30 For 30 has been on a real losing streak lately. I don’t mean that the episodes have been bad. If anything, the series has rebounded nicely after a rough start to this season. But the best of the recent run—“Chasing Tyson,” “Four Falls Of Buffalo,” and arguably even “Fantastic Lies” and “The ’85 Bears”—have been about what-might-have-beens. What if Evander Holyfield had beaten Mike Tyson in his prime? What if the Bears had kept it together enough to win more than one title? What if the Bills… well, there are too many what-ifs when it comes to the Buffalo Bills.

Of the above episodes, “This Magic Moment” most closely resembles “Four Falls Of Buffalo,” given that, like the Bills, the Orlando Magic came close to a championship multiple times but couldn’t seal the deal. Co-directors Erin Leyden and Gentry Kirby recount the whole meteoric rise of the Magic, from the moment when a few Florida visionaries convinced the NBA to expand to Disney territory in 1989, to the back-to-back first-round draft picks in 1992 and 1993 that brought the franchise Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway—and, as a direct result of that, long playoff runs in 1995 and 1996. The story trails off after Shaq takes advantage of the advantageous mid-‘90s free agency rules in the NBA and moves to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he’d have the championship success with Kobe Bryant that he could’ve had with Penny.

There are multiple great mini-stories nestled within the 1990s Magic saga. “This Magic Moment” relies on the foundation of a lot of other sports-docs: detailing the combination of luck, savvy, and perseverance behind the construction of any great team. In the Magic’s case, the two fortunate lottery draws were enhanced by smart front-office moves, like plucking free agent Horace Grant to give the smart, intuitive, physically gifted Hardaway more weapons to employ as the team’s point-guard. And the selection of Penny itself was a bold stroke as well, given that fans were clamoring for Chris Webber in that draft.

The Hardaway pick had a lot to do with the player himself (and his agent) lobbying for the gig, by cozying up to Shaq before the draft during the production of the movie Blue Chips. That’s another of “This Magic Moment”’s sharp angles: considering the rise of super-agents in the NBA in the ‘90s, and how they helped package teams the way that Hollywood agents packaged movies. Both the boom and the bust of the Orlando Magic can be laid at least partially at the feet of O’Neal’s management team, who were smart enough to see that he could thrive from a marketing perspective on a less-established team, but also had such a narrow vision for their client that they stoked an unnecessary backstage rivalry with Hardaway as the latter became more popular. This episode argues that in the name of maximizing Shaq’s contract—and playing to his need to feel properly respected—his agents sacrificed the real legacy he could’ve enjoyed in Orlando.

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One of the big reasons why anyone still cares about the ‘90s Magic is because of the cachet of the Michael Jordan-era NBA. The O’Neal/Hardaway pairing emerged right when Jordan retired for the first time, and thanks to Shaq’s natural charisma—and the cleverness of Nike’s Chris Rock-starring “Little Penny” ads—the Magic slipped easily into the spot in the national basketball consciousness that the Bulls had held. “This Magic Moment” is kind of a nostalgia-piece, aimed directly at sports fans who miss the days when Jordan reigned, NBC was the home of the NBA, and the Magic played in “the O-rena.”

Ultimately though, this is another 30 For 30 about the inexplicable alchemy and opportunity that governs winning and losing—and the results-driven rigidity in how fans and reporters react to what happens. When the Magic lost in four games to the re-Jordan-ed Bulls in the conference finals in 1996—after losing in four in the finals in ’95 and in three in the first round in ’94—ESPN reported that they’d been “swept from the playoffs for the third straight season,” as though each of those exits were equal. Columnists blasted their “immaturity,” and after Shaq left, fans grumbled that the injury-plagued Penny couldn’t carry the team on his own. Only in retrospect can the near-dominance of the Magic be properly appreciated.

“This Magic Moment” is mostly a straightforward episode (well-made, not especially innovative), but Leyden and Kirby do a fine job of conveying how capricious sports can be. From the ironically Disney-fied soundtrack to the recurring animation of lottery balls, the documentary points out over and over how much luck was involved in the Magic’s success. Enjoy it while you can, someone else’s number comes up.

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Stray observations:

  • I was at The University Of Georgia between 1988 and 1992, during the years when Shaq was at LSU. One day, I was riding in a shuttle bus to class with a bunch of students who were goofing around, laughing and talking. Then we drove past the LSU basketball team, who were all walking together—with O’Neal—through campus, on their way to the UGA gym to warm up for a game starting in a few hours. The entire bus went quiet. Then I heard one lone voice up front, muttering, “We’re gonna get killed tonight.”
  • Blue Chips isn’t a great movie, but I do think it’s underrated. I wrote a little about it when I did this career overview for director William Friedkin.
  • We don’t really cover the 30 For 30 shorts, but there’s an interesting batch posting every Tuesday at http://espn.go.com/30for30/shorts, and airing every Friday during the early evening SportsCenter. This week, for example, the short is about an artist who plays “golf” with found objects around Manhattan. Upcoming films deal with Elvis Presley’s racquetball obsession, Hunter S. Thompson’s groundbreaking 1970 report on the Kentucky Derby, and other topics too slight to support a feature-length film, but refreshingly offbeat after so many 30 For 30s about well-known topics like the Bears and the Magic (or Cleveland’s pro sports failures, which is the subject of next month’s episode Believeland).

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