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Cohen: The Ping Pong Ball Miracle

By Josh Cohen

ORLANDO -- Depending on who you ask and what definition you choose to acknowledge, a miracle is a convoluted term especially when the word is tagged to sports.

Often inconceivable game-winning plays such as a buzzer beating shot in basketball, a last-second touchdown toss in football or a final inning heroic grand slam are branded as “miracles.”

However, to be forthright, it’s gibberish. There essentially is no such thing as a “miracle” on the playing field or court or track or ice or water or any other surface that allows for a sport to be competed on.

Unless it defies human capability, there isn’t a performance or play that merits such a marker.

Miracles should flout logic, defeat insurmountable odds and cause one to be absolutely baffled. No disrespect to the “Miracle on Ice,” but when a legitimate hockey team beats a superficially more talented hockey team, it’s an unexpected outcome -- nothing close to a miracle.

Occasionally on the other hand – well more like once in my lifetime thus far – something that seemed to be a virtual impossibility happens in relation to sports and suddenly it is not too far-fetched to suggest that a “miracle” just ensued.

This uncommon occurrence emerged in May of 1993. And somewhat ironic, it involved the Orlando Magic.

In addition to my analysis of this unprecedented occurrence, I, along with Dan Savage and Magic Senior Vice President and former General Manager Pat Williams, respond to several questions. Also, send in your own responses to contest@orlandomagic.com and the best, most thought-out replies will be added underneath each question.






PRECEDING THE MIRACLE


A year earlier in June of 1992, the Magic became nationally relevant with the addition of a gargantuan instant celebrity.

Selecting Shaquille O’Neal, who immediately transformed into a superstar with merchandising that rivaled Michael Jordan, allowed Orlando to rejoice over a promising future.

While not many expected the Magic to be instantaneous championship contenders, the belief was that Shaq could become so dominant that he and at minimum a respectable supporting cast would challenge league powers.

O’Neal’s rookie campaign went as desired and perhaps it even exceeded expectations. The 1993 Rookie of the Year averaged 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks and became the first rookie since Jordan to start in the NBA All-Star Game.

While it was indefinite throughout the season whether the Magic would qualify for the playoffs, it was apparent they would be in position to potentially do so for the first time in franchise history.


Did Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic exceed expectations in the 1992-93 season?


RESPONSE

Williams
Yes, we made an enormous jump, had a very solid season with Shaq and the others, but just missed the playoffs by a fraction of a hair. It came down to the fifth tiebreaker and though we were disappointed we knew we were in the right direction.

But, it worked out for the best as a miracle happened shortly after.

Cohen
Shaquille O’Neal was expected to be a dominant figure in the NBA. But considering there were other governing centers in the league at the time, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, Shaq, by and large, was better than advertised.

Aside from his soaring statistics, O’Neal helped the Magic win 20 more games than the previous season. As a way to put this into perspective, Michael Jordan guided the Bulls to 11 more victories from the previous year in his rookie season.

Yes, Shaq and the Magic exceeded expectations. In fact, it may not be far-fetched to suggest that it’s the best one-season turnaround the league has ever seen.

Savage
There’s no question that when Shaquille O’Neal stepped into the NBA, there were some lofty expectations tied to his size 23 shoes.

The rookie center out of LSU jumped over some of those high hurdles by helping an Orlando franchise achieve 20 more victories than it did the season before.

The Magic may not have made the playoffs due to that tie-breaking rule, but they sent a clear message to the rest of the league that they were a team on the rise. And that’s all you can ask for.

Fan
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THE FRENETIC WEEK


When the Magic arrived for their game day shoot around on Tuesday, April 20 in preparation for a home contest against the Washington Bullets, the coaching staff and players couldn’t help but spend a substantial amount of time analyzing their playoff chances.

That morning, Orlando was two games behind the Indiana Pacers for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference.

Little did they know at that exact time, but that week ultimately evolved into one of the more frenzied weeks in team history.

After racking up wins against the Bullets and Nets with a loss to the Celtics in between and following three consecutive defeats by the Pacers to the Hawks, Cavaliers and Pistons, the last playoff spot would be decided on the final night of the regular season.

Both Orlando and Indiana were 40-41 and before each played their last game – the Magic were home against the Hawks and the Pacers were home against the Heat – everyone had to try and figure out the tiebreaker scenario.









THE TIEBREAKER


The primary tiebreaker, head-to-head, was canceled out since the Magic and Pacers split their four-game regular season series.

Since Orlando and Indiana were not in the same division, the secondary tiebreaker, conference record, was also disregarded as each team accumulated 27 conference victories.

After implausible head scratching, it was determined that the tiebreaker would be settled on point differential in head to head matchups.

The final tally was 444-439 in favor of – the Pacers.

Though Indiana held the tiebreaker advantage, Orlando still could sneak into playoffs with a win against Atlanta and a Pacers loss to the Heat.

Inspired by their optimism and sparked from Shaq’s 31-point, 18-rebound performance, the Magic thrashed the Hawks to remain in contention.

However, just as enthused evidently, the Pacers, behind a 31-point effort from Vern Fleming, edged the Heat to advance to the postseason.

In spite of a 20-game turnaround from a season ago and with plenty of sanguinity regarding the future of the franchise, it was clear that the Magic were disappointed about falling inches short of reaching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.


Should the NBA adopt an MLB-like format where if two teams are tied for the last playoff spot at season's end, they play each other in a one-game playoff to decide who advances to the postseason?


RESPONSE

Williams
It's probably too complicated. After the season ends, there is very little time to squeeze in another game before the playoffs start.

I think probably just on logistics it wouldn't work.

Cohen
Aside from Game 7’s of a playoff series, there are no games more significant than a one-game winner-advance, loser go-home affair. It creates so much suspense, theater and fantastic finishes.

It’s also a legitimate way to determine who deserves to be in the playoffs and who doesn’t. Rather than do any sort of math, which outside of calculating point totals and other more interesting statistics, it is unnecessary to solve the puzzle using intricate tiebreaker scenarios.

Savage
Absolutely, without a doubt, 100 percent, YES! As a league that’s potentially looking for new ways to generate revenue, what better way to capitalize on an exciting race to the playoffs than having a winner-take-all contest that decides who gets a trip to the postseason?

The matchup would captivate hoopsheads around the nation and could pull in some additional cash from TV and sponsorship deals.

Honestly, who wants that scenario decided by mathematicians rather than an all-out battle on the court?

Fan
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THE BUILDUP


Weeks had passed, many playoff games had been played and the Magic organization was overwhelmingly still disappointed about their ever-so-slightly postseason miss.

Come May 23 – an eventful sports Sunday that was accentuated by Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Knicks and Bulls.

Rather than the usual halftime analysis that would generally consist of a breakdown of Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing’s performances and second-half expectations, the spotlight was turned over to NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, who narrated the annual NBA Draft Lottery from New York City.

In 1990, the NBA adopted a new format of the lottery to give the team with the worst record the best chance of landing the first pick. Little did anyone know on that Sunday evening that the system would be designed for inconceivable surprise.

The table below illustrates the percentage that each non-playoff team had of earning the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

TEAM
%
Dallas 16.67
Minnesota 15.15
Washington 13.64
Sacramento 12.12
Philadelphia 10.61
Milwaukee 9.09
Golden State 7.58
Denver 6.06
Miami 4.55
Detroit 3.03
Orlando 1.52


With the stage set and NBA Commissioner David Stern at the podium, everyone was on hands and needles awaiting the results.








A MIRACLE FORMING


Like it is every year at the NBA Draft Lottery, representatives from each team faced the audience while patiently (or impatiently) waiting for Stern to deliver the ping-pong ball results.

In contrast to a year earlier when the Magic had a much more pragmatic chance of grabbing the No. 1 pick (15 percent), this time they possessed just a 1.5 percent chance – least likely amongst the 11 teams vying for the top selection -- of accomplishing the same feat.

As a result, it would have been reasonable to assume that the first envelope disclosed by Stern would have been the Orlando Magic.

Instead, some kind of fanciful occurrence was brewing.

Stern undraped envelope No. 1 and when everyone assumed the card would portray a logo of the Magic, it depicted the emblem of the Detroit Pistons.

Based on the lottery’s system, the skip of the Magic meant that Orlando couldn’t pick lower than No. 3.

Although video cameras didn’t show Magic General Manager Pat Williams’ reaction at that moment, Costas described Orlando’s lottery representative as “already celebrating.”


What is your favorite aspect of the NBA Draft Lottery?


RESPONSE

Williams
The anticipation. Even though now the odds are stacked against the better teams, the anticipation that a miracle can hit creates enormous excitement. It's great knowing that your franchise can get an enormous lift.

It's all about excitement, anticipation and hope for the future. We got a chance (what teams in the lottery would say).

Cohen
The anticipation and anxiety: Since it’s conducted in a countdown format, the eagerness builds and builds until the commissioner announces which team will get the first overall pick in the draft.

It’s a must-watch event and if your favorite team is involved in the lottery, the outcome will do exactly what big playoff games do, cause you to either be incredibly enchanted or amazingly disappointed.

Savage
Hmmm. This one is tough. But in the end, my favorite part is the challenging road to success that the lottery creates.

Once the balls fall, every team internally starts mapping out a million different scenarios, so they’re prepared on draft night. They begin heavily scouting their slot and making decisions on whether or not they need to trade up or down or out of the draft entirely to get the best value for their organization.

Unlike other sports, your draft spot is not necessarily set at the end of the season. That need for an intense organizational strategy, which falls between the lottery and draft, makes it an extremely intriguing system.

Fan
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WHERE MIRACLES HAPPEN


As more envelopes were opened and as more team representatives exhibited disenchantment about their lottery landing spot in the draft, it was becoming apparent that the Magic were on the verge of defying enormous odds.

It was down to two franchises and only fittingly; it was between Orlando and Philadelphia.

For 12 years, Williams served as the General Manager for the 76ers, including the 1982-83 season when they were NBA champions. He even wore his 10th anniversary 76ers watch at the event.

Thanks to NBC’s coverage, viewers had the opportunity to simultaneously watch Stern, Williams and Sixers General Manager Jim Lynam during the unveiling of the final, most significant envelope.

“The second pick in the 1993 NBA Draft goes to the Philadelphia 76ers,” Stern announced.

“Unbelievable!” Costas affirmed to the television audience.

“And believe it or not, the first pick in the 1993 NBA Draft goes to the Orlando Magic,” Stern declared to conclude the lottery.

“This is in the category of Go Figure,” Costas said. “The No. 1 pick last year with Shaquille O’Neal, almost made the playoffs. This year one ball out of 66 in the hopper and they get the No. 1 pick.”

In an interview with Costas immediately following the lottery, Williams, in total disbelief and shock, said:

“Suddenly the whole world has turned upside down. Lightening has struck twice. It’s absolutely unbelievable. We came up here just trying to be quiet and mind our own business. And the whole world has exploded. It’s absolutely overwhelming to us.”

“It’s an absolute miracle and we are grateful for it. Hollywood would have a tough time dealing with this one.”

“What can I say, it’s magic!”


What was your immediate reaction when it was official that the Magic had attained the No. 1 pick?


RESPONSE

Williams
Don't overreact because nobody else is happy about this. The year before everyone else was thrilled. The next year, nobody in that room is happy. They (the Magic) are feasting in back to back years?

I had to be very careful. Don't over-celebrate here. We will celebrate when we get back to Orlando. But no dancing in this room at this time.

Cohen
Considering I was just 11 years and probably was more concentrated on the second half of the Bulls-Knicks game, I recall being pretty stunned about what had transpired.

Immediately, I started analyzing what a Shaq-Webber tandem would be like, assuming that was who the Magic decided to take in the draft. I also wondered if Shawn Bradley, who according to many at the time because of his enormous height, could develop into an unstoppable force and transform the 76ers into a championship-level team.

Savage
My immediate reaction was wondering if Pat Williams had superhuman powers.

With just one of 66 ping pong balls in the cylinder, how in the world do you come out with another No. 1 selection after being awarded the top pick just one year ago?

How does it happen? I still don’t know. But I do know that if I’m the Magic, I’m always making sure that Williams is our representative if and when we return to the draft lottery.

Fan
Philip Rossman-Reich:
I remember where I was for the NBA Draft Lottery in 1993. My family had gathered to watch the Playoffs that afternoon and, specifically to watch the Draft Lottery. I don't remember exactly what we expected to happen. We were an absolute long shot to win this whole thing and we already had Shaq.

I was five or six at the time and already a devoted Magic fan. But I did not really understand what was happening. What I remember was just absolutely bawling and crying as my parents were cheering when other teams were called. How could they betray our team and cheer for other teams? It was ridiculous and maddening!

Once we got closer to the end, I think I began to understand, or my parents explained it to me. So tears of sadness and frustration quickly turned to tears of joy when the Magic won the draft lottery that year. Isn't that the definition of a miracle?






THE DECISION


With so much momentum and unexpected jollity about possessing the No. 1 overall pick in the 1993 NBA Draft, elation would quickly transform into a complicated decision.

The consensus amongst the experts was that the two most highly touted prospects in the draft were BYU’s Shawn Bradley and the prominent Chris Webber as a result of his involvement with the ever-popular Fab 5 at Michigan.

Very obvious, Bradley wasn’t an option because of O’Neal’s presence.

And some, though it was widely debated, felt adding Webber to the mix would hinder in Shaq’s overall development.

Other potential alternatives included Memphis’ Penny Hardaway, Kentucky’s Jamal Mashburn and UNLV’s Isaiah Rider.

As a result, the Magic had some heavy thinking to do and while they were grateful to have the No. 1 pick, it indubitably delivered profound pressure.


At what point in between the NBA Draft Lottery and the NBA Draft did you decide that you were going to take Chris Webber and trade him for Penny Hardaway and future first-rounders?


RESPONSE

Williams
That day (draft lottery), Don Nelson of the Warriors already started talking to me. After the lottery he indicated to me that he would make a major trade. He was definitely interested in a big guy. He would have taken Webber or Bradley.

But then we decided let's interview the three, Webber, Bradley and Hardaway. There was nothing moving on the trade front. We were pretty well certain that we were going to take Webber. We were concerned about he and Shaq shooting free throws, but we thought those two big guys could be pretty darn good.

However, Penny Hardaway had other ideas. He kept calling John Gabriel. "I'm your guy," he told Gabe. "I fit better with Shaq," he added.

Gabe decided we need to bring him (Penny) in for another visit. This is a day before the draft, Hardaway flies down and we set up a serious and competitive five-on-five scrimmage that included former players and other top guys. And there was Penny and he was unbelievable.

Penny hit a 3-pointer to end the final game and looked over to all the Magic people and was basically like, "Is there anything else I can show you?"

So I got back on the phone that night with Nellie and we were talking all night. And finally, he agreed. He didn't care if it was Webber or Bradley. We took Webber because if anything went wrong, we would at least have Webber since we definitely couldn't use Bradley.

So we select Webber and the crowd down in Orlando is leaping for joy. Then about 30 minutes later the commissioner said we have a trade to announce. And he says we have traded Webber to the Warriors for Hardaway and three future firsts and the crowd was angry. "What have you guys done?" the crowd indicated through reaction.


Who were you expecting the Magic to take with the No. 1 pick prior to draft day?


RESPONSE

Cohen
There was plenty of chatter for about a month before the draft that the Magic would consider trading the pick, but the expectation was that they would still take and keep a lottery-caliber player.

I thought that aside from any contract disputes and chemistry concerns that the Magic would select and keep Chris Webber. I figured the combo of Shaq and C-Webb would be a perfect way to sell the product, considering both were merchandising redeemers.

Savage
At the time, I thought the clear choice was Chris Webber.

First off, he had a big name, which would continue to bring in a strong fanbase for a young franchise. Secondly, a front-line combo of O’Neal and Webber appeared like it could have been as potent of a big man duo as the game had ever seen. Third, pre-draft lottery, it looked as if Shawn Bradley or Webber would be the top choice. Once Orlando received the pick, Webber seemed like the obvious selection.

Fan
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THE TRADE


Somewhat of a coincidence, the 1993 NBA Draft was held in Auburn Hills, Michigan – a short distance away from Webber’s hometown.

In effect, a vivacious crowd was on hand to support their local hero.

For days leading up to the draft, there were conflicting reports about Orlando’s intentions with the first pick.

By draft night, it had seemed like a foregone conclusion Webber, who played in the NCAA championship game in both of his years at Michigan, would be the No. 1 pick.

However, there were rumblings that the Magic would consider trading the selection.

When Stern proclaimed Webber the No. 1 pick, it was to no surprise to anyone. But, it remained a mystery as to what kind of movement may or may not be made.

During an interview with TNT reporter Craig Sager immediately after he was chosen by the Magic, Webber said:

“There’s no guarantee I’m going to get to go to Orlando. I feel like everything would work out well though (if he stayed with the Magic) if I get the chance to play with Shaq.”

While there were some contract disputes that leaked out regarding Webber’s financial demands, it seemed legitimate that a Shaq-Webber pairing would evolve into a lethal duo.

About 10 minutes after Orlando’s pick of Webber, nonetheless, the Golden State Warriors were ready to make their selection and by that point, TNT had already reported that there was talk of a deal that may involve Webber.

The proposed deal would involve the Warriors pick, which as a result would make this moment very meaningful for all Magic supporters.

The choice was Hardaway, who some said could develop into the next Magic Johnson.

Shortly after, it became official that a deal was finalized that would send Webber to Golden State in exchange for Hardaway and three future first round picks.


Did you think the Magic made the right decision to trade Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway and three future first round draft picks?


RESPONSE

Williams
It's interesting to analyze the trade. Webber did have a long career, ups and downs, controversial, bounced around. But he did have a very good career.

Hardaway was just as good, but after his third year, both knees went. It's a sad story. But people forget those first three years. Oh boy. He was a first team all-pro. Incredible numbers. He had some incredible accomplishments.

Then one knee went, then the other. It's a sad story. He really could have been one of the league's all-time greats.

Cohen
Generally, yes. Uniting Shaq and Penny was the perfect balance for a team with championship aspirations. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the starting lineup of O’Neal, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson and Hardaway was the best, most dynamic starting lineup in the NBA in the mid 90’s.

However, if Orlando kept Webber, the combo of Shaq and C-Webb would have been a nightmare for opponents to contend with. The size up front would have been a difficult matchup for any adversary; especially those that had weaker front lines.

Savage
In some ways, fans will always wonder would things have been different if the Magic held onto C-Webb? Would it have had an impact on Shaq’s decision to leave years later? Would Orlando have won a championship?

Personally, I don’t think it would have affected any of those things. In my opinion, the Magic made a smart decision to hook Shaq up with an electric, play-making guard as well as get additional value with three first round picks. The trade resulted in the Magic having some of the best moments in their franchise – they reached The Finals in 1995 – and Penny (as well as Lil Penny) assisted in getting the young organization additional exposure.

Ultimately, Shaq’s eventual decision to depart and Penny’s injury situation leave a little bit of a black cloud hanging over this deal. But I still believe it was the right decision at the time.

Fan
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THE AFTERMATH


In the years following the Magic’s famed 1993 NBA Draft day decision, there remains some curiosity as to how things would have been if Orlando kept Webber.

While Hardaway incontrovertibly helped the Magic, who reached the NBA Finals in Penny’s second season, some have wondered what a Shaq-Webber combo would have developed into.

Somewhat ironically, after O’Neal’s decision to leave Orlando and sign with the L.A. Lakers in 1996 and following Hardaway’s devastating injury problems shortly after, Webber overcame his inconsistent start to his career to evolve into a perennial NBA All-Star.

Nevertheless, the ping-pong ball miracle of 1993 allowed the Magic to enhance their squad by leaps and bounds. The addition of Penny together with Shaq and a strong supporting cast that included the likes of Nick Anderson, Horace Grant and Dennis Scott propelled Orlando into a must-watch team with unlimited potential.

Just a few months after Orlando astonishingly attained the No. 1 pick in 1993, the NBA decided to alter the chances each team has of getting the top selection in the draft.

Rather than the last non-playoff team having a 1.5 percent chance like the Magic did in ’93, starting in ’94, the final non-playoff squad was given a 0.5 percent chance of accomplishing the same feat.


Are you in favor of the NBA Draft Lottery's current percentage chances for getting the No. 1 pick?


RESPONSE

Williams
I don't understand it, I must admit. It would take a far greater brain than I've got to explain it to everybody. But they do have it figured out with one mission in mind that they don't want another '93. The odds are so tiny that they would have another '93.

I think everyone can breathe without worrying about the absolute impossible happening. I think they did get it fixed.

We just call it "The Orlando Rule." The whole '93 thing, it's "The Orlando Rule."

Cohen
It’s perfect. I am not a fan of the NFL system that essentially rewards teams for losing. The NBA has the idyllic model that denies teams from tanking to improve through the draft, but still makes it more likely for teams that are clearly distant from being in playoff contention to improve.

I would keep everything related to the NBA Draft Lottery the same. The percentages are fair and the system is simply exciting.

Savage
I’m definitely in favor of the draft lottery system. I think the league has it right as it stands right now.

The teams at the bottom of the barrel have a good shot at landing the top spot, but it also prevents the bottom dwellers from tanking it at the end of the season.

It also cuts out the “Suck for Luck” campaigns that are plaguing the worse teams in the NFL right now.

Fan
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