Denton: Magic Developing Chemistry


By John Denton
October 7, 2012

MEXICO CITY – Predominantly isolated in their hotel because of the language barrier, safety concerns and fears of ``Montezuma’s Revenge’’ in Mexico City, the Orlando Magic’s players mostly dined together, hung out in meetings rooms and watched baseball and football games through subtitles.

And seeing the players all together, almost simultaneously laughing and clowning around and getting to know one another, brought smiles to the faces of Magic GM Rob Hennigan and head coach Jacque Vaughn.

With so many new faces on the roster – 12 of the 19 players were not in Orlando last season – Hennigan and Vaughn hoped that a trip to Mexico would help bring together a squad still getting to learn itself. And for the most part, it’s been mission accomplished what with the Magic players spending most of their waking hours together, bonding and dining together.

Veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick went into the trip on a mission to learn something new about each Magic player. With the team eating three meals a day together, riding busses to practice and attending a function at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, Redick was able to have several one-on-one conversations and get to know his teammates on a more personal level. The only exception, Redick said with a laugh, has been mild-mannered newcomer Arron Afflalo, whom Redick describes as ``a tough nut to crack.’’

``I think trips like this help build tight bonds and great chemistry on a team,’’ Redick said. ``It’s weird, but a lot of the chemistry that you build throughout a year happens on the road. When we’re in Orlando, you are typically with our wife, family or girlfriend. But on the road you are more isolated with your teammates, especially on trips like this when you go to a different country. It’s been great so far and I think it will be a positive experience for us as a team as the year goes along.’’

Travelling abroad has done wonders for the Magic’s team chemistry before. The Magic spent a week together and played three exhibition in China in 2007 and that squad went on to win a playoff series for the first time in 12 years for the franchise. And a year later the Magic were in the NBA Finals.

This rebuilt Magic squad is hoping that getting away will help build the kind of bonds that will make it unbreakable when the rigors of a long NBA season invariably hit.

``The little things count in this league and that’s what you can build on a trip like this,’’ said power forward Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis. ``Little things like being on the same page with each other helps a lot. Any team bonding that you can do on a trip like this will help you later in the season.’’

Hennigan and Vaughn, newcomers themselves after being hired by the Magic in the offseason to run the team, have watched from afar as players have spent time together and bonded. Whereas some GMs or coaches might look like a preseason trip abroad as a distraction to training camp, Hennigan and Vaughn welcomed the trip away because it forced interaction with the veteran players and the rookies and new coaches and returning players. The squad was somewhat out of its comfort zone in Mexico City, and Hennigan saw that as a good thing for the gelling of the new-look Magic.

``Any time that you can get away as a team from your everyday surroundings, I think it gives you the opportunity to build a lot of chemistry and sort of re-channel the focus,’’ Hennigan said. ``You can see it becoming a tight-knit group because of the way guys are getting to know each other on a personal level. I think that will continue to intensify as we spend more time together.’’

Added Vaughn: ``I never played over in Europe, but I’ve talked to guys who have and they told me that when you are over there you eat all of your meals together, ride the bus together and really get a chance to bond. On this trip we’re eating breakfast and lunch together and it’s been a good trip for us to get to know each other.’’

Point guard Jameer Nelson, the longest-tenured Magic player with eight years of experience in Orlando, made it a point to make sure rookies such as Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn quickly learn the ropes of life in the NBA. When some of them retreat to their hotel rooms, Nelson makes it a habit to stop by and see how they are doing and force them to get out and interact with others.

``Especially with us having so many young guys and them trying to get used to life in the NBA, us as veteran guys who have been through it are trying to help them along,’’ Nelson said. ``I took a couple of the new guys with me out to dinner (Friday) night and it’s helped me get to know them a little better.’’

The three-day trip to Mexico also served as a homecoming for Magic center Gustavo Ayon, who is only the third-ever Mexican-born player to reach the NBA. Ayon grew up 460 miles from Mexico City and rose up through the Mexican League and the Mexican National team.

Ayon had 60 tickets to Sunday’s game for friends and family members. He held a news conference for 75 Mexican journalists upon arriving in his home country, took an active role in the NBA’s Special Olympics basketball clinic and also did dozens of other interviews as the star attraction of the Mexico Game.

Though Ayon is a man of few words when it comes to speaking English, he understands the language well and has had no problems communicating with his teammates throughout training camp. The trip to Mexico City allowed Ayon’s teammates to see another side of the hustling center.

``Gustavo is the man out here and a rock star,’’ Davis said of his frontcourt mate affectionately known as ``Goose.’’ ``As soon as we jump off the plane everybody is screaming for him. So just learning how much he is loved in this country has been a good thing to know.’’

As for Hennigan, he is just happy that he can finally watch the roster he remade take the floor following a whirlwind first offseason as a GM. Just days after being hired in June, Hennigan gracefully conducted the team’s NBA Draft, selecting Nicholson and O’Quinn. He dealt with the contract situations of Nelson, Redick and former Magic forward Ryan Anderson. And in August, he executed an intricate four-team, 12-player blockbuster of a trade that resolved the Dwight Howard drama once and for all.

Now, after watching the new-look Magic go through a week of training camp and a trip to Mexico City for its first preseason game, Hennigan is confident that the Magic are on the right path to having a successful season.

``We had a busy summer and it’s exciting to finally get that opportunity to see our team come together and play now,’’ Hennigan said. ``The energy and consistency of effort has been very consistent. That’s something that Coach Vaughn has demanded and it’s something that hopefully stays consistent throughout training camp and the rest of the season.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at jdenton@orlandomagic.com or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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