Arena that brought NBA to Orlando bids farewell

There are no NBA championship banners hanging from the rafters.

No lasting pre-game traditions, no spectacular gadgets or

gizmos.

Just Magic memories.

After 21 seasons as the only home the Orlando Magic have ever

known, Amway Arena’s run is almost over. Orlando hosts the

Philadelphia 76ers in the last regular-season game Wednesday night

in a place that housed two NBA finals and plenty of historic

moments.

Many not even for the home team.

The arena saw Ervin “Magic” Johnson return to win the 1992

All-Star Game’s Most Valuable Player award after his stunning

retirement and admission that he was HIV positive. The facility is

also where Phil Jackson won an unprecedented 10th title as coach,

and the site of Orlando point guard Scott Skiles’ record-setting 30

assists game.

Formerly the TD Waterhouse Centre, the Orlando Arena and even

more briefly the arena in Orlando, it will always simply be known

as “The O-Rena” for many.

With the Magic preparing to move into the sparkling new Amway

Center next year, those who made the old arena’s most celebrated

moments recalled their fondest memories.

Pat Williams considers the arena’s groundbreaking one of the

most crucial elements to the franchise’s birth, and one of the

biggest thrills in his 42 years in the NBA.

The Magic co-founder and senior vice president remembers when

many thought the idea of an NBA team in Orlando was a joke. Miami

was more glamorous. Tampa was bigger, and other cities bidding

around the county were seemingly better markets.

But not everybody could provide an arena.

Williams helped energize Orlando residents. City officials took

to the idea, and the entire community rallied around the proposal.

The building, publicly funded at a cost of more than $100 million,

soon became reality.

The arena’s lasting legacy will likely be that it helped bring

the NBA to Orlando. Construction began in January 1987, three

months before the league approved the expansion franchise along

with Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota.

“The arena was the key to getting the team,” Williams said.

“There had to be a building. She was our saving grace.”

On Dec. 30, 1990, Skiles knew early on he would leave a

mark.

Then Orlando’s point guard, Skiles turned to teammate Jeff

Turner during a timeout in the first quarter against Denver and

made a prediction that drew laughs.

“I told Jeff, ‘I’m going to set a record tonight.’ I had like

eight assists or something right out of the gate. I said it

jokingly, but it ended up coming true,” said Skiles, now

Milwaukee’s coach.

He went on to break the record of 29 set in 1978 by Kevin Porter

of the New Jersey Nets. Skiles’ milestone still stands.

“No offense, but I’ll be glad the day it’s broken because I get

kind of tired of talking about it some times,” Skiles said. “It’s

one of those things where it all came together in one night.”

Perhaps no figure in the arena loomed larger in those early days

than Shaquille O’Neal.

After being drafted No. 1 overall by Orlando in 1992, he first

powered the Magic to prominence by leading them to the 1995 finals.

O’Neal helped create many of the first marquee highlights in his

four years in Orlando.

O’Neal’s fondest memory – “My banner” for the 1995 Eastern

Conference title – will move a few blocks south next year to the

Magic’s new arena.

Tracy McGrady had some of the most remarkable highlights at the

arena, but he had to think hard about his favorite.

Scoring an arena-record 62 points against Washington on March,

10, 2004?

“Could have had 75 if I made my free throws,” he said.

Kicking the ball into the stands?

“That was fun,” he recalled, chuckling.

Getting his 10,000th point?

“I’ll always remember that,” McGrady said.

But none he would consider better than the 2002-03 season, when

he had a league-leading 32.1 points per game.

“What I really miss is that one year, every night, just the

‘M-V-P’ chants,” he said. “Just the feeling that I was getting

every night on the court, hearing the crowd chant ‘M-V-P.’ That was

a special season. I don’t know how I did it, but that stands out to

me.”

Some memories the Magic will be glad to leave behind.

Sure, Nick Anderson stealing the ball from Michael Jordan in the

1995 Eastern Conference semifinals propelled Orlando to its first

finals and still sticks in the minds of fans. But so does

Anderson’s four missed free throws against the Houston Rockets at

the end of Game 1 in that year’s finals, a collapse that started a

series sweep.

There was also Dwight Howard’s 40 points and 14 rebounds in the

Game 6 win that eliminated Cleveland in last season’s Eastern

Conference finals. But Howard also missed a pair of free throws at

the end of Game 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals,

when just one make would have given the Magic a four-point lead and

likely evened the series.

Derek Fisher then nailed a 3-pointer that forced overtime, the

Lakers took the game and eventually the title.

“The good and the bad,” Howard said, “will always stay with

me.”

One of the most touching moments in the arena’s history belongs

to a different Magic.

Magic Johnson came out of retirement after leading he was HIV

positive to play in the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando. Johnson’s

showdowns with Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan stirred the crowd,

drawing tears from fans and winning MVP honors.

“It was in all ways magical,” NBA commissioner David Stern

recalled last year. “I smile every time I think about it.”

Lakers coach Phil Jackson even considers it his favorite moment

at the arena. That might surprise some considering Jackson won his

record 10th title as a coach last year at the arena, passing

Celtics legend Red Auerbach.

Jackson said earlier this year when he walked in the arena that

his main thought was about the Magic “franchise and its history

and the All-Star Game they had here a number of years ago.”

The dull and dreary structure with a 17,519-seat capacity was

solid but no engineering marvel when it opened.

The concession stands have since become insufficient. The

restrooms are far too scarce, and most modern amenities – including

many moneymaking luxury suites – are missing.

That’s a big reason Orlando is heading to a new arena.

City officials are hearing redevelopment plans for the old

arena, and some have introduced ideas to turn the facility into a

performing arts center. However, it seems likely the structure will

eventually be sold and demolished.

The Magic have a chance to make one lasting memory.

Howard already has a commercial airing in Orlando where he

stands in the new arena talking about his dreams to raise his first

banner there – a title that could be won in the old building this

June.

The Magic enter the playoffs with the Eastern Conference’s No. 2

seed, and Howard said there’s nothing he wants more than to close

down the building with a championship celebration.

“We’ve had a great ride here,” Howard said. “It’s not over

yet.”