Sunshine State Power Struggle: Magical Rivalry Heats Up
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There was an NBA rivalry between Miami and Orlando before either had an NBA team.
In the mid 1980s, the cities were both bucking for NBA expansion franchises. Nobody figured the league would add two teams from Florida, so a fierce rivalry developed between the cities with basketball as the backdrop.
The Miami Herald sent columnist Dave Barry up to Orlando. The humorist spared nothing.
"He did a whole piece just destroying Orlando,'' said Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, who has been with the franchise since its inception. "He called us 'low-forehead, nose-picking yahoos.'''
But Williams fired back with some shots of his own at Miami.
"I got into big trouble early,'' he recalled. "I said, 'Crime is down in Miami. They've run out of victims.' 'When you go to the grocery store, the clerk says, 'Will this be cash, charge or stick-up?' I rolled out all my material. Oh, the (Miami) chamber of commerce didn't like it.''
As it turned out, in April 1987 the NBA surprisingly took four expansion franchises, including two from Florida. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets were to begin play in 1988-89 and the Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989-90.
A rivalry was born between the Heat and the Magic. And Heat officials initially could crow that their team got to start first.
"We hated that at the time, although it turned out to be the best break we got, and gave us an extra year to prepare,'' said Williams, who said he was so reviled in Miami he showed for a 1989 summer-league game there wearing a disguise that included a hat, beard and glasses.
The rivalry has been going on for more than two decades on the court. It was fierce in the early 1990s even though both teams were lousy.
But the rivalry has had lulls due to being one-sided in one way or the other. When the Magic went to the NBA Finals after the 1994-95 season and won 60 games in 1995-96, the Heat won a combined 74 games those seasons. When the Heat won five straight Atlantic Division titles from 1996-2001, the Magic had slipped following the loss of center Shaquille O'Neal to free agency in 1996.
When the Heat won the NBA crown in 2005-06, the Magic went 36-46. And when Orlando finally got going again by winning the last three Southeast Division titles, including making a 2009 Finals appearance, the Heat the last three seasons has averaged 35 wins while never finishing better than third in the Southeast.
But everything sure changed last week when Miami signed star-studded free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join re-signed star Dwyane Wade. For the first time, this is a rivalry that will feature two of the best teams in the NBA.
"The rivalry is back, hands down,'' said Dennis Scott, an NBA TV analyst who played for the Magic from 1990-97. "Both teams have superstars on the court. Both teams have Olympians. Both teams have guys who have been to the Finals.''
Scott already is bantering about the rivalry with fellow NBA TV analyst Steve Smith, who played for Miami from 1991-95 and in 2004-05.
"It became a rivalry when there were two expansion teams,'' Smith said. "Now, I think it's great. Both in South Florida and in Central Florida, (the rivalry) has always been special. ... I think it's (now) the best intra-conference rivalry (in the NBA). It's not going to be Boston-L.A. because of the history. ... But you've got the Stan Van Gundy-Pat Riley situation.''
That has added fuel to the rivalry in recent years. Van Gundy was the Heat's coach to start the 2005-06 season until Riley, the team president, shoved him to the side to take over on the bench and lead Miami to the title. There's been bad blood between the two ever since.
But it wasn't Van Gundy or Riley who, well, offered more heat to the rivalry shortly after James announced last Thursday night he would join Bosh and Wade in Miami. It was Otis Smith, the Orlando general manager who was a guard for the Magic during their first three seasons of 1989-92.
"I was surprised (James) went (from Cleveland to Miami),'' Smith said. "I thought he was, I guess, more of a competitor. ... The great ones do and usually stay in one location.''
Smith further piled it on by saying about Lakers star Kobe Bryant, "He's proven he can do it on his own.''
Understand there previously was a rivalry between Cleveland, when James was there, and the Magic. It peaked during the 2008 Eastern Conference finals, a series that concluded with James storming off the court and refusing to shake the hands of Orlando players after the Magic won in six games.
Now that James has taken his show to South Beach, he'll likely be even more disliked by the Magic faithful.
"It's on,'' James said of the rivalry with the Magic and in reference to Smith's comments. "It's funny that they questioned my competitiveness. I like that. I like locker room stuff. We're going to put a lot of stuff in the locker room before the season starts (as reminders). We're in the same conference with Orlando, so we'll deal with them.''
The Magic, assured four meetings every season with Miami due to both being in the Southeast Division, is ready. Star center Dwight Howard, third in the MVP voting last season behind James and Bryant, will be a tough match-up for the Heat, who at least now have a center on its depleted roster after adding aging veteran Zydrunas Ilgauskas on Tuesday.
With Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson joining Howard, Orlando had a 4-3 lead over the Heat in players who have been selected for NBA All-Star Games. At least Ilgauskas, an All-Star in 2003 and 2005 who is past his prime at 35, tied it at 4-4.
"They've got to get over us,'' Smith said. "We're still actually (the Southeast champions), last I checked. ... You still only play with one ball. ... Our guys are motivated.''
One of those guys is swingman Quentin Richardson, who played for the Heat last season. But when Miami cleared salary-cap room to sign its star-studded trio, Richardson was left behind as far as getting a decent contract. He signed Tuesday as a free agent with the Magic.
"I talked to Dwyane about my decision,'' Richardson said. "He's my buddy, and he was disappointed that I walked away. But he knows every time out now it will be like a war, like a rivalry zone against him. I'll play him like I don't know him. I'll play my hardest against those guys. It's just more incentive.''
This sure sounds like a rivalry in need of a trophy. Actually, there used to one in the series called the Lewis M. Schaffel Memorial Trophy, which was started as a joke by the Magic and named after the Heat's first general manager. It didn't have much to do with prestige.
Affectionately known as The Schaff, the trophy was awarded to the team that lost the annual series between the teams, with overall points used if the series was tied. Schaffel and the Heat ignored the prize, and a quote he uttered ("We will not accept the trophy. It is in bad taste. We are a professional basketball team, not the YMCA.") was engraved on the three-foot trophy.
"Miami didn't go along with it,'' Williams said. "I don't know where it is now. Maybe it's in our archives. It was a sunken basketball.''
There's nothing now, though, sunken about the hopes of the Magic and the Heat.
"I'd say the rivalry has been intensified very quickly,'' Williams said.
Don't be surprised if Barry is dispatched again next season to Orlando. Perhaps for the East finals.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson