- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

Look out, Isiah Thomas.

Here comes Mickey Mouse's basketball team.

The Orlando Magic appear to have recovered from the defections of Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway.

O'Neal left the Magic Kingdom after the 1995-96 season, Hardaway after the 1998-99 season.

The two led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995, which was thought to be the first of many such June appearances for the team.

But O'Neal couldn't shake his urge to be Kazaam in Hollywood, Hardaway eventually grew tired of being the fall guy in Orlando and moved to the Arizona desert and the once-promising Magic appeared consigned to the long and frustrating cycle of incompetence.

You can ask the Wizards just how long the cycle can be.

Now the Magic are back in the championship hunt, and the O'Neal-Hardaway era be darned.

The Magic talked an impressive game in July, which is what July has become in the NBA. You talk your best game in July as you show the top free agents around town. You show them the love, and then you show them the money.

This is how the recruiting game works in college basketball, too, only the money there shows up on a player's doorstep in untraceable shoe boxes.

The Magic are serious contenders again because of the additions of Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Hill is a five-time NBA All-Star, arguably the No. 1 all-around player in the Eastern Conference, and the 21-year-old McGrady is destined to be a star.

The Magic were lovable overachievers last season, a collection of no-names, never-weres, youngsters and one oddball from England that posted a 41-41 record and nearly made the playoffs. The Bucks went in their place as the eighth seed and almost upset the Pacers in the first round.

Doc Rivers, the Magic's first-year suit from Turner Sports, was selected the NBA's Coach of the Year last season, outdistancing Phil Jackson, who always seems to be where the top players are and, right or wrong, loses voting points because of it.

Rivers, as smooth as coaches come, may not use pet rocks to motivate his players as the Zen master does, but he gets them to play hard. Now he actually has two legitimate weapons at his disposal, and the Magic are in position to win fiftysomething games this season and unseat the Pacers from their precarious position at the top.

The Pacers are looking to stick with their aging cast, ignoring the birth certificates of their players, including the Big Smooth, the irrepressible Sam Perkins, who has agreed to sleep through another season while sinking the occasional 3-pointer.

Even if the Pacers hold off time and survive to play in June again, they still have a problem at center, given the impression O'Neal left on the equilibrium-challenged Rik Smits two months ago.

The leading teams in the Eastern Conference are in the best-of-the-rest category now. They are not bad teams, just flawed teams not ready to contend with the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Spurs.

That is good for a team like the Magic that can start to dream of June or even a team like the Wizards, if Rod Strickland ever rediscovers his enthusiasm for the game.

As it turns out, the Magic may have more to fear from their in-state rival to the south than the Pacers.

Pat Riley who used to be the best coach in the NBA before the Zen master employed Cochise's spirit on his bench just had to do something after the Heat were eliminated in the playoffs by the Knicks for the third season in a row.

Riley and the Heat decided they no longer could depend on Tim Hardaway's shaky knees or Alonzo Mourning to clean up all the team's messes.

So the Heat acquired Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason in a nine-player deal, much of it bookkeeping, with the Hornets.

Jones is a slasher, seemingly a nice complement to Mourning's power game, and Mason has triple-double inclinations as long as he is not defending himself in a courtroom.

Riley knows Mason from their problematic seasons with the Knicks, back when Mason communicated by the words cut into his hair, and their reunion, if Mason doesn't get dispatched elsewhere, should be intriguing.

The Heat and Pacers have company after the Magic made the most persuasive noise in July.

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