Orlando Magic fans should celebrate Shaquille O’Neal enshrinement

Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Shaquille O'Neal during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Shaquille O'Neal during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic will get their first Hall of Famer in Shaquille O’Neal. Despite a complicated history, fans should celebrate this honor for their player.

Shaquille O’Neal took the podium at a nearly empty Amway Center two years ago. The media had gathered as O’Neal was accepting his induction into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. As he stood at midcourt during the game later that day, the crowd largely cheered.

That part was not certain. A lot of it still is not.

Talking about that day during This Magic Moment, some of the writers commenting on the mid-1990s Orlando Magic run were seemingly incredulous O’Neal got into the team Hall of Fame after leaving the franchise in free agency and gutting the organization.

Many in the media still lament O’Neal’s departure. Fans do too as there is some hard feelings still more than two decades later.

This week though will bring up a whole new case of those conflicted feelings over O’Neal and his legacy with the Magic.

O’Neal will become the first prominent Magic player (sorry Patrick Ewing) to get inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this Friday. For the first time the Magic can legitimately claim a player as their own in the Hall of Fame.

And this is a moment to celebrate in the franchise’s history. For all the negatives left by Shaq’s bitter departure, there was still so much good worth celebrating. And as time passes, the good becomes so much more important than the bad.

There is no telling Orlando’s story without O’Neal, just like there is no telling O’Neal’s story without Orlando. For that reason he belongs to Orlando Magic fans as much as any other franchise. This accomplishment belongs to them too and should be celebrated.

There is a wave of nostalgia coming over the Magic and O’Neal now. Those days in the mid-1990s are getting waxed on poetically. The ESPN documentary This Magic Moment helped introduce those Magic teams to a new generation perhaps and reminded everyone of the promise and folly of youth. But the documentary also opened old wounds.

There is a lot of wondering what if going on — even from O’Neal himself who has repeatedly said he regretted leaving Orlando in a way, chalking it up to his youthful need for attention — when it comes to O’Neal. His presence with the franchise remains like a ghost haunting the hallways at Amway Center.

It is time to embrace that history and embrace that presence fully. And this weekend with his Hall of Fame enshrinement is a good place to start.

This weekend is about O’Neal and his legacy in the league. Not the what ifs of his career — and there are quite a few of them — or what he did not do in Orlando.

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In Orlando, O’Neal was truly transformative. He took an expansion franchise and put them on the map for the first time. He made them relevant.

In four years, O’Neal laid a very clear claim to be the Magic’s best player of all time — he averaged 27.2 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game in his four seasons in pinstripes. He gave the city an identity as it was growing up. Orlando was a one-team town and O’Neal was its center of gravity.

On the court, he showed what a truly great superstar player can do for a franchise and how much fun basketball can be. O’Neal demanded attention on his size alone. He kept it with his stellar play.

Simply by adding O’Neal, the Magic improved from a 20-win team to a .500 team. The Magic missed the Playoffs on a tiebreaker in O’Neal’s rookie year.

In Orlando, O’Neal was a different player than anyone had ever seen. He was raw power mixed with athleticism. When he did move to Los Angeles, he became a different player. A dominant one, but in a different way.

The O’Neal in Orlando could run a fast break and go diving into the stands and have it look natural. His athleticism was apparent and constantly on display. In Los Angeles, he was the bruiser — a darn good one — and his breakneck speed and athleticism was put on the backburner.

In Orlando, O’Neal had this youthful innocence about him. Every experience for him, like the organization was new. They were too young and hopeful to reflect on what they were doing. When they hit adversity, they did so with a smile.

What was notable about the end of the 1996 season was the smiles were gone. The pain of failure had infected. The future was uncertain.

That made it harder to let him go when he did finally leave. O’Neal did not help the matter. He called Orlando a “dried up pond” at one point. The fans turned on him quickly — both perhaps naive to the new economy in the NBA with increasing salaries and upset with being spurned.

The two have rarely seen completely eye to eye when it comes to their tortured history together.

O’Neal made his name with the Lakers. If players entered the Hall of Fame with a jersey attached, O’Neal’s jersey undoubtedly would be in Laker gold, where he won three titles. There are plenty who still believe those titles belonged to the Magic if O’Neal had stayed.

There are still some frustrations with that reality. Some regret and emptiness over what could have been.

Like a first love, everyone pines for its return. It is tough to let that go and replace it. The Magic truly never have.

It was four years of ecstasy together and then a bitter divorce. O’Neal’s departure ripped identity from the Magic. And the organization still seems to be recovering in many ways from that mental scar so early in the franchise’s history.

O’Neal is the proximate cause for the end of the Magic’s first championship run. His departure led directly to their fall. They went from title contender to also ran. It was a harsh new reality for the team — especially when Anfernee Hardaway’s body began breaking down.

His ghost haunted the Magic as they dealt with their second great center’s departure and the end of their second championship window. The Magic very well may have bungled Dwight Howard negotiations in fear of repeating their O’Neal mistakes.

O’Neal still has a presence with the Magic, even in his absence.

Without doubt though, the organization does not exist and does not have its presence in Orlando without O’Neal. Fans fell in love with this new team. They fell in love with O’Neal and the enthusiasm and dominance he brought to the game.

The organization and the team ascended because of O’Neal. They continue trying to chase O’Neal and everything he meant for the organization.

Next: The last day of the Orlando Magic dynasty

It is clear O’Neal was a true superstar. Orlando’s superstar. Orlando’s Hall of Famer.