NEW YORK — Maurice Harkless and Kyle O'Quinn each dreamed of this, the moment they'd return home and play their first game at Madison Square Garden as NBA players. They grew up in the Jamaica section of Queens, rooted for the New York Knicks and looked up to the people who played at "The World's Most Famous Arena."
Their dream will come true Wednesday night, when their Orlando Magic face the Knicks.
"I can't wait," Harkless said.
"Madison Square Garden is big time in New York for everything," O'Quinn said. "It's like the centerpiece for everything. So to go there and actually be on that court, it's going to mean a lot."
Harkless and O'Quinn share more in common than a childhood neighborhood and a dream. As rookies on a rebuilding team, they face many of the same adjustments and difficulties, and they count on each other for support.
"Being from the same place, we're kind of closer," Harkless said.
Harkless, a lanky 6-foot-8 small forward, endured offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia, which forced him to miss all of training camp and the entire preseason. He eventually made 20 consecutive starts but then went a few of games without playing at all. He returned to Orlando's starting lineup Monday night because Arron Afflalo has a strained left calf.
But Harkless had a breakthrough game Monday, scoring a career-high 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go along with four rebounds, three steals and two assists.
"Every game I want to try to get better and learn -- every game," Harkless said. "It's hard being a rookie."
O'Quinn, a 6-foot-10 power forward and center, has played less than anyone on the Magic roster. Although he has appeared in 24 of the team's 44 games, he has totaled just 126 minutes on the court.
"It's been a learning experience every day, most definitely," O'Quinn said. "But it's a lot harder than people think. All you see is the games. You don't see the time you put in to actually go out and play."
Magic officials like O'Quinn's soft shooting touch, his aggressiveness and his attitude.
"He continues to learn," coach Jacque Vaughn said. "He's great around the guys. He's great in the locker room. He's the first one up off the bench when something happens, good or bad, to congratulate a guy or to pick a guy up. And, for me, that's huge. He's going to be good athletically."
But despite all that Harkless and O'Quinn share — a neighborhood, the same career aspirations, a rookie season with a rebuilding franchise — they took two dramatically different paths to reach this point.
Harkless joined the AAU circuit the summer before his sophomore year of high school. O'Quinn didn't start playing competitive basketball until his junior year of high school.
Major colleges coveted Harkless out of high school. Just one school offered O'Quinn a scholarship.
Harkless spent one year at St. John's. O'Quinn spent four years at Norfolk State and as a senior led the school to a win in the NCAA Tournament.
Harkless is just 19 years old, while O'Quinn is 22. That age difference explains why they didn't know each other as kids, even though they lived a five-minute drive from each other.
Harkless played soccer and baseball before he started focusing on basketball early in high school.
O'Quinn was a catcher in baseball and a tight end in football before a growth spurt from 6-2 to 6-8 prompted him to try basketball as a high-school junior.
They've played in Brooklyn as NBA players already, but a game at Madison Square Garden will be different, even for Harkless, whose college team plays many of its home games there.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Harkless said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times