LOS ANGELES — And so begins the journey that could end in a bigger parade than their first rolling celebration down Orange Avenue.Two decades ago, Orlando saluted the arrival of its first major-league sports team, with slightly embarrassed Magic players and coaches riding on the backs of '89 Corvette convertibles bearing hand-made signs on the sides.Like homecoming kings, they waved to the few folks who stepped out of their offices to line the street to behold the most curious of happenings: Pro basketball encroaching upon football country.And now the Magic, all grown up since their expansion birth in 1989, are playing the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship.
The Showtime Lakers. The Jerry West-to-Kareem-to-Magic-to-Kobe Lakers. Shaq's once-upon-a-time Lakers (boo!). Jack Nicholson's Lakers.L.A. is gunning for its 15th NBA title, Orlando its first.It'd make a nice 20th-anniversary gift, wouldn't you say, Magic fans?Before he generally managed the Magic, Otis Smith rode in that parade — "My last parade," he says, still rolling his eyes — as a small forward claimed off the NBA scrap heap, aka the expansion draft.The Lakers might be favored to derail the team that Smith built, spoiling the Magic's return after 14 years to the NBA Finals and their surprising, storybook run this postseason through Philadelphia, Boston and Cleveland. But Smith has reflected the confidence of his club in his recent purchase of an automobile.An '89 Corvette.Convertible."Bought it to drive in the parade this June," Smith said, matter-of-factly.Trying to rain on the dreamy idea will be Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Kobe has been waiting on the superstar on-deck circle while LeBron James took his last swings at the Magic.Kobe has been the gold standard for LeBron. While King James might have closed the gap significantly enough to inspire their puppet commercials, he still lacks Kobe's kind of killer instinct. So does a piranha."He's a closer," said Dwight Howard, Kobe's former Olympic teammate. "It's like [Denver Coach] George Karl said: 'Jesus couldn't guard him.' "Still smarting from losing a title against the Celtics last June, Bryant already had applied his game-face on Wednesday, hardly good news for rookie Courtney Lee, who will attempt to defend him.Bryant was serious as an auditor, reminding everyone that the Magic swept the Lakers this season and split with them last season. "So," he said, "we're very, very concerned."Concerns and compliments aside, he and the Lakers no doubt look at the Magic as a fresh-off-the-bus contender, a lesser obstacle to securing his fourth ring (and first without Shaq) — at least compared to the league-best Cavs or the defending champion Celtics."We've been through this hoopla last year," Bryant said, noting the Magic have not been swimming in this fish bowl.Only journeyman point guards Anthony Johnson and former Laker Ty Lue have played in the Finals. Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy worries about his club becoming starry-eyed on the Hollywood stage as much as he does about the Lakers' offensive rebounding prowess and defending Phil Jackson's famed triangle offense. The first 30 minutes of the practice at Staples Center was open to the media and photographers who ringed the court while the Magic, naturally, appeared somewhat distracted."We're going to have to learn how to handle all that," Van Gundy said.Bryant also might be bringing more quality help than LeBron did, especially more skilled big men ( Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom) in hopes of countering Howard.Van Gundy doesn't expect to change much of anything (unless Jameer Nelson returns for cameos), riding his 3-point shooters and Howard. The Magic will look to become the first NBA club to win a title by beating three 60-plus win teams."This is the chance of a lifetime," Howard said. "Our motivation is greatness."Coming away with a split in L.A. carries more weight than the Magic splitting two opening games in Cleveland, considering the 2-3-2 format. Three consecutive games at Amway Arena would give them a chance for a kill-shot sweep, as unlikely as that prospect sounds.Resilient on the road, the Magic will attempt to keep confounding the experts and prove they belong. "For whatever reason, people don't buy we're a good team," Van Gundy said. "It's like we got here on a fluke. Maybe that helps us."This is where the journey begins. Smith believes it will end with his '89 Corvette covered in confetti. "I'll ride on the back with Stan," he said. "Now that will be a parade."