Lessons in gravity: When rookie Shaquille O’Neal met Michael Jordan

Mar 27, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal is introduced as he was inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame during the first half against the Detroit Pistons at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 27, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal is introduced as he was inducted into the Magic Hall of Fame during the first half against the Detroit Pistons at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

A young Shaquille O’Neal played Michael Jordan in his rookie season. Jordan was brilliant with 64 points, but O’Neal demanded al the attention as a rookie.

Michael Jordan always had an aura about him. It is hard not to notice him on the floor, even at his slender 6-foot-6 frame.

At the height of his powers, he found a way to free himself and take advantage of every little bit of space a defense gave him. He always had the right jab step or dribble move to free himself. And he could turn and fadeaway, hitting a jumper with incredible speed and fluidity.

There were not many players like him. It is easy to forget the everyday greatness of Jordan lost in the YouTube highlights that have defined his career.

He is the scalpel, knifing through the defense.

Shaquille O’Neal? He is unmistakable for another reason. He is the bludgeon, whacking everything in sight, demanding a defense’s attention by his mere size.

That is a crude representation of his skill. O’Neal was a blunt object. But even as a rookie, he demanded attention. And earned it and tore that attention apart.

This was proven abundantly clear in a 128-124 Magic victory over the two-time defending champion Bulls at Chicago Stadium on Jan. 16, 1993.

Even with Michael Jordan at his absolute best — 64 points despite injuring his wrist the previous night and clearly looking in some discomfort and 22 points in the first quarter alone — the game became all about O’Neal.

Any time he touched the ball, there were two or three defenders immediately swarming him. Even at a young age, he had to act decisively and quickly. Pass the ball with precision over swarming hands — and Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant were no slouches on defense. It is incredible O’Neal is as effective as he was.

Through all the attention and inexperience, O’Neal scored 29 points and grabbed 24 rebounds. He was monstrous, devouring space.

The Orlando team was still pretty imperfect. Tom Tolbert was starting at power forward and the team was not a great shooting team. Then again, the NBA did not use the 3-point line the same way they do today. And not even like Brian Hill and the Magic would use it in 1995, just two years later.

Teams really knew how important O’Neal was to this Magic team. Defenses collapsed around him whenever he touched the ball. Even a team with such a great post defender like Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. It opened up a ton of driving lanes for Scott Skiles and even for Tom Tolbert.

Tolbert looked like a stretch-4 in this game since he could hit a jumper even though he was not much of a scorer. O’Neal’s gravity gave him the space to shine. Skiles found himself with a ton of space on his way to 31 points and 10 assists. He got wherever he wanted on the floor. O’Neal was a big part of that with the attention O’Neal ate up in the paint.

This is the power of O’Neal. And then when O’Neal got things going himself, he was downright overpowering.

It is easy to forget just how mobile and smooth O’Neal was at that time. He could bull his way into the paint or use his athleticism and speed to the same effect.

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There was one move in the second quarter where O’Neal took the ball in the post with Will Perdue on him, he turned, took one dribble and jump stopped right to the basket, clearing Perdue away with the mere wind of his momentum. He dunked it with ease.

Orlando would even set him up for post ups by having him curl around screens on the high post. And he was quick enough that the center had nothing else to do but chase him. O’Neal on the move was a terrifying sight and he looked so fluid doing it.

There were several sets where O’Neal would start at the top of the arc and then run down a back-door screen and set up on the block. Centers were often caught chasing or the team had to switch a guard onto him.

O’Neal, of course, could still do the straight post up. And even though he was still raw and turnover prone make a nice pass to the weakside for the open man.

Somehow O’Neal transformed the Magic and averaged 23.4 points per game. He had so much pressure and attention on him at all times.

It is easy to forget just how much effect O’Neal had.

The Magic came into the game 15-15. How big of a difference did O’Neal make? The Magic had just six wins through 30 games the previous season. O’Neal transformed the team as they noted in This Magic Moment.

And it was the attention defenses had to pay O’Neal, even at a young age that opened so much up for Orlando.

The Chicago Bulls yucked the game up at the end. With a four-point lead and less than 30 seconds left, Horace Grant missed back-to-back free throws. O’Neal then cleaned up a missed free throw with a put-back jam to bring the Magic within one. Orlando would tie to send it to overtime on a deep three from Chicago native Nick Anderson.

Anderson and Skiles finished the Bulls off — again, they helped with some terrible possessions and missed opportunities.

O’Neal though was still the center of the 1993 team. He was the center of the franchise for the four incredible years the Magic had him. Watching games of the young Shaq proves this as much as anything.

Next: 1992-93 Season Video Vault

He demanded attention in a way few players could right out of college. Even enough to take attention away from Michael Jordan and his greatness.