By John DentonOct. 16, 2015
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – In three road preseason games thus far, the Orlando Magic have played in front of sparse and sleepy non-NBA crowds in Louisville, Ky., and Hidalgo, Texas, and a third game in Indianapolis came with the arena half full and even some of those fans had one eye trained on the Colts-Texans NFL game.
But when the Magic hit the floor Saturday afternoon at HSBC Arena in Rio, they are fully expecting a rowdy and partisan crowd that will fill the air with chants, cheers and a palatable buzz.
Facing professional powerhouse Flamengo – the Brazilian champions again last season – the Magic will be facing a worthy foe stacked with players who have talents similar to those in the NBA. And Orlando is well aware that even thought Brazil is happy to have them in the sports-crazed South American country, the Magic will have the odds stacked against them because of the surroundings.
That, Magic guard Evan Fournier said, should steel the team’s unity and cause it to play with purpose. Because it’s an exhibition game, the result of the game doesn’t hold much significance to either team in the grand scheme of things. But don’t tell that to Fournier, who said his team’s sole focus should be on representing the Magic and the NBA with their best efforts.
``We’re not going to lose this game. We represent the NBA – the best league in the world. Of course, they are professionals and they are going to play hard, but we should win the game,’’ Fournier said with conviction.
``We are an NBA team and I’m sure some of (the Brazilian fans) will be happy to see us,’’ Fournier continued. ``But once the game starts, I don’t know if they are going to boo us or throw stuff at us. Hopefully the atmosphere will be great. But we know that (the fans) are going to support their team and that it will basically be us against everyone else. So we’ve got to be ready and win this game.’’
The Magic brought a travelling party of approximately 180 people to Brazil as part of the Global Games 2015. Also, the Magic are hoping to expand their brand here after marketing research showed that more tourists come to Orlando from Brazil (some 880,000 in 2014 alone) than any other country in the world. Last season, the Magic had as many as 3,000 Brazilian fans at games in the fall. That number could soon expand as the Magic continue to work with leaders in Brazil to put NBA basketball opportunities in front of the county’s sports fans.
``There’s no doubt that we’ve had an impact over the last year with what we’ve done in Brazil. We’re starting to be recognized as Brazil’s NBA team,’’ Magic CEO Alex Martins said. ``The folks at NBA Brazil really believe that this is a great market for us and we’ve seen benefits already with the thousands of tourists that are coming to our games. We’ll be announcing soon that we’ll be having some corporate partners that are based here. It’s been an incredibly successful relationship for us and we look at Brazil now as a secondary market.’’
The organization’s four-day trip to Brazil will culminate on Saturday when the Magic (3-2 this preseason) tips off against Flamengo at 5 p.m. E.T. Television networks in Rio have been promoting the game around the clock and a crowd of 15,000 is expected. Magic standout Victor Oladipo knows that the majority of the fans on hand will be pulling for the Brazilian team to shock the basketball world and have success.
``They will have a whole country behind them, so we’re looking at it like it definitely will be a hostile environment,’’ said Oladipo, who has been highly complimentary of Brazil and its hospitality all week. ``We have to be ready for it and respond to it. There are hostile environments in our league, so this will be a good experience for us.’’
Coaches often say that playing road games before noisy, hostile crowds and with several distractions tells them lots about the makeup of their teams. Players who block out the noise and rise to the occasion are ones considered to be mentally tough enough in any situation. Ones who shrink in a setting such as the one on Saturday night it could be a signal for future troubles in regular season games.
Skiles, who was hired in May by the Magic, is still learning about the makeup of his players, but he said Saturday’s atmosphere could shed some light on how mentally tough the Magic are as a unit. The competitiveness of the opponent and the true rowdiness of the crowd are the unknowns now.
``It should be a fun environment for us. Nothing against the places that we’ve played so far, but there haven’t been a lot of people there,’’ Skiles said. ``I’m sure this environment will be more exciting for guys and let’s see how we respond.
``But we want to come out and play well,’’ Skiles stressed. ``We’re not the type of team that can afford any wasted days. We have to take advantage of all of our opportunities. The franchise hasn’t been a winning team for quite a while now, so we can’t afford any day where we’re not turned on mentally. The environment will be good for us and let’s see how we do.’’
Standout center Nikola Vucevic and rookie forward Mario Hezonja are big European and South American soccer fans and both said they expect that Saturday’s crowd will be dialed into every moment of the game. Vucevic, who is one of the team’s leaders and is heading into his fourth season in Orlando, said playing in front of a rowdy crowd can only help prepare the Magic for the noise that they will face in road games during the regular-season.
``In the NBA we have great fans, but it’s not like other places (in Europe and South America) where the fans are up and they have chants and everything,’’ said Vucevic, who visited Maracana Stadium – site of the World Cup gold medal game – and spent time with Brazilian soccer star ``Fred’’ on Friday. ``I know Flamengo really supports their team and I think it’s going to be a fun experience for us to play in a setting where the crowd is going to be against us. I actually like that, to be honest. I like soccer a lot and the fans are so passionate about their teams. Flamengo has one of the best fan bases in the world, so I’m sure it will be a packed arena and I’m looking forward to it.’’
Fournier, who has been one of the Magic’s steadiest players this preseason, spent this past summer playing in the EuroBasket Championships and one crowd topped 27,000 fans. Fournier said a player’s and a team’s ability to thrive in hostile surroundings says a lot about their toughness as pros.
``One of my hardest games ever was last year in the World Cup and we were in the quarterfinals playing Spain in Spain,’’ remembered Fournier, who had the assist for the game-winning basket in France’s stunning upset of Spain in the 2014 World Cup. ``It’s in those moments, it’s where you create something inside of you as a team. That’s when you show your character and whether you are tough enough inside. So it will be interesting to see how we react to the atmosphere.’’
Skiles has been pleased with how his team has mixed pleasure with business throughout the trip to Rio. Whereas the Magic’s players struggled through a practice in a steamy gym on Thursday, their practice was much more focused and crisp on Friday. That, the coach said, is a sign of progress for a young team trying to establish a culture of hard work on a daily basis.
Skiles isn’t a big believer in trips like this bringing teams closer together and helping players bond. Still, several Magic players took trips to the beach together where they playfully joined in a game of fut’volley – a version of volleyball that is played like soccer with no hand contact allowed – and most of the Magic players joined in on a trip on Thursday to see the iconic Cristo Redentor statue.
In time, Skiles said, the Magic will know whether the whole experience of team bonding, dealing with distractions and playing in front of a rowdy crowd will help the team be better this season.
``It’s so hard to predict whether all of this will be good for us or not,’’ Skiles said following practice on Friday. ``In general, with something like this you won’t really know until some time has passed. We may look back in a week, two weeks, a month or however long and say this trip really helped us. It’s definitely not going to hurt us, but the extent is hard to know until we get back and look at the effects of it all.’’