Orlando Magic connect with fun and games, and a serious goal

The Orlando Magic held their annual open practice on Saturday, kicking back for a change this training camp. But their serious goal remains out in the open.

There was more anticipation than usual for the Orlando Magic’s open practice this year. The crowds were not as big as they were in the Dwight Howard hey day, but the anticipation to see and learn about this team was bigger than it has been since that superstar left town.

As the jumbotron cued up “Gettin’ Live,” a jumpy, upbeat tune with trumpets that sounds like it is a sped-up version of a song used in a Quentin Terrentino action sequence. The excitement rose more.

There was a bit of a “pop,” a wrestling term for the reaction a crowd gives when someone is about to enter onto the stage. The excitement for this Orlando Magic season is real.

Frank Vogel came onto the court last, wireless microphone latched on as he addressed the crowd before conducting a one-hour mini-practice and workout on the Amway Center floor. The excitement was building when he asked the crowd, “Are you tired of missing the Playoffs?”

The cheer was loud. But not nearly as loud as when Vogel repeated the question, showing the seriousness of this expectation. He said the Magic and their fans would not have to deal with that absence anymore.

“We believe in this group,” coach Frank Vogel explained. “We’re not going to be ashamed to talk about it. We’re not going to be afraid of expectations and setting the bar high. I believe we can have a great season with this group. I have no problem talking about that.”

The open practice Saturday at the Amway Center was a light affair.

Vogel certainly played the part of salesman drumming up excitement for the team and trying to move some season tickets with his proclamation about the Magic ending their four-year absence from the Playoffs. It is undoubtedly a theme for this season — the driving goal for everything that has happened since the 2016 season ended.

There was no hiding from it even in these lighter moments.

The open practice though was more an opportunity to connect with fans in a more direct way. A chance to get up close and personal and have a little bit of fun through a hard training camp.

The practice featured a 12-minute scrimmage, which the starters played the first six minutes (defeating the bench unit, for whatever that is worth) and then a 3-point shooting contest and team knockout. C.J. Wilcox won both, edging past Mario Hezonja by sneaking his 3-pointer ahead of Hezonja’s layup at the last second.

Mario Hezonja was predictably distraught, kicking the ball into the stands lightheartedly afterward.

“Oh man, I hate losing,” Hezonja said afterward. “It was great stuff by C.J. [Wilcox] I don’t even know how to call it. I did the layup first and he takes the shot and my ball stays on the rim. It was a good match.”

The open practice knockout game is a bit of a tradition for Frank Vogel from his Indiana Pacers days. An easily relatable way to have the players compete in what is essentially a summer camp shooting game.

The most relatable way is to have the rookie sing.

Following the scrimmage, Vogel called rookie Stephen Zimmerman to center court to sing “Let it Burn” by Usher. The crowd got excited at the potential embarrassment. Vogel said afterward he was not going to make him sing and psyche him out and let him out. But he asked for and receive a mic and began singing for the fans in attendance.

The practice was not exactly a real practice. Merely a way to connect to fans, kick back and have some fun.

“Today was great,” Aaron Gordon said. “The fans show so much love. We have great characters on this team. Stephen Zimmerman out there singing Usher, that’s just the highlight of the preseason. To be out there and for them to be supportive on a day like today is a testament to how great our fans are here at Amway.”

Vogel said the open practice was about connecting to the fans and getting them to know the team. It will be important to build that support to fill the Amway Center and build that support that can change games.

The practice was a lot of fun and games. Vogel does a good job keeping things loose with his team as just about every player has said. He brings a positive attitude and mentality to his team.

But it was not without its moments of seriousness. There was that promise hanging in the air.

Vogel explained to the fans the kind of basketball he wants his team to play. The defensive mindset. The transition basketball. Everything he has been saying to the media.

Slowly the public is understanding what Magic basketball is going to be about for the 2017 season.

The Magic will still have plenty of time, but there is plenty of work to do for the Magic to achieve their goals. And that leaves plenty of reason to get excited.

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