HILL HURT, HOWARD SOARS HIGH

By John Denton

Never was the Magic’s attractiveness as a franchise more evident than in 2000 when Gabriel lured top free agents Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady to Orlando. The Magic just missed on superstar center Tim Duncan, who extended his free-agent courtship in Orlando by a day and seemed poised to sign with the Magic before consulting with Spurs teammate David Robinson.

Whereas McGray – a native of nearby Auburndale who grew up rooting for the Magic and idolizing Hardaway – blossomed into a star, Hill was tormented by ankle breaks during his seven seasons in Orlando. He missed almost three full seasons because of recurring ankle issues and sat out of 374 of a possible 574 games (65.1 percent) during his time in Orlando.

But Hill being hurt and McGrady wanting to play elsewhere (as he poured in a franchise record 62 points late in the 2003-04 season) put the Magic in a position to draft Howard and dramatically reverse the direction of the franchise. Orlando wisely ignored the advice of the analysts and selected the 18-year-old high school player out of Atlanta instead of college Player of the Year Emeka Okafor.

Never has anyone in basketball been more wrong than on draft night when ESPN analyst Dick Vitale cracked that the Magic would ``rue the day that passed on Mister Okafor.’’

Howard was an All-NBA player by 2007, and a perpetual first-team selection by 2008. Not coincidentally, that was Stan Van Gundy’s first season as Orlando’s coach and he used his basketball smarts and fiery coaching style to coax the Magic to greatness.

The Magic snapped a 12-year playoff series drought in 2008, and put on a playoff run for the ages in 2009. Orlando rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the first round against Philadelphia, became the first team ever to win a Game 7 in Boston in the second round and shredded LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Facing the Lakers in the NBA Finals, Magic rookie guard Courtney Lee missed a potential game-winning alley oop in the final seconds of Game 2. And after Orlando won its first-ever Finals game in Game 3, it yielded a tying 3-pointer in Game 4 to Derek Fisher, a game it would lose in overtime in heart-breaking fashion.

O’Neal and Howard have been considered two of the most dominant centers of the last two decades and they have the tie of both having played in Orlando.

But they were never close, largely because of O’Neal’s snipes about Howard mimicking his career path. Strangely, Howard’s time with the Magic on the court and ultimately his messy divorce would resemble that of O’Neal’s.

Shaq got the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996 before leaving for the Lakers. Howard got the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 before forcing a trade to the Lakers in 2012. (Howard ultimately abhorred his time in Los Angeles and jilted the Lakers by signing a free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets).

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