Jim O’Connor/US Presswire
I’ve been flying a lot lately, and I don’t mind saying that I’m not the world’s greatest flyer. I’m not, you know, a total basket case about it — I think I’m able to sit in my seat and maintain what most people would say is a normal, masculine demeanor — but I’m a little more sweaty-palmed about it than I imagine most people are.
Every time the seat belt light comes one, I feel like I imagine every person forced into the Army by their fathers felt on D-Day. I start looking around the cabin and seeing how nervous other passengers look, and the answer is always NOT AT ALL. So I sit there in my seat and make the best face I can to articulate how trivial I find any turbulence while keeping my palms affixed to my thighs like a convict strapped in an electric chair.
I’ve developed some coping strategies, of course. Self-talk, you might say.
I try and look at the stewardesses first. Are they walking around the aisles as if nothing is happening even as the plane is lurchingly dropping through the sky? No sweat. I think about the captains — those dudes have epaulettes and mustaches, I tell myself, and they don’t just give those out to people who can’t keep their heads in a crisis. Usually, between gauging the stewardesses and imagining the captain in aviator glasses smoking Marlboro reds and calling the attendants “doll face” over his radio, I calm myself down.
Except on my most recent flight, when I heard an attendant tell a guy standing in the aisle “This is probably going to get pretty bad.” This represented a major breach of trust, as far as I’m concerned. Isn’t it basically their job to tell you how often they’ve seen this? What if your surgeon was all “Hold up, this is gonna be excruciating” for second?
So for the next, like, four minutes I was picturing — I hope to God everybody does this — how I was going to handle the imminent crash. I imagined that I would begin consoling those around me, saying, “It’s out of our hands. The people in the cockpit are trained professionals.” As we plunged beneath the final cloud layer, unsure whether the pilot would pull off the emergency landing, I would face the end coolly and, if we all made it, memorably.
In real life, of course, I had turned off my iPod to devote all of my cognitive energy to grinding my teeth while the woman beside me, I swear on my life, continued knitting stuffed monkeys for her children out of used sweaters. Needless to say, I learned something about myself in that moment.
So anyway that’s sort of what life is like for me watching the Magic right now. It’s fidna get bumpy, you know? And while everybody has seen this kind of situation before, don’t you feel like you just heard the stewardess admit it might get sort of bad? Not that the franchise is publicly declaring that it’s time for panic, but wasn’t that Otis Smith in the captain’s seat? And some pilots have to be worse than others, right? And also, how long will this analogy hold up?
It’s not as if we’ve learned anything really new about the franchise the past several weeks. It isn’t even as if my feelings about what the franchise should do have changed — I still think the Magic are best off trading Dwight Howard and trying to gut the rest of the roster immediately.
Now, I’m not sure the perfect deal is out there, or easily found — I have yet to see a convincing dream-scenario package of picks and young players — and I would even accept the Magic committing to Dwight by blowing this roster up around him right now. The problem is, I have no growing sense that the Magic have a strong idea what they want to do, and that may be the worst case scenario long-term.
The Magic are not a franchise that deserves to have a chip on their shoulder. While they’ve never won a championship, they’ve accomplished a lot in their short time in their league, achieving near-perennial relevance with a rotating cast of marquee players and now, the best arena in the league. Sure, there have been bleak periods, but this is a team that has acquitted itself well as a newcomer. All in all, this is one of the best things the team has going for it: on top of being in a winter- and tax-free state, this franchise has proven itself a worthy destination for talent.
The way to change that, however, is to seem like an ownership group that accepts dysfunction and a rudderless approach. Think how hard it was for Memphis to become taken seriously with the stigma of their ownership. Think how lucky the Clippers had to get to lure talent to their carnival of chaos. This is not a short list — how many players talk about wanting to play with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love? Who wants anywhere near the Warriors, or the Hornets, or the Cavs, or the Bobcats … you get the idea. I’ve long held the position that effective mediocrity, which is where the Magic more or less stand right now, is one of the worst ways to exist in the NBA, but it’s clear that ruining the league-wide trust in the team’s ability to build a winner is a fatal blow for the short and medium terms.
That said, I now believe that the biggest mistake the Magic could make is the one I think they’re making: indecisiveness. Honestly, I doubt the team knows right now whether Dwight Howard will be suiting up for them after March 15. Certainly I could be wrong, but I genuinely believe the team has taken a finger-to-the-wind approach, and time has shown that simply won’t work.
One of the lessons of the recent free agent bonanzas is that many players don’t want, as conventional wisdom would have it, to be a team’s messiah nearly so much as they want to join an organization that will empower them to do their jobs. LeBron left the team willing to give him everything for a team ready to fold him into a plan, and now the Heat are winning. And even when dysfunctional teams DO lure good talent — like the Knicks — the recipe for success is clearly building those players into a strong foundation. I’m not saying the Magic can’t do that, and in fact, I think as long as they hold on to Stan Van Gundy, they’re not badly positioned. I’m saying it’s extremely important, in a smallish market, not to squander the trust capital they have with the league.
When it comes down to it, you can’t really fault a pilot or an airline for turbulence — that’s how the whole system works, after all. In fact, a few bumps aren’t even that uncomfortable, and there’s nothing a passenger can do about them one way or another. True discomfort, real nervousness, comes from being left to wonder whether those people who can do something about it — the people steering your craft — have the ability and a plan to do so.