I admit that I was one of those who didn't believe that Shaquille O'Neal would leave Orlando for La-La Land. I also said a few weeks ago that if he did leave Orlando, the Magic had best purchase a large sign to display in front of the O-rena reading, "Game today, plenty of good seats still available."

Now that the dust is beginning to settle I want to try to reflect on what Shaq's departure will mean for the Orlando Magic and the City of Orlando. But first, it has been interesting to note public reaction to the exit of Shaq. Althogh people regret that the Magic will not be as good a team, there seems very little regret that Shaq, the person, will no longer be here. Recognized as a key player, Shaq was never loved in Orlando, and few tears were shed as he left.

In the short run it is obvious that the Magic is no longer one of the top teams in the NBA or the Eastern Conference. This is the result of both addition and subtraction with Miami, Atlanta, and New York having improved significantly, while the Magic have lost ground to both Chicago and Indiana. They may also find themselves struggling with what could be a much improved Philadelphia team. One wonders, in fact, if John Gabriel now wishes he had taken the GM's job in the city of brotherly love.

Over the longer run, things could get worse. The Magic is considerably over the salary cap and is likely to remain in that position, limiting the free agent signing it can do. As a middle level team it is not likely to be able to use the draft for any significant improvement, and now the Magic is faced with a future loss of other free agents, the biggest being Penny Hardaway.

A steady diet of mediocrity on the basketball floor with Miami taking over the number one position in the state of Florida, will not sit well with Magic fans. Already this past year the fans showed signs of being spoiled by Magic success. Constant complaining and some booing in the O-rena during the games increased markedly. How these fans, who seldom saw the home team lose, will cope with mediocrity remains to be seen, but my guess is that the adjustment will not be easy.

As time goes on and things don't improve the impact will be seen in increasing numbers of empty seats, and season ticket holders who fail to renew in the face of higher priced seats for a lower quality product. The upside of this development is that the City of Orlando will not be asked to build another arena, and the political leaders will no longer say "how high" when told to jump by the DeVos family.

The impact on the city will take other forms. Over the last few years two major things have happened to the City of Orlando as a result of the success of the Magic and the presence of Shaquille O'Neal. The first is that this city, which had no real center and no real identity, has begun to develop one. The success of the Magic has played a role in that process. One need only recall how for the first time the entire city seemed focused on one thing during the 1995 NBA playoffs. Second, the presence of Shaq brought great attention to the city, not just across the United States, but across the world, reaching beyond the power of Disney as an identity point for Orlando.

I will never forget last May when I was 700 miles east of Moscow in a Russian University and I was asked by a student if I was from the same Orlando as Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic. Or last summer in Ethiopia where Shaq was as well known as any other world figure. This recognition for any major city is significant and it cannot be purchased.

This change will also be seen in a sharp decline of appearances by the Magic on national television. This attention helped create an image for the city, and if image is important, this will be a net loss.

There are many in Orlando who have come to benefit from this team. This includes local radio and television stations, the newspaper, the hotel and restaurant industry, the t-shirt and paraphernalia sellers, those who work at the arena, those who work the parking areas around the O-rena. All will be adversely affected by any decrease in Magic popularity. Much of the ancillary economic activity around this team has involved Shaq, and his absence will affect the level of that activity..

The Magic gave this city a sense of rising expectations, a sense of identity, and of being a city on the move. This could now be in jeopardy. But it need not be. Not because the Magic will somehow save the city, but because people in this city will have l earned what it means to be united around a local cause, and now will be able to find a cause, more worthy than a basketball team, around which to rally and shape a new identity of true urban greatness.

On Sport and Society this is Dick Crepeau reminding you that you don't have to be a good sport to be a bad loser.

Copyright 1966 by Richard C. Crepeau

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