The Stepback: The Penny drops

For this installment, we’re heading back to 1993: the year Jurassic Park hit cinemas; the final episode of Cheers aired; and Wu-Tang Clan released their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

The Chicago Bulls were the NBA’s reigning champs, having beaten the Phoenix Suns in six games en route to their third-straight title. Meanwhile, at the other end of the standings, the Dallas Mavericks won just 11 games, meaning they had a 16.67% chance of claiming the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. It was, however, the 41-41 Orlando Magic who, on this day in 1993, overcame a 1.52% chance of taking the top pick to win the draft lottery for a second straight year.

As Bob Costas points out in the clip above, ‎7’6 center Shawn Bradley and versatile forward Chris Webber were the two top prospects on offer. Bradley, who was of German descent, was one of the most successful basketball players in Utah high school history and went on to play at Brigham Young University. There, he led the nation in blocks before being named the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Freshman of the Year, in addition to receiving All-WAC defensive team and newcomer team honors. Webber had an impressive CV and entered the draft as a first-team All-American who had helped the Michigan Wolverines to the 1992 and 1993 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship. A member of the famous ‘Fab Five’, he was also a former National High School Basketball Player of the Year who had led Detroit Country Day to three Michigan State High School Basketball Championships.

Despite Webber’s lack of success at either high school or college level, the Magic opted to take him first overall, much to the delight of the fans at the draft in Detroit and back at home in Orlando. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Commissioner David Stern soon after announced that Orlando had traded Webber’s draft rights to the Golden State Warriors for the draft rights to third overall pick Anfernee ‘Penny’ Hardaway and three future first round draft picks.

Unbeknown to those watching, the Magic had actually hoped to be in a position to draft Hardaway all along. Not least because the player they’d taken with the number one overall pick the previous year, one Shaquille O’Neal, had told Magic brass to go out and get the guard after the two had played together while shooting the movie Blue Chips. O’Neal supposedly liked Hardaway’s unselfishness and felt that his ability on the perimeter would complement his own tendency to dominate inside. Additionally, he was averse to the prospect of playing alongside another high caliber big man like Webber, who he felt would deprive him of the ball.

This was enough to convince the Magic, who used Webber’s perceived value to not only land the player they actually wanted but an impressive haul of future picks as well. Fans back in Orlando didn’t exactly love the decision and actually booed when it was announced on the jumbotron at the team’s arena. This was likely a byproduct of the fact that Webber was a high-profile, household name and consensus number one overall pick candidate, while little was known about Hardaway, who had played his college ball at Memphis State University.

Regardless, keeping franchise cornerstone O’Neal happy was Orlando’s top priority (once upon a time). They envisioned a Magic Johnson / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-esque pairing that could bring multiple championships to the City Beautiful.

Along with guards Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the Magic, who had only entered the league as an expansion team four years earlier, had one of the most exciting young rosters in the NBA. And they were given a huge boost going into the 1993-94 season when Michael Jordan announced that he was retiring from the game following the death of his father.

Suddenly, the league was blown wide open and even a bunch of upstarts like those in Orlando believed they had a shot at the title. And they played like it, even if Hardaway spent the first half of the season coming off the bench or playing shooting guard while the franchise’s first ever draft pick, veteran Scott Skiles, led the team.

When the changing of the guard finally happened, things clicked into place for the Magic. Behind Hardaway (who averaged 16 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds per game that year) and O’Neal, the team secured a 50-32 regular season record, good enough to land them a first ever postseason berth. Even though they were swept by the Indiana Pacers in the first round, the Magic had overcome their first hurdle.

Meanwhile, Chris Webber, who had averaged 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game before winning the Rookie of the Year Award, had become an afterthought in Orlando.

If there was one thing the team lacked, it was, ironically, an elite power forward whose game complemented O’Neal’s. So, during the offseason, the Magic signed Horace Grant.

While the acquisition came at the expense of Scott Skiles (who was dumped for cap space), Grant was the franchise’s first ever big-name free agent signing and brought championship experience to the Magic, having spent the previous seven seasons playing for the Chicago Bulls. His presence, along with that of savvy guard Brian Shaw – another free agent signing – had an immediate impact and they played with a sense of self belief that had been lacking the previous year. Behind O’Neal’s monster 29.3 point, 11.4 rebound, 2.7 assist, 2.4 block campaign, Orlando won 57 games to claim the Atlantic Division crown.

Their postseason experience from the previous year then showed in the First Round, as they overcame the veteran Boston Celtics in four games with relative ease. This filled the team’s young stars with confidence and set up a clash with the Chicago Bulls. Game 1 of that series forged perhaps the most iconic moment in Magic franchise history. With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter and the Magic trailing by a single point, Nick Anderson poked the ball away from Michael Jordan (who had returned to the NBA partway through the season) and straight into the hands of Hardaway. He then ran the floor and fed it to Horace Grant, who in turn dunked over Toni Kukoć to give Orlando a 92-91 lead.

Anderson’s quick hands, and quick thinking, gave the Magic the momentum in a series that they would go on to win in six games. In a rematch against the team that had swept them in the First Round the previous year, Orlando then overcame the Indiana Pacers in epic fashion to claim the Eastern Conference banner and book a place in the NBA Finals, where they would face the Houston Rockets.

Unfortunately for Anderson, this series would hinge on another iconic moment involving him. With 8.5 seconds left on the clock in Game 1, he was sent to the free throw line with the Magic up 110-107. Somehow, he missed both attempts. But, he was, miraculously, sent back to the line for two more after getting fouled while attempting to grab the rebound of his second errant shot. In one of the more baffling sequences in NBA history, the 70.4 percent free throw shooter then proceeded to miss the second pair, leaving the door open for the Rockets. They went on to win the game and sweep the series, breaking Magic hearts in the process.

If there was a silver lining, it was that the Magic were young enough and good enough to bounce back the following year.

Despite an early season injury sustained by O’Neal (who missed a total of 28 games that year), they rode Hardaway’s 27.0 point, 6.5 assist, 5.8 rebound, 2.2 steal, and 1 block per game in November to a 17–5 start that saw the sophomore named NBA Player of the Month. Hardaway then carried that momentum through the rest of the campaign and was named a starter in the NBA All-Star Game for the second consecutive season as well as earning All-NBA First Team honours. With a fit and healthy O’Neal alongside him, Hardaway helped lead the Magic to 60 regular season wins – three more than they recorded the previous year.

They blew past the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds of the postseason before coming up against the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. This time the Bulls were an entirely different prospect, not least because Jordan had a full season under his belt by the time the playoffs rolled around. To make matters worse, he wanted revenge for what had happened the previous year and Chicago put Orlando back in their box, sweeping them right out of the postseason on their way to the Finals.

In 12 playoff appearances that year, Hardaway averaged 23.3 points, 6 assists, and 4.7 rebounds, reason enough for Magic fans to anticipate another bounceback. There was a major obstacle to this though: O’Neal’s impending free agency.

While the Magic were the favorites to lock him up long term heading into the offseason, a rift between franchise and player developed while O’Neal was playing for Team USA at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The well-documented disagreement (which was initially over money) eventually resulted in the superstar center signing a seven-year, $121 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Joel Corry, who was working as a consultant with O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato, at the time, described Orlando’s role in O’Neal’s decision to head west as “the most botched negotiation on the part of an NBA team that I can recall in my 16-year career in the athlete representation business,” before going on to say: “There is no way Orlando should’ve lost O’Neal. Everything was stacked in its favor to keep him.”

With O’Neal gone and Orlando’s dynasty in tatters, Hardaway was given the keys to the car, something many thought (thanks to things like Lil’ Penny, his Nike deal and his growing status around the league) he’d wanted for some time.

In the face of some major unrest in the ranks (which saw head coach Brian Hill get fired part way through the season) he just about succeeded in leading the Magic back to the postseason that year. But without O’Neal the team just weren’t as good and a First Round exit soon followed.

The following year, Hardaway suffered a devastating left knee injury early that would rob him of his explosiveness and hamper him for the rest of his career. He was never quite as good again and in 1999 he was traded to the Phoenix Suns before making stops in New York and Miami prior to retiring in 2007.

In the documentary This Magic Moment, Hardaway concedes: “I should have retired eight years sooner than what I did. I made it worse for people to see me in that light, but I just loved the game. I just tried to play through the pain.”

Over the course of his 14-year career, Hardaway averaged 15.2 points, 5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game. Chris Webber, meanwhile, averaged 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists during his 16-year pro career.

Neither player has been inducted into the Hall of Fame and the trade continues to fuel debate to this day, with many of the belief that O’Neal and Webber could have been a more devastating tandem than he and Hardaway ultimately were. Back in 2015, O’Neal expressed his regret at leaving the Magic when he did. He said: “This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].”

Had he stayed, who knows what he and Penny could have achieved. As he pointed out in This Magic Moment, “Penny Hardaway was the man. A lot of people were always talking about Shaq and Kobe, but we were Shaq and Kobe before Shaq and Kobe”.