The story goes that each of the 12 teams that attended the NBA Draft Lottery in 1992 had a jersey hidden behind their desk. It had Shaquille O’Neal‘s name emblazoned above his favorite number, 33, in honor of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Twelve different jerseys lay hidden, knowing full well who the number one pick was going to be. When Pat Williams discovered the Magic would get to draft O’Neal, the surprised Williams unveiled that jersey while the other representatives buried their tears in it.
A few weeks later, the Magic officially made O’Neal the top pick and were the home for the first four years of one of the most dominant players in NBA history.
On June 1, 2011, O’Neal announced he would retire from professional basketball after 19 season in the NBA. An official press conference will take place Friday at his Isleworth home in Windermere.
Shaq and Orlando have had a strange and twisted relationship.
There was first, the youthful, exuberant Shaq. Always having fun, ready to play at any moment and bouncing around like a kid in a candy shop. O’Neal may not have always acted with the same youthful vigor on the court for the rest of his career, but he was always a child at heart.
He simply loved his position as a big-time NBA player. He was a kookie guy. He dove on the floor for loose balls head first into the boards surrounding the court with reckless abandon. He tore down baskets like they were nothing. Even though he looked much slimmer in his earlier years and combined agility with his power, you could see what a dominating force he could be.
He turned Orlando around and led the team to its first .500 record and a tie for the eighth spot in the playoffs. Not enough for the franchise’s first playoff berth, that would come a year later when Orlando improbably won the lottery again and acquired Anfernee Hardaway.
O’Neal entered the next phase of his development. O’Neal: the champion.
Shaq had done all the entertainment stuff in his whirlwind storm through the NBA. He had become a marketing genius with his affable character and childlike attitude. But now it was time for him to get serious on the court. And he did.
The 1994-95 season may be the Magic’s best season in franchise history. Orlando rose from swept in the first round, to top team in the Eastern Conference and Eastern Conference Champions. It happened so quickly that Orlando fans simply did not know how to stop and appreciate what was happening. It became the standard. And 1995 might still be the year all other teams and seasons are compared to.
He averaged a league-high 29.3 points per game and 11.4 rebounds per game in 1995, shooting 58.3 percent from the floor. He posted a 28.6 PER and a career-low 9.4 percent turnover rate. O’Neal was not quite the force he would become, but 1995 was a fantastic year for him.
His averages only increased when he reached the Playoffs — 25.7 points, 11.9 rebounds per game, 26.1 PER, 59.5 percent true shooting percentage. Against Hakeem Olajuwon in the NBA Finals, he averaged 28.0 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game while shooting 59.5 percent. He brought his A game to his first Finals.
But all good runs had to come to an end. Olajuwon’s team was just more ready to win a title and the young Magic needed to learn. More importantly, Shaq needed to learn what it took to win.
Michael Jordan may have provided that final lesson when he and his 72-10 Bulls swept the Magic out of the Playoffs in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
It was at this stage where Shaq and Orlando became bitter enemies. The Orlando Sentinel’s infamous poll asked Orlando fans whether O’Neal was worth $100 million. In an NBA with runaway salaries, maybe the Magic never stood a chance at retaining the starstruck O’Neal. But the results of that poll did not help. O’Neal was clearly hurt by the perceived slight and left.
Orlando had a huge hole to fill and a lot of animosity toward the player that once brought them so much joy.
The Magic never really did fill that hole until Dwight Howard came jumping into their lap in 2004. Orlando did not get out of the first round until 2008, going six playoff appearances and 12 years between triumphs.
In the meantime, the Magic stayed relevant only through their mediocrity. Hardaway was good enough to get the team into the postseason, but never good enough to get them far. Then O’Neal’s original sidekick face his body’s betrayal as he lost his explosion to several ankle and leg injuries. Then came Tracy McGrady, the most prolific scorer Orlando had seen. He too was betrayed by poor management and injuries to Grant Hill.
This all happened while O’Neal put together one of the most impressive Hall of Fame resumes in league history. He won three titles with the Lakers in 2000-02 and then another with the Heat in 2006. The already bulky O’Neal added more weight and was such a dominant force, the NBA allowed zone defenses again just to handle him.
Magic fans probably resented this success and came to hate O’Neal’s constant attention-grabbing, knowing the special talent they had. Orlando is now trying to make sure it does not screw up its second chance.
Eventually I hope Magic fans come to accept how special those four years with O’Neal were. This young franchise got the chance to see one of the true greats in league history blossom. While they did not get to see the finished product, O’Neal still has an important place in Magic history.
Whether it gets the kind of superficial recognition — like seeing his jersey retired at Amway Center or even a statue built in his honor — is a question for another day (I vote, not at first since he was not in Orlando long and his exit was bitter). The Magic should certainly consider making him more prominent in their pregame history video (currently it only features Stern standing next to him, but none of his highlights from his play in Orlando) now that he is not a direct opponent and we can finally gain some perspective on where Orlando stood in his career.
Shaq will end his career averaging 23.7 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game. He is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and one of the best centers ever to play the game.
And it all started in Orlando with an exuberant talent that just loved to play basketball.