Magic's trick the playoffs?; NBA: Doc Rivers' unheralded cast has written a blue-collar prescription for success.


ORLANDO, Fla. -- The starting point guard is a former Division II walk-on who began his pro career eight years ago in the Global Basketball League and, after stints in the CBA and Europe, finally made the NBA at age 27.

The starting center is a former Academic All-American at Penn State who honed his game in that basketball hotbed called England, as a child in Manchester and for the past three years as a member of the Sheffield Sharks.

And there's the bench. The backup point guard spent the past two years playing in Croatia and the backup small forward was waived by the Denver Nuggets after only one game last season.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Orlando Magic.

Don't look for the Magic at the top of the Atlantic Division standings, where it was when young but restless stars Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway led their team to the 1995 NBA Finals.

But going into an eight-game homestand that begins tomorrow night, the Magic is doing something most figured unthinkable at the start of this season. Orlando is in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Led by rookie coach Doc Rivers, who has instilled a blue-collar approach rarely seen on this level, the no-name and no-nonsense Magic has become the blueprint for rebuilding teams.

"What most teams have done is go out and get stars and then get role players to build around them," Rivers said one night last week. "We went out and got role players first and then we'll hopefully get the stars."

Free-agent aspirations

As one of three teams under the NBA's salary cap -- the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers are the others -- the Magic went from $20 million over the cap to $18 million under by unloading several large contracts, including Hardaway's. With that money, Orlando hopes to lure at least one big-name free agent this summer.

The list starts with San Antonio's Tim Duncan, whom Rivers got to know as a broadcaster with the Spurs the past two seasons, and Detroit's Grant Hill, who has the same agent as Duncan; also Charlotte's Eddie Jones and Toronto's Tracy McGrady, both of whom grew up in Florida, have expressed an interest.

And, regardless of whether any of them wind up signing here, the Magic has the third, eighth and 11th picks in this year's college draft. It also has three more first-round draft choices over the next two years. Whatever kind of team it builds, the foundation has been laid this year.

"I think the key is that we have a lot of guys on the team who are used to working hard or who like to work hard," said shooting guard Ron Mercer, who came from the Nuggets last month in a trade. "I haven't been on a team where over half the guys are working out after practice. Maybe 70 or 80 percent do here, which you rarely see at this level."

That certainly wasn't the case here with O'Neal and Hardaway, who when they weren't feuding with then-coach Brian Hill were often fussing at each other. O'Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent in 1996 and Hardaway, his career plagued by injuries and attitude problems, was dealt to the Phoenix Suns in a trade last summer.

Having also traded away veterans Nick Anderson and Horace Grant, who were among the 37 deals involving 38 players made by general manager John Gabriel since last June, most assumed the Magic was building for the future.

Rivers, who was hired after Chuck Daly retired, wasn't among them.

"I said it from Day 1 that I thought we would be very, very competitive," said Rivers, 38, who retired in 1996 after a 13-year career with the Atlanta Hawks, Clippers, New York Knicks and Spurs. "I thought we would have a chance of making the playoffs. I thought people were underestimating our talent and more than that, underestimating the key guy's heart on this team."

Darrell Armstrong, now the team's starting point guard, was named last season as the NBA's Most Improved Player and its top sixth man, the first player in history to get both awards in the same year. His play also gave Gabriel, who has been part of the franchise since its inception in 1987, the confidence to move Hardaway.

"I've always played hard, everywhere I've been," said Armstrong, now 31, who walked on at little Fayetteville (N.C.) State after not playing until his senior year of high school. "I want the players in this league to know they're in for a tough game when they play us."

Said Rivers: "When we lose, they know they're going to hear it from Darrell. It makes a coach's job easier when your best player is also your hardest worker, or at least works as hard as anybody else."

By the numbers

The statistics reflect the hard-nosed philosophy Rivers adopted playing for Pat Riley with the Knicks. The Magic has forced a little more than 17.5 turnovers a game, the second most in the NBA. The team also ranks tied for fifth in offensive rebounding (13.6) and eighth in steals (8.9).

Aside from discovering the talents of such players as reserve point guard Chucky Atkins, who returned to his hometown after two years in Croatia, and center John Amaeche, the Magic has revived the career of Monty Williams, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Knicks in 1994 who played only six minutes last season with the Nuggets before being cut.

Asked last week if fans should be surprised at what the Magic has done, Williams said: "They should be because we don't have any marquee players. At the beginning of the season, one magazine had rated me the 179th best player in the league. I took that as my motivation."

Said Atkins, who grew up here and played at South Florida before taking his game to Croatia: "We have a lot of reason to be the most hungry team in the league. We still want to prove people wrong."

Bursting out of blocks

The Magic opened some eyes at the start of the season, when it won 15 of its first 26 games. While its overall record isn't that impressive, Rivers could give Phil Jackson of the Lakers a serious run for NBA Coach of the Year should the Magic make the playoffs.

The four-game road swing didn't help the Magic's chances, with losses to Detroit, Toronto and Philadelphia before last night's overtime win in Chicago. With a 32-36 record, the Magic is a half-game ahead of the slumping Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

"Why stop at No. 8, why not go to seventh?" said Armstrong.

Armstrong can remember back to last summer, when he kept getting notes from Rivers asking him, "Are you committed?"

It's become the unofficial team motto and the translation is simple. "It's tough to be committed," said Armstrong. "It means playing in-your-face basketball all the time."

By next season, it could mean even more. The blueprint for rebuilding is nearing a critical stage, but the man who drew it up does not seem worried.

"It all sounds pretty good, but there are no guarantees it will work," said Gabriel. "But we will be different next year. We will try to sign some of our guys and we will be better. Will we hit the grand slam? Nobody knows. We will have improvement and we will do it in a way that is different than the way we did it before."

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