It was a long shot bringing professional basketball to Central Florida.
In the mid-1980s, it was the dream of Orlando-based businessman Jim L. Hewitt who reached out to the Philadelphia 76ers GM at the time – Pat Williams. Williams resigned from the 76ers and eventually became the frontman of the investor group that was firmly set on realizing Hewitt’s dream – setting up an NBA franchise in Orlando, Florida! Williams himself was instrumental in persuading the NBA owners and the NBA Expansion Committee to consider the idea of Orlando becoming a major sports center.
“I’ve gone on record many times in saying that Pat Williams is just a genius to be able to see Orlando’s potential.”Jeff Turner, NBA.com
The glorious culmination of a longtime dream becoming a reality came in the fall of 1989 when the Orlando Magic became the one of the four 1988 & 1989 NBA expansion franchises alongside the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Magic’s first NBA game came in the 1989 NBA preseason when on October 13, 1989, the team from Central Florida hosted the 1989 and eventual 1990 NBA Champions – the Detroit Pistons!
The invincible ‘Bad Boys’ from Detroit came to Central Florida with relaxed thoughts of a weekend vacation near Disney World before scoring an easy preseason win. But, this time, they were wrong.
It was a unit of The Bulls Down South consisting of the Chicago Bulls’ savvy veterans Sam Vincent, Reggie Theus, Sidney Green, and Dave Corzine, along with pick-ups from various NBA teams Scott Skiles, Otis Smith, Jerry Reynolds, Terry Catledge, Jeff Turner, and first-ever Magic 1st round draft pick All-American Nick Anderson. He served an unforgettable welcome party for the visiting Pistons.
The Magic had another big-time contributor in their unbelievably noisy sellout crowd of 15,077 loud fans, which significantly contributed to an incredibly electrifying atmosphere in the Orlando Arena. The passionate fans additionally energized the motivated team, making it even harder for the visitors!
Chuck Daly’s ‘troops’ were suddenly and unexpectedly surrounded by an atmosphere reminiscent of the one in Boston Garden or the Great Western Forum, places they played decisive battles on their way of reaching the 1988 and 1989 NBA finals!
Faced with a group of the savvy veterans hungry to prove themselves, whose strength was greatly amplified by the loud cheer by the home crowd hungry for professional basketball, the leading Pistons stars, such as Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, and Bill Laimbeer were all in the awe!
The 1989 NBA champions just didn’t want to drop this one into the hands of the expansion franchise. But the Magic, energized by the incredible cheer of their unbelievably loud fans, prevailed and won the game by 118-109, thus successfully opening another exciting chapter of the franchise history!
“For me, the thing that I remember the most was the crowd and the enthusiasm because everything was an unknown, and we didn’t know how they would react to us. We’ve all seen bits and pieces of that, but it was a preseason game, the Pistons were the defending champions, and you didn’t think the Pistons would care that much. I felt like, down the stretch, it was like, `Wow, this is really happening, and we can’t let this expansion team win,’ so Isaiah, Dumars, and Laimbeer played pretty late into the game. I think they wanted to win that one, or necessarily didn’t want to lose it, but we were able to pull out the win.”Jeff Turner, NBA.com
That night, the happiest person of them all in the wholly crowded Orlando Arena was Orlando Magic’s GM – Pat Williams.
“It was the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup all rolled into one. Then, the real season started, and it ruined everything.”Pat Williams, NBA.com
Just two years later, in the 1992 NBA draft, the Magic selected 7’2’’ LSU center Shaquille O’Neal, thus opening an entirely new era in the history of the NBA franchise from Central Florida.