Orlando fans are having a tough time trying to figure out how to feel about Shaquille O’Neal‘s retirement.
On one hand, O’Neal was responsible for the first truly great team in Magic history and put Orlando on the map as a basketball city. Everything Orlando has seemingly done since 1992 has had some echo of Shaquille O’Neal on it in one way or another. And the only escape it seems is Dwight Howard hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But on the other hand, O’Neal ripped the hearts out of Magic fans in 1996 and seems to have been laughing about ever since. It was not just that he left, calling Orlando a “dried up pond” on his way out. It was the championships he seemed to take with him from Orlando to Los Angeles. It was calling Stan Van Gundy a “master of panic” while unforgivably flopping against Dwight Howard. He has gone to tweaking Howard throughout his career, stating Howard is merely doing everything O’Neal had done already in Orlando.
O’Neal took a lot of his press conference to sort of bury the hatchett and explain both his gregariousness and his surliness.
He said his mind games with Kobe Bryant were part of his motivations to push him to be better. I believe he also said, or at least insinuated, this is what he was doing in tweaking Howard throughout his career.
The assembled media did ask O’Neal about his bitter departure from Orlando. And O’Neal was surprisingly frank. In a more private setting, O’Neal revealed to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel that much of the blame on himself and his youth for the departure and its bitterness.
“Fifty percent of it was that I was selfish. I had a lot of stuff going on … movies and albums … that I couldn’t pass up,” O’Neal told Bianchi. “Forty percent of it was the Sentinel poll and the fact that I was very sensitive at a young age. Ten percent of it was that Bob (Vander Weide) and the organization didn’t move quickly enough (to match the Lakers’ offer).”
Yes, the Sentinel poll had something to do with O’Neal’s departure. But it seems like it was more of a tipping point or a reasurrance that he had made a good decision. O’Neal was a young and boisterous player back with the Magic, not quite the measured elder statesmen he later became. It is not surprising that a 25-year-old kid with a $122 million on the table would not take kindly to that kind of negative press — especially with his peers and heroes on the 1996 Olympic Team in his ear telling him about it.
But O’Neal was willing to admit his youthful pride and interests in being an entertainer pushed him to the brighter lights of Los Angeles.
Shaq confirmed this to the larger media contingent, saying he just did not want to get into a bidding war and wanted to get his free agency settled faster.
“Business wise, I had a better offer in Los Angeles,” O’Neal said during his press conference. “At the time, they didn’t match it. I didn’t want to go back and forth, you know, match this number. So, I told them, L.A. came with the number and I decided to go to L.A. Plus, a lot of other selfish reasons, movies and all that stuff out there. I thought it was the right choice for me.”
And, of course, there were the whispers that O’Neal had his heart set on going to Los Angeles from the moment Orlando drafted him. Bianchi related a story Saturday that Pat Williams told him where O’Neal’s agent was in his ear to trade the No. 1 pick to the Lakers in 1992. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do, I guess. Doesn’t make the sting any duller for Magic fans.
O’Neal, though, offered high praise for Rich DeVos and the Magic organization. A rare sign of humility from O’Neal concerning the Magic.
“The DeVos family was a first-class organization,” O’Neal said. “I wish things would have worked out different. In business, guys have to handle their business their own way. The good thing about the whole thing that went down, when I left, Mr. DeVos still called me and wished me well. First class organization.”
O’Neal said (or perhaps joked) that he hopes Magic COO Alex Martins will comp him some courtside seats and that he awaits the call from Rich DeVos announcing his jersey retirement in Orlando. Both of those may be a long time coming.
But O’Neal is going to be a presence at Magic games. He attended a few games during the 2009 run. Like I said, Orlando is not escaping his shadow until the franchise wins its first title.
In O’Neal’s departure from the league, he tried to rebuild some burned bridges in his uniquely entertaining way. He said the Magic are doing big things right now and he really hopes Howard stays in Orlando.
Yes, O’Neal is still watching. But maybe the O’Neal-Orlando fan relationship will be cordial.
Photos via DayLife.com.