When you mention Orlando Florida, most people’s first thoughts go to Disney World, Universal Studios, orange groves, tropical weather with hurricanes and pop-up showers, nearby sandy beaches, great restaurants and shopping.
Sports wise, you think mostly football or spring training baseball. But in the past two and half decades, roundball has also become synonymous with central Florida. Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter are no longer the biggest attractions from the area.
The Association has been apart of the “City Beautiful” community since 1989. As mentioned in the ESPN 30 for 30 “This Magic Moment,” it was thought to be a terrible idea to place an expansion franchise in Orlando, and Miami as well, because football was king in the “Sunshine State.” Boy were they wrong. The NBA has flourished in central Florida, even through the lean years the Magic franchise had in the beginning and in recent seasons.
It only took three seasons for Magic basketball to receive the National and World spotlights. In February of 1992, former commissioner David Stern smartly brought the All-Star weekend to Orlando, as he did with the other expansion franchises (Miami Heat in 1990, Charlotte Hornets in 1991) in previous years. That weekend would ironically become a celebration of Magic, as in Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who was playing in the game despite having retired before the season began due to finding out he had contracted the HIV virus.
In the spring of that same year the Magic won possibly the biggest draft lottery in league history, giving them the right to select the highly coveted Shaquille O’Neal with the first overall pick. The franchise and central Florida community would never be the same.
Shaq “Diesel” turned the small market city into more than a tourist destination. Die hard and casual sports fans all over world wanted to witness the 7 foot 1 dominating center with the millionwatt smile, exuberant charm and boyish personality. Orlando Magic jersey’s with the number 32 were worn from central Florida to the Far East of the globe.
Shaq would lead the Magic to a .500 record (41-41), but they missed the playoffs by one game. It was a blessing in disguise as they won the 1993 draft lottery, a move that allowed them to draft the top prospect in that class, Michigan’s Chris Webber, who they immediately traded for the rights to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway creating a dynamic duo with O’Neal that would only bring more wins and eye balls to the 407. To use Shaq’s words, they were “Shaq and Kobe before Shaq and Kobe.”
With Shaq and Penny at the forefront, the Magic became the NBA’s hot ticket and were showcased on national television a plenty. From 1993-1996, the Magic won 67.8% (167-79) of their games, two division titles, and the Eastern Conference title in 1995.
The Magic would fade away for a while when Shaq headed West to the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent, and Penny was traded to the Phoenix Suns after growing frustrated with injuries, coaches and losing. The rest of that dynamic team was broken up via trades and retirement.
There was a revival of sorts in the early 2000’s when Tracy McGrady, a native of nearby by Auburndale in Polk County, joined perennial All-Star Grant Hill as free agent’s in the Magic’s Kingdom. While the franchise made it to the playoffs in three consecutive seasons (2001-2003), they would never be able to duplicate the success of the original Orlando dynamic duo due to Hill’s chronic and nearly fatal injuries.
In 2004, Orlando would once again win the draft lottery and select Dwight Howard, the number one high school prospect in the country, first overall, but they also traded away McGrady to the Houston Rockets in an attempt to remake the squad around Dwight.
Howard would grow into being the big man Magic fans lost when Shaq bolted for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Howard reignited the national and global spotlight that had been dimmed in the days post Shaq and Penny. D-12 became an All-NBA performer, a leading vote getter in the All-Star game, while also winning the 2008 Slam Dunk contest and earning three Defensive POY awards. His individual success also led to major team success as he, Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson, and Rashard Lewis under Stan Van Gundy’s leadership won three Southeast division titles from 2007-2011, and the Eastern Conference title in 2009.
The success even led to the building of the Amway Center (est. 2010), a state-of-the-art facility that is second to none in any league.
But history repeated itself as Howard, like Shaq, ended up with the Lakers after forcing his way out of the 407 via trade after a couple of disgruntled seasons.
So here the franchise is five years later, still in rebuilding mode like they were when Shaq left in ’96. But this time is different. The Magic are in the midst of the worse five-year period in team history.
BMOC (Big men on Campus):
Central Florida University, better known as UCF, is the main institution of higher learning in the area. In the last decade and a half they have produced several productive NFL players like wide receiver Brandon Marshall, cornerback Asante Samuel and quarterback Daunte Culpepper who were all All-Pro’s at some point in their careers. The UCF Knights hoops squad can’t say the same. It doesn’t have an extensive tradition as a team, but they’ve had a few notables come through the program.
Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael Jordan, is the most recent big name that signed to play for the Knights (2009-2012), his older brother Jeffrey transferred from Illinois to play with him. Marcus made the Conference USA All-Freshman team in 2009 and Second-Team All-Conference in 2011. If it weren’t for Marcus and the controversy surrounding him wearing Air Jordan’s instead of Adidas, who had a sponsorship deal with the school, they’d probably wouldn’t have the lucrative deal they now have with Nike after Adidas decided to drop the athletic program.
Four players from the university have played in the NBA. Joey and Stephen Graham, Jermaine Taylor in the 2000s, Mark Jones and Stan Kimbrough in the early 1990s.
The biggest name in the program right now is new head coach Johnny Dawkins. Dawkins learned at the feet of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant and associate head coach for ten seasons after his 9-seasons playing in the Association.
Even though the University of Florida is one hour and forty-one minutes (110.7 miles) away in Gainesville, the Gators are the favored program in central Florida as it is home to a huge group of Gator Alumns. It’s also a major pipeline for top talent. Several local high school prep stars have made their way north on the Florida Turnpike to I-75 to play at the O’Connell Center for legendary coach Billy Donovan, like Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes.
Donovan successfully turned a dominant football school into a basketball powerhouse as well. From 1996-2015 he led them to two National Championships (2006,2007), four Final Four appearances (2000, 2006, 2007, 2014), eight Elite 8 appearances, eight Sweet 16 births, four SEC Tournament Championships (2005, 2006, 2007, 2014) and six SEC regular season Championships (2000, 2001, 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014).
Currently nine players are on NBA rosters that played for Donovan, including Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah who in the 2007 draft became the first trio from one school to be drafted in the first ten picks.
Nestled 23 miles west of Orlando in the shadows of downtown is the most prominent prep school program in America. Montverde Academy won three consecutive National Championships (2012-2015) and has produced three top two NBA draft picks in three of the last four NBA Drafts (Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell & Joel Embiid). Head Coach Kevin Boyle also coached St. Patrick’s High in New Jersey where he coached Kyrie Irving and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to name a few.
Equally as dominant, but on the state level in recent years, is Winter Park High School. The Wildcats have won three State titles since 2010. L.A. Clippers guard Austin Rivers led the school to back to back titles in 2010 & 2011 while winning Naismith Prep Player of the Year (2011). His younger brother Spencer was a key member of the team that won the title in 2014.
Dr. Phillips High Lady Panthers have won three FHSAA Championships in this decade (2011, 2012, 2013). The Boys’ team has produced several standouts. Most notably former NBA forward Damien Wilkins and guard Shane Larkin.
A couple of other schools in the area have had success producing top talent as well. Amare Stoudermire graduated from Cyprus Creek High in 2002 and jumped from there to the NBA where he won Rookie of the Year and was selected to six All-Star games in his 15-year career.
2004 McDonald’s All-American Darius Washington Junior graduated from Edgewater High and made the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 before having a successful career overseas. Another former Edgewater Eagle, Marquis Daniels played 10 seasons in the NBA, most notably with the Dallas Mavericks where he was selected to the 2004 All-NBA Rookie 2nd team.
Evans High School produced Darryl Dawkins and Chucky Atkins. Atkins played eleven seasons in the NBA for nine teams. Dawkins is one of the first players to go from high school to the NBA back in 1975. “Chocolate Thunder” was known for his colorful, playful attitude and ferocious dunks. He played in three NBA Finals.
Current Memphis Grizzles Vince Carter (Daytona Mainland High) and Chandler Parsons (Lake Howell) also call the Orlando area home.
On the AAU level, Orlando’s “Each 1 Teach 1″ squad has become one of the premier program’s in the country in recent years. Some of their well known alumns are Amare Stoudemire, Ben Simmons, D’Angelo Russell, Austin Rivers, Brandon Knight, NCAA Champion Allan Grayson (Duke), Daniel Giddens (Ohio State, 2015-2016), Antonio Blakeney (LSU), and 7’5” Tacko Fall (UCF)
Orlando isn’t a big city, but it’s the sum of its parts in the neighboring towns and cities that provide top quality runs. it’s too hot to hoop on concrete, and with the tropical storm season’s pop-up showers, it’s hard to get a full game in without an interruption from Mother Nature. So most runs will likely be indoors.
The hot spot within the city limits of Orlando is the Downtown Rec Center which was the practice facility for the Magic from 1989-1998. The court still host the Orlando Pro-Am in the summer complete with Magic logos and official NBA three point line. This is where many of you have seen the YouTube highlights of 41-year old Jason “White Chocolate” Williams still busting ankles and serving up dimes. Also centrally located in the city is Barnett Park/Gym. It fits your needs whether you want to go inside or outside.
The Oviedo Rec Center in East Orlando about 8 miles from the UCF’s campus also boast one of the most competitive men’s leagues in the area with rosters that have overseas pros and current college players, most of whom also get it in at open gyms.
North of Orlando in Sanford at the Boys and Girls club you’ll run into more current and former college players working on their games.
But if you must get some run outside and who could blame you, if you come to Florida looking to spend more time in the sun, you can stick around Sanford and hoop on one of the two courts at Fort Mellon Park. The lights stay on fairly late, so you can also cool off and gets some run when the sun goes down. In nearby Casselberry/Winter Park, where Chandler Parsons is from, you can head to Red Bug Lake Park. Here you’ll find several of the top high school players from the area. Also in the Baldwin Park Neighborhood in Winter Park, you can hit up Blue Jacket Park.
HOW WE DO:
Speed, speed, speed. Most of the ballers in the area are dual sport athletes, and that other sport is most likely football. So these cats like to push the tempo at every opportunity. You have former defensive backs playing the guard spots using their ball hawking instincts from their secondary days to lock you up on D and their top line speed to beat you to the cup when they’re on O. The wings are built like linebackers and tall wide receivers running the lane, and center spots are manned by lineman-sized cats who want to bang in the post like it’s fourth and one even if they’re not your traditional 6’7″-6’10” bigs.
Bring your water, Gatorade or whatever your drink of choice is to replenish, because hoop games turn into track meets in the blink of an eye.