I remember the numbing feeling when Shaquille O’Neal left in 1996. I was very young and idolized him and the Magic at the time. When I heard the announcement, I trashed posters, jerseys, cardboard cutouts… anything that contained O’Neal’s image or likeness or name on it was gone to the trash. It was traumatic for Magic fans and the team never really recovered until Dwight Howard arrived.
I cannot imagine what some of his teammates felt when it happened.
“I was sitting at my home in Chicago watching the Olympics (in 1996) when a special bulletin came on and I happened to see the Big Fella (Shaq) holding a (Lakers) jersey standing next to Jerry West,” Anderson remembers. “I fell off the couch. Two minutes later, my phone rang and it was my dad calling to say, ‘You know, your championships just went to L.A.’ And how right he was. They (those championships) left and went to L.A.”
We definitely saw that coming. O’Neal was the dominant center that almost every championship team needs. The Magic knew when they drafted him that they would almost instantly become a championship contender (ended up it took three years).
The young Magic reached the Finals in 1995 and then ran into the juggernaut that was Michael Jordan and his Bulls. Chicago won the next three titles and went 72-10 in 1996, sweeping Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I have long suspected the Magic would have beaten the Sonics in that 1996 Finals, but we will never know. How would Orlando have played against those later Bulls teams? Again, we will never know.
Certainly in the post-Jordan era, the Shaq and Penny Magic looked like the next team to take the Bulls’ throne when Jordan retired.
“With that young team that John Gabriel and the organization and the DeVos family had put together — myself, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant, Penny Hardaway, Shaq, Brian Shaw — I can say that we probably would have had five or six championships,” Anderson said. “If that team would have stayed together.
“Again, the big question is: what if? We had the right team out there. We had a lot of talent on that team and I am pretty sure they would have kept adding the little pieces that would be needed to be put together. I was looking for the ride. That road to the NBA Finals that we went on was like following a rock thing. It was phenomenal.”
Five or six might have been a little much. But one was certainly expected. It could have happened… except O’Neal left.
Everyone in the NBA has spent time waxing poetic about O’Neal since he announced his retirement a few days ago. Magic fans are admittedly a litle torn about it. They appreciate everything O’Neal did in Orlando and in helping put the franchise at the forefront of the NBA’s mind. But they are also still honestly a little bitter about his departure.
The issue of retiring O’Neal’s No. 32 is bitterly divisive.
Even Anderson admitted that there were whispers that O’Neal was always destined for Los Angeles because of a childhood dream he had to be the next great Lakers center. He did do that and took the future of the NBA with him out of Orlando on that day in 1996.
“It’s obvious at that time, it was disappointing not only for me, fans, the organization,” Anderson said. “It was hard times for all of us. I am not a guy that holds grudges or anything. The young man thought as though he was doing the thing that was best for him and his family. I can’t personally fault someone for doing what they think is best for them and their family because I would do that same and I know many others who would probably do the same too.
“I am not going to hold a grudge against Shaquille O’Neal. Was it devastating? Yes.”
At some point we get over the devastation, right?
Orlando has (slowly) re-ascended behind Dwight Howard. And maybe the demons do not get completely exorcised until Howard signs that extension we are patiently waiting for.
But O’Neal will always be a divisive issue for Magic fans. The “What If?” scenario is just too tantalizing to sort through.