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The filmmakers behind ESPN’s This Magic Moment talk Shaq, ’90s NBA, social media

ESPN Films’ latest 30 for 30 documentary, This Magic Moment explores the brief period in history when the Orlando Magic captured lightning in a bottle in the 1990s by taking a young expansion team all the way to the NBA finals — and how it ultimately was the team’s undoing. From Shaquille O’Neal admitting to intentionally shattering the backboard in a 1993 NBA game to Penny Hardaway not speaking to Shaq over a commercial, This Magic Moment uncovers the history buried in archival footage from the pre-internet ethers.

A film centered on a team of 20-year-old millionaires from a city that had no other professional sports team inevitably ends with egos clashing, rumors spreading, and misinformation being touted as basketball fact for decades. Digital Trends spoke with This Magic Moment‘s directors Gentry Kirby and Erin Layden prior to the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and on ESPN Thursday, April 14. In our chat, we discuss the team’s rise to the top, the differences between the ’90s NBA and the current NBA in the social media era, the Michael Jordan effect, and more.

Digital Trends: You two have worked on a number of documentaries for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series over the years. What made the ’90s Orlando Magic team with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway interesting to cover?

Gentry Kirby: I think, a lot of times, those types of stories in the late ’80s, mid-’90s, a lot of people like to revisit that. Especially a lot of people who watch 30 for 30. You’ve seen the film, we love digging up old archival footage, seeing some of those faces from the past, whether it be reporters or players. Really getting back in that era. I was living out of the country in 1994/1995 when the Magic went on that run. So, I didn’t really know … I mean, I know about them, obviously. But, doing this film now, I got to see what a big deal they were and the excitement over Shaq and Penny.

Erin Layden: I think there definitely was a nostalgia factor with them. People remember that team, because they weren’t just stars on the basketball court, they kind of went into pop culture a little bit with Shaq and all his movies. The rapping. Penny with the Lil’ Penny campaign. Also, building off a film [ESPN Films] had done two years ago, Bad Boys (on the Detroit Pistons), was kind of a similar era. That’s a real sweet spot for our fanbase. Twenty years ago seems to be an era for us to revisit. Not too far away, too long ago that it seems irrelevant, and not too soon. Just the right amount of time that people would want to look back at that time and remember it.

You don’t just see teams come out of nowhere with youth and go to the NBA Finals.

It seems there is a lot of revisionism in regards to how people remember 1990s NBA. It’s almost as if the period was Michael Jordan winning everything and not much else happening. What were some stories or tidbits that surprised you from that era and that team?

Gentry: We didn’t touch on this in the film but, they sort of had a lot of different leaders. They were sort of unconventional because they were so young. I think that’s what’s so good about this story. You don’t just see teams come out of nowhere with youth and go to the NBA Finals. That’s what disrupted the rhythm of, like you said, the Michael Jordan NBA.

Erin: They weren’t just a young team on the court with the players; it was a young franchise overall. Young fanbase. It was all very new. It was very interesting to see how they were able to put it together so quickly and rise to become an elite team in the NBA with a very young foundation.

The film discusses the fact that there was no social media during the Orlando Magic’s ’90s run. What was the social media equivalent of the ’90s that affected the Magic?

Gentry: A lot of way the social media was still your bread and butter newspapers, beat writers, and the on-court reporters. The local media, as well. We were happy with the archive of footage, especially from the local station WFTV. All of that reporting around the team really helped us tell the story.

Erin: That is something that is unique. The Magic are the only professional sports team in Orlando. They were literally the only game in town. So, the coverage was pretty intense. Even though there wasn’t social media, the local radio and local TV affiliates definitely covered this team all of the time.

Gentry: Think about this too. The poll that was taken in a newspaper literally made Shaq think about “whether I want to stay here.” That was in a newspaper.

How do you think the trajectory of that young Orlando Magic team would have been affected if they played in the social media era?

Gentry: You would’ve seen tweets about Shaquille O’Neal and Dennis Scott, how they were in downtown Orlando at night going out [Laughs]. You probably would have seen how the contract negotiations with Shaq went. It happened really quickly here from everything is ok to all of a sudden it was not ok. You would have had a lot of NBA insiders who would have been able to give people on social media a blow-by-blow of what’s going on day by day.

In the film, Shaq says he recorded a rap song with Anthony Avent and Brian Shaw prior to the team facing the Houston Rockets in which he claims he predicted the team would beat the Rockets in the Finals.  Please tell me you two have a copy of that song.

Erin: I tried, Keith. [Laughs] I asked Shaquille multiple times. We asked Dennis Scott. No one would cough it up. I don’t know if anyone has a copy of it.

Gentry: We don’t believe Brian Shaw has it and we didn’t speak to Anthony Avent. [Laughs] It’s probably out there somewhere.

What are some stories you wish you could have included in This Magic Moment that got left on the editing room floor?

I think we find sometimes, when it’s too recent it doesn’t resonate.

Gentry: There’s the one with the Allentown story.

Erin: Oh yeah. We had a good story from a lot of the players. During the 1995-1996 season, January, the team is on their way to a game in Philadelphia and their plane had to be diverted to Allentown, PA. They got stranded there for three days, I think. Also stranded were Sesame Street Live on Ice and Marilyn Manson. There were some fun, interesting stories of them being couped up in this little hotel in Allentown, PA in a huge storm. We had some cool stories that just didn’t fit in the narrative and didn’t quite flow for us.

Gentry: They were close, more or less, the players, and they would hang out on this lake and they would go water skiing a lot.

The Golden State Warriors of the past few years have broken records and dominated the league in a way we have not seen since Michael Jordan’s prime. How would you do a 30 for 30 on them?

Gentry: That’s the whole thing. Give it ten years, Keith. [Laughs] I think we find sometimes, when it’s too recent it doesn’t resonate. We just did the Fantastic Lies documentary on the Duke Lacrosse team [from 2006]. It was still a very raw, emotional story. In some ways, so raw and emotional that it is hard to get people and principals to talk about it, because it’s just so close. I think sometimes that’s why our sweet spot is late ’80s, early ’90s, early 2000s.

Erin: The Orlando Magic are a perfect example. You never know what path a team would take. We could say one thing about the story of the Golden State Warriors right now and it could change drastically. We just have to let it play out.

I think everyone who loves sports and especially the 30 for 30 series has wanted to know for years when we’ll get a definitive Michael Jordan documentary. The Jordan Rides The Bus documentary on 30 for 30 was a cool look into his baseball years but when can we do we get the prime Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan 30 for 30?

[Both laugh]

Gentry: Uh … I think you always have to have willing subjects. That’s one of the things to it. I think also …

Erin: It has to be the right story too for 30 for 30. I know you said you didn’t want the baseball story, but that was the right fit for us, because our idea for 30 for 30 was to not just tell the story people know but tell the story people don’t know about. I think [Michael Jordan’s baseball years] was something people didn’t really know much about and wasn’t as covered as his championship with the Bulls. I don’t know what the perfect 30 for 30, basketball-wise, would be for him.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has been around for nearly seven years and has put out dozens of classic documentaries that have impacted the way we view sports history. What do you feel it means in terms of legacy?

Gentry: In a lot of ways, we are always online or on Vine. [Videos are getting] shorter and shorter. People still really desire the the longer form stuff, so they can dig deeper. Not have it just be a quick, little 30-second video; a highlight. When you say 30 for 30,” people know what it is.

Erin: I think we’ve tried to tell stories in a compelling way. Storytelling has always been at the heart of 30 for 30. People are still hungry for good stories and sports provides them, pretty endlessly.

This Magic Moment airs on ESPN this Thursday at 9 P.M. EST