my suggestions.
— This year I learned these suggestions are clearly heard on the bench. To my wife’s great embarrassment, during a blow-out win against the Hawks this spring, Dwight Howard had to turn around during a timeout and tell me to calm down. We had gotten up by 40 in the 3rd, and Stan Van Gundy emptied the bench. Instead of the scrubs getting hungry and going for the jugular to win by 50, within a minute the lead was down to 31. I was the only one in the arena that seemed to think this wasn’t ideal. So as I’m "coaching" the scrubs in our otherwise silent arena, Dwight pointed at me, then at the scoreboard and yelled to me to calm down. Then he told me to encourage the scrubs because they don’t get on the court that often. I still don’t know if I agree with his perspective.
— After a bitter, buzzer-beating, game one loss in the first round against Philly this year—where we threw away a late 18-point lead—I got into a "heated verbal exchange" (some would say fight) with Dwight. It wasn’t so much what I said, but what he said, and the fact security was starting to swarm, that made it terrifying. Nevertheless, Maya was so mortified I promised her I wouldn’t talk about it publicly, so I’ll just have to leave it at that. Let’s just say it inspired a few blog references by the big guy and we had to skip game two to let everything cool off. However, since then, the Magic have played with more intensity and sustained focus. Something happened to light a fire in them in the first round. Hmm. Naturally, I attribute their appearance in the Finals to me.
— Magic guard J.J. Redick has been my neighbor for the last year. Well, we’ve parked next to each other at our condo in downtown Orlando. I give him tips in the elevator. I know, deep down, he appreciates it.
I read basketball news and analysis every day. I am at, or watch, every Magic game. But I’m not an NBA fan—I’m a Magic fan. There’s a clear distinction. I have little interest in watching other games, unless the outcome somehow directly affects the Magic. And it’s not just when they’re good; I’ve been like this as long as I can remember.
As you can see, I have a problem. And you can see why my springtime tweets weren’t always well-received by non-basketball lovers who follow me.
To many, sports is trivial. Caring about something that doesn’t care back about you makes absolutely no sense to them. But to me, it makes complete sense. Unlike work, marriage and friendships, when it comes to Magic games, I cannot directly affect the outcome in any way. As a fan, I have to let go. And being forced to let go of something while still caring about the outcome is freeing, frustrating, taxing and incredibly satisfying. It’s the opposite of real life, where what we get out is largely dependent on what we put in.
Basketball, and spectator sports in general, is a great escape. You’re investing time, emotions and, yeah, money into something bigger than yourself. It’s fun being there at the lowest points (did I mention that 19-game losing streak?) and then seeing your team slowly rebuild, reshape its culture and turn into a winner.
In the playoffs, when the Magic started winning games national pundits didn’t think they would, it just so happened to coincide with some incredibly challenging times for me personally. Just as I was coming back from a sabbatical in May, a longtime hero of mine confided to me serious moral failings; a couple close to us is seeing their marriage crumble; there were some health scares in our family. Not a great month.
But the Magic were winning. I’m telling you, having invested 20 years of my life passionately following this team, seeing them win lifted my spirits. It was a reminder that life is never as bad or as good as I think it is. God likes speaking to us through unexpected means, and, if we’re listening, He can use anything to encourage us, stretch us and remind us that life is much bigger than our personal little worlds.
Maybe that’s why I like watching the Magic. You can never get too down after a loss because there’s always another game, whether it be next week or next year. You can never get too proud after a win, because nothing lasts forever (and, of course, you had nothing to do with it). So, you’re forced to just enjoy the ride.
For people like me (I think we’re called Type A), who like to have things planned out and in control, following a team helps put life into perspective. Honestly, it reminds me how small I am, how big the world is, how big God is, and how to grow from both success and failure. It reminds me that life isn’t about being perfect, but trying to become the best version of ourselves. It reminds me about commitment, trust and hard work. But above all, it reminds me to let go and focus on the journey.
Or maybe I’m just over-spiritualizing it.
Either way … I’ve been cheering. Go Magic!
Cameron Strang is the founder of RELEVANT Media Group.