Tepid on the Road, Orlando Catches Fire at Home
No one can argue with Magic's success, but it still baffles some
FOR the National Basketball Association's Orlando Magic, playing at home is no Mickey-Mouse advantage. With the season in its fifth month, the Magic have yet to lose a game at the Orlando Arena.
Led by stars Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway - and boosted, some say, by a too-boisterous sound system - the Magic won their record-breaking 39th consecutive regular-season home game Sunday against the Phoenix Suns (122-106). They erased the mark set by the Boston Celtics in the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons.
Ironically, some people aren't sure what to make of Orlando's achievement. How do you explain a team that is 32-0 at home this season (plus seven at the end of last season) and only .500 on the road? Tonight they seek a franchise-high fourth straight road win against Denver.
''Lack of concentration,'' says fan Lou Cianfrogna, who had to yell to be heard courtside at last Friday's overtime victory over the Charlotte Hornets here. ''I think the players lose focus on the road. They've played much better since the All-Star break, though.''
Cianfrogna, a lawyer with 10 season tickets at the O-rena, as it's called, likes to think the Magic fans play a role in the team's success. ''The crowd can be extremely noisy, deafening, when it gets going. When that happens, it can overpower the visiting team.''
Helping to whip the crowd into a frenzy is public-address announcer Paul Porter, who goes far beyond merely imparting information. His inflections and use of a powerful sound system can be almost comical, hyping an O'Neal dunk or a Dennis Scott three-point shot with a reverb machine while sounding almost disdainfully bored at an opponent basket.
''My job is to get the crowd going, to bring it into the game as the 'sixth man,' '' for the Magic, Porter says. A banner hung from the ceiling resembles an Orlando jersey, only the name above the No. 6 is ''THE FANS.''
Porter can be the perfect gentleman away from the mike, but as an employee of the Magic he says he is not bashful about ''helping the team any way I can.'' He grants that he is part of a new wave of ''somewhat obnoxious'' arena announcers in the NBA.
Orlando may have been the pacesetter in taking full advantage of the public address system and the excitement that high-volume messages, sound effects, and music can generate.
''I think a lot of teams have emulated the game-presentation things we do,'' says Alex Martins, Orlando's director of publicity and media relations, speaking of the added entertainment provided by such things as showy player introductions and audience-participation activities. The latter are conducted during timeouts by the Sports Magic Team, a troupe of entertainers who wear backpack baskets and slingshot balled-up Magic T-shirts into the stands.
These extras are innocuous, but the aggressive use of sound systems around the NBA has ruffled some feathers. Martins says a handful of coaches protested to the league about the Magic's sound system.
In response, the league passed rules governing the decibel level and the occasions when music, sound effects, and recorded cheers are allowed. Amplification is not supposed to exceed 85 decibels, and certainly not reach 100, as it reportedly did in some league venues last year.
Magic officials have toned things down to conform to the new rules, yet Martins says that there's still much effort put into entertaining the crowd.
''It all goes back to our very first season'' in 1989-90, he says. ''Our philosophy as an organization was that we're not going to be very good. We're an expansion team, and we're probably only going to win 20 or 25 games, so we need to create an environment in which fans can come to the game and have a great time in spite of the fact that we lose. The fans came to expect that level of entertainment every night and every year after that.''
The need for manufactured entertainment was most pronounced in the team's first three campaigns, when it won 18, 31, and 21 of 82 games, respectively. But a funny thing happened on the way to the college basketball draft.
In consecutive years, the Magic gained the right to the draft's first pick via a lottery. In 1992, Orlando used it to select O'Neal, who instantly made the team competitive (it finished with a .500 record his rookie year). Then, in 1993, the club traded the right to No. 1 pick Chris Webber to Golden State for Hardaway, the No. 3 selection, and three future first-round picks.
Such riches have rocketed Orlando from lowly expansion-team status to contender. Nick Anderson, a back-court starter with Hardaway, is the only player left from the Magic's original roster.
The challenge when this season ends will be to sign up O'Neal again, who becomes a free agent. With him, the team reached last year's NBA championship series, where it lost to the Houston Rockets in four straight games.