The Orlando Magic officially entered the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1989. Led by a local businessman, Jimmy Hewitt and former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams, the Magic hired Matt Guokas as the team’s first coach. The inaugural team compiled a record of 18-64 with players including Reggie Theus, Scott Skiles (now current coach of the Chicago Bulls), Terry Catledge, Sam Vincent, Otis Smith (now current general manager of the Magic), and Jerry Reynolds. In the club’s first draft in 1989, the Magic chose Nick Anderson with the 11th pick in the first round.
The club’s first game was on November 4, 1989, at the Orlando Arena (O-Rena). Despite playing a hard-fought game, the visiting New Jersey Nets won 111- 106. The Magic’s first victory came 2 days later, as the Magic defeated the New York Knicks 118-110.
In the 1990 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic selected Dennis Scott with the fourth overall pick. Scott, known as a sharpshooter, helped the Magic compile a 31-51 record. Combined with the fast-paced energy style of Skiles, who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player at the end of the season, the Magic heralded the NBA’s most improved record that season. 1992 was a disappointing season for the Magic, who struggled through a 17-game losing streak.
The club’s history was changed dramatically with the 1992 NBA Draft. With the first overall pick, the Magic selected big-man Shaquille O’Neal from Louisiana State University. O’Neal, a 7-1 center, made an immediate impact on the Magic, leading the club to a 41-41 record. The Magic again were the NBA’s most improved franchise, and O’Neal garnered All-Star starter status and the Rookie of the Year award. However, the Magic missed that year’s playoffs, because they were tied with the Indiana Pacers for the 8th (and final) playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and because the Pacers owned the tiebreaker.
Missing out on the playoffs had a silver lining: despite having the NBA’s best non-playoff record (and thereby the least chance of gaining the top draft pick with only one ball in the lottery machine), the Magic once again won the NBA draft lottery. In the draft, the Magic selected Chris Webber, but traded him to the Golden State Warriors for the number three pick, guard Anfernee Hardaway (known as “Penny” Hardaway) and three future first-round draft picks. Prior to the draft, Guokas stepped down as head coach, and Brian Hill was promoted to become the Magic’s second coach. Also, General Manager Pat Williams was replaced by John Gabriel.
With the lethal combination of O’Neal and Hardaway, the Magic became a dominant team in the NBA, compiling the first 50 win season in franchise history with a 50-32 record. The Magic were in the playoffs for the first time, ranked the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the underdog Pacers team swept the Magic 3-0 in the first round, thus ending the Magic’s season.
However, in the 1994-95 season, the Magic’s sixth season, after acquiring rebounder Horace Grant as a free agent from the Chicago Bulls, Orlando compiled a 57-25 record, best in the East and winning the Atlantic Division title. In the playoffs, the Magic defeated the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, and the Indiana Pacers, advancing to the NBA Finals. The Houston Rockets, though, ended Orlando’s dream of a championship by sweeping Orlando 4-0 in the Finals to take the crown.
In the 1995-96 season, the Magic again dominated the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division with a 60-22 record, led by O’Neal and Hardaway. However, the Magic were seeded number two, behind the amazing 72-10 record the Chicago Bulls accumulated under Michael Jordan. In the playoffs, after the Magic defeated the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando met the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. The combination of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and rebounder Dennis Rodman as well as Toni Kukoc was too much for the Magic, and Orlando was swept 4-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the offseason, in a huge blow to the Magic franchise, O’Neal left as a free agent to the Los Angeles Lakers. However, the Magic still managed to compile a 45-37 record, led by Hardaway, Darrell Armstrong, the team’s emotional leader, and newly-acquired free agent Rony Seikaly. In the playoffs, the Magic came close to stunning the heavily favored Miami Heat in the first round, extending the series to a classic game five, even after losing the first two games. In the middle of the season, though, urged by player discontent, management fired coach Brian Hill and named Richie Adubato as interim coach for the rest of the season.
The Magic then hired Chuck Daly to be head coach for the 1997-98 season. In addition, Hall of Famer Julius Erving joined the Magic’s front office, giving Orlando immense hope for a successful season. However, the season was hampered by injuries, as Hardaway sat out the majority of the season . Anderson, combined with newly acquired free agent Bo Outlaw, led the team to a respectable 41-41 record, just out of reach of the NBA playoffs. In addition, Rony Seikaly was traded during the season to the New Jersey Nets for three role players and a future draft pick.
In 1998-99, with the acquisition of Matt Harpring and Michael Doleac and a healthy Hardaway and Anderson, the Magic tied for the Eastern Conference’s best record in the lockout-shortened season, 33-17. Armstrong again led the team emotionally, winning the NBA’s Sixth-Man and Most Improved Player awards. In addition, Orlando also acquired NBA great Dominique Wilkins, along with brother Gerald, who were past their primes but were both still very good. In the playoffs, though, the Magic were seeded number 3 because of tiebreakers and faced the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers, led by Allen Iverson, upset the Magic 3-1 in the first round.
In 1999, the Magic, under General Manager John Gabriel, who was later named Executive of the Year, hired rookie-coach Doc Rivers. Gabriel dismantled the previous team trading their only remaining superstar Anfernee Hardaway to the Phoenix Suns for Danny Manning (who never donned a Magic uniform), Pat Garrity and two future draft picks. The Magic were then a team virtually comprised of all no name players and little experience which included team captain Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and a young Ben Wallace, along with Coach Rivers led the Magic to a 41-41 record, barely missing out on the playoffs. At the end of the season Rivers was named Coach of the Year by the NBA. This year was characterized by the slogan “Heart and Hustle”, as the team was known for its hard-working style.