Monday, June 4, 2007
Updated: June 25, 7:24 PM ET
Curse of Shaq: Orlando jilted again
By Jemele Hill
The two most famous phrases in Orlando are "happiest place on Earth" and "city beautiful."
The first, of course, belongs to Disney and the second is the cutesy phrase the city assigned itself.
Strange that a city that prides itself on being idyllic for travelers, families and young people has a bumbling NBA team that is perhaps the most disrespected franchise in sports.
Billy Donovan's rebuff of the Orlando Magic was just the latest in a long line of rejections and ineptitude that has cursed the Magic -- nicknamed "The Tragic" by some of the locals -- since Shaq left over 10 years ago.
"The Red Sox had the curse of the Babe and we have the curse of Shaq," said former Miami All-America Dan Sileo, whose popular morning sports talk radio show, "The Dan Sileo Show," is broadcast in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville. "It all goes back to Shaq."
The paranormal case can be made when you consider how many bad things have happened to the Magic since ownership decided Shaq wasn't worth the money.
Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis and now Donovan have come and gone (also the Grant Hill saga, but bringing that up is just being cruel). The Magic also failed to land Tim Duncan when he was a free agent.
It's not just the big names that have jilted Orlando, but the little ones, too. Two years ago, the Magic drafted Fran Vazquez 11th overall, and the reason you've never seen him in a Magic uniform is because he made the curious decision to remain in Spain rather than play in the NBA.
(In fact, if you've got a little time to kill and a detective at your disposal, go back through the Magic's first-round draft history and see how many of their first-round picks you can find. Jeryl Sasser? Reece Gaines? Curtis Borchardt? Brooks Thompson? Dreadful.)
The Shaq curse runs so deep in Orlando that there is little anger in this city toward Donovan for pulling off the Welch of the Year. Orlando is a University of Florida stronghold and people are so happy he is returning to the Gators, the damage this does to the Magic isn't even an issue.
That's how low Orlando's reputation has slinked. It's considered OK to treat the franchise this way. Ask yourself: Would Tom Izzo ever have done to the Pistons what Donovan did to the Magic? I'll bet if Donovan ever shows up to a Magic game in the future, he won't be booed.
If only the city of Orlando could go back to that fateful day in 1996, when the Orlando Sentinel ran a telling poll on its front page. The newspaper asked readers if Shaq was worth a $100 million deal. The overwhelming answer was no.
"It was sort of like a Mickey Mouse mentality," said L.C. Johnson, who covered the Magic from 1995 to 1999 for the Sentinel and is now the sports editor for the Montgomery Advertiser. "The perception was Orlando's not big-time because they don't want to pay big-time people to stay here."
It's a strange paradox. The Magic can't attract or keep people, yet Orlando is not only one of the top three destinations for vacationing Americans, but home to some of sports' most high-profile stars. Tiger Woods, Ken Griffey Jr., Shaq, Vince Carter and Mark O'Meara all have homes in Orlando. Big-time athletes live there. They just don't play there.
For years, Orlando has struggled with the stereotype of being a third-rate sports city where pro sports can't thrive. Jacksonville and Tampa were awarded NFL franchises over Orlando. The ACC football championship is in Jacksonville, and the ACC basketball championship was in Tampa earlier this year. If the best college basketball coach in the state won't coach an hour and a half away, what does that say about a city and its only pro sports team?
"Orlando has to grow up one day and act like a sports city or they have to forget the sports," Sileo said. "They have the Citrus Bowl sitting there, an arena that's one of the oldest in the NBA, they have a college in UCF [Central Florida] in the bottom tier of BCS schools. Basically, Orlando is a non-BCS city. San Antonio is smaller than Orlando and [Tim Duncan] is going to win his fourth NBA title in eight years. People look at sports as a novelty here like it's Sea World or Disney. That's why we're a bush-league city sometimes. Grow up one day and act like a sports town."
Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.