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Every time I see someone for the first time since moving back to Shelby County, he or she will ask that invariable and earnest question: Don’t you miss Florida?
Doesn’t matter if they are family, friends, foes or faux pas, this comes up. And my response is almost always the same: Yes, there are some things I do miss.
And today I’m going to tell you about one of them, though you likely will be surprised to see that this has nothing to do with quiet beaches, temperate winters, year-around golf, spring baseball or even my grown children who still live there.
It certainly has nothing do with a theme park.
These days, I miss getting to be there to watch my favorite pro basketball team play in the NBA Finals.
For the unwashed among you – and I realize professional basketball is not necessarily topical to you true artisans of bluegrass basketball -- the Orlando Magic will play the Los Angeles Lakers starting Thursday.
And for me it’s like seeing the kids from down the block win the high school tournament. I watched their birth, their growth, their struggles and, now, I’m hoping to see their greatest success.
In fact, I was there the morning they were conceived, in June 1986, when a basketball executive named Pat Williams announced he was going to bring pro basketball to Orlando.
I was the sports editor of the newspaper and, because of my Kentucky breeding, considered myself among the most basketball savvy people in town. I shook my head. No way Orlando was going to embrace pro basketball. No chance.
A little more than two years later, I remember publishing the special section commemorating the announcement of the Orlando Magic as an expansion franchise. I remember when Shaquille O’Neal was drafted, when Nick Anderson stole the ball from Michael Jordan and spurred the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals and when Anderson missed four late free throws, any of which would have won the Finals opener against Houston (the Magic were swept).
I was there the following May when the Magic lost to the Bulls in Shaq’s last game in town.
I attended dozens and dozens of games, sitting from courtside to the rafters. And what I saw was that little basketball team give a city with no soul, a city comprised of transient celebrities, fake fun and a transitioning society, an honest-to-goodness heartbeat. They gave us something to rally around.
And now, in their 20th season, here they are in the Finals again, four victories from the pinnacle of their sport.
Because I’m a Kentuckian, I understand why the NBA doesn’t feel like basketball to most of you. When I was a kid and watched games on TV, I wondered why players walked up the court and seemed to play one-on-one. And why did the rim seem to rattle on every play? Basketballs were supposed to swish quietly and gracefully through the nets.
I was a fan of the old American Basketball Association and the Kentucky Colonels. I attended several games, and I loved watching Louie Dampier and Darrell Carrier bomb in 3-point shots and, later, Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore lead them to a championship.
I had a red-white-and-blue ball, and like many of you, I painted a 3-point line on the court in my hayloft, because it was the ABA that delivered that shot to Americans.
Except for a rooting interest here and there for a particular team or player, that was my only true passion for pro basketball until that crazy day in 1989 when a bunch of NBA castoffs and draft picks tipped off their first game in Orlando Arena. Much has changed since then.
Williams is still around, but he’s mostly selling books. One of those first players, Otis Smith, is the General Manager. The PR guy with whom I would trade lunches, Alex Martins, is now the guy who runs the team. Dwight Howard has replaced Shaq and seems as if he might stay. A state-of-the-art new arena will open in two years.
And for these wonderful first days of June, there is plenty of Magical buzz in my old stomping ground.
Some people have asked if I am glued to the TV set during their playoff run. I say no.
And I refer them to the theory of my late grandmother. She never attended an important Shelby County game because, she said, “I’m a jinx. Every time I go, they lose.”
That little 5-foot-tall woman, the Godliest person I’ve known outside the ministry, believed in a sports superstition.
So, no, I won’t be watching. And I figure 850 miles ought be a safe distance.