ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series vacillates between in-depth profundity and carefree superficiality, and its latest installment, “This Magic Moment,” lands somewhere between those two poles. Charting the brief, exciting NBA partnership between Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway with the upstart Orlando Magic, it’s a compendium of exciting archival footage and candid interviews that captures not only the spirit of the era, but also the tenuousness of success. After its inaugural outing at the Tribeca Film Festival, it should find a comfortable home on the small screen, sandwiched between ESPN’s live-sports broadcasts.
Directors Gentry Kirby and Erin Leyden begin their tale with the Magic’s 1989 inception, which came about due to the diligent campaign waged by executive Pat Williams. A mid-market city known at the time primarily for Walt Disney World, Orlando embraced its maiden pro franchise (named via a radio contest) through its first two underwhelming seasons before going through the roof for the team after it won the 1992 Draft Lottery and, with the top pick, selected gargantuan LSU phenom Shaquille O’Neal.
Things got even better when, after O’Neal was named Rookie of the Year, the Magic — in a twist of unbelievable mathematical-improbability fate — won the following year’s Draft Lottery as well. After much debate, as well as some pre-draft games played by Shaq and Penny on the set of William Friedkin’s “Blue Chips,” the Magic opted to use that pick for high-flying Hardaway, believing him to be the new-era Earvin “Magic” Johnson to Shaq’s next-gen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
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Kirby and Leyden segment their film with graphical images of bouncing white lottery balls that speak to the role that random luck plays into any athletic achievement. At first, Shaq and Penny begin rampaging through the league, their youth and energy powering the club to the playoffs, while providing a constant barrage of highlight-reel dunks and no-look passes.
Those happy times would peak in 1994-’95, when the Magic defeated a just-out-of-retirement Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the second round, and then the Indiana Pacers in a thrilling seven-game series, to reach the NBA Finals. From there, “This Magic Moment” charts the team’s sudden, unexpected downfall from its sky’s-the-limit perch, with guard Nick Anderson’s four straight missed free throws at the end of the Finals’ opening game shattering the squad’s confidence on their way to a crushing series loss.
The next season would prove even rockier, with injuries and mounting tension between Shaq and Penny for top-dog status — highlighted by Shaq making a Reebok commercial in which he elbowed Penny’s Chris Rock-voiced Nike alter-ego, Lil’ Penny — leading to jealousy and resentment. When the Magic then gave free-agent Shaq low-ball contract offers (in part because they wanted to save money to spend later on Penny), the fault lines had grown too great to mend. Despite last-minute efforts by Magic officials to avert crisis, Shaq would bolt after the 1995-’96 campaign for the Lakers, where he could truly fulfill his multimedia Hollywood dreams.
Blame for this catastrophe is hurled at Shaq’s agent Leonard Armato, Magic bigwigs Williams and John Gabriel, the “Orlando Sentinel,” and both Penny and Shaq. Yet the real story of “This Magic Moment” is the transitory nature of triumph. Like sharpshooter Anderson’s career, which never recovered from those missed free throws, the Magic, though seemingly poised to reign supreme for the forthcoming decade, lost it all due to a few miscalculations about how to properly nurture Shaq’s titanic ego — and, soon thereafter, to sudden, debilitating knee injuries that derailed Penny’s promising future.
Bolstered by a wealth of game, behind-the-scenes and TV clips (as well as candid interviews from Magic players themselves, including Shaq’s somewhat revisionist musings on his departure), Kirby and Leydon’s film is both a rollicking trip back in time, as well as a cautionary tale about how success can disappear just as quickly as it materializes.