Orlando Magic Madness 2020: Shaquille O’Neal is your champion

The choice to win our Orlando Magic Madness tournament could only be one player. Shaquille O’Neal put the Magic on the map and stands tall over all.

In Orlando Magic history, one figure still looms over everyone.

There is still no denying this. There is still no escaping this. Every player has to measure up against him. Every team is measured against his teams. Even if his time on the team was short, he still towers over everything.

The Magic have a clear Mt. Rushmore — a top four that defines every era of Magic history. Four players who define every moment in Magic history and everything this franchise measures itself to be.

But even then one man stands above the rest.

That became clearer and clearer as we broke down and analyzed this #MagicMadness tournament of 64 of the best players in Magic history I created to pass the time during the league’s hiatus. The players that stood out were the ones who impacted fans and had a clear influence on how people perceive the Magic.

There was a mix of popularity tinged in the results — we will break down the lessons learned in a future post. But ultimately, the result was always self-evident. The player who could win this tournament is the one who still has an influence on so many things in how people view the franchise. The one who helped put the team on the map.

The winner of our #MagicMadness tournament and the legitimate claimant to the title of Best Player in Magic history is none other than Shaquille O’Neal.

The vote, as you can see, was extremely close between our finalists — Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady. Only 30 total votes separated the two players in the final poll. That turned out to be one of the closest votes in the entire tournament — when it comes to Magic history, the better players are fairly evident.

O’Neal is undoubtedly a titan in Magic history. He averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in four seasons with the Magic. He guided the team to its first playoff berth in 1994 and then to the NBA Finals in 1995.

In many ways, people know the Magic at all on a national basis because of O’Neal. There might be a fair argument that Orlando as a city got its notoriety from O’Neal’s presence. The town was never the same for his presence.

His departure left a deep hole in the franchise — one that did not really ever fully heal even after the Magic drafted another dominant center with the first overall pick. Indeed, everything still seems to have to compare to O’Neal and his giant shoes.

The Magic may never have been more popular, nationally relevant or better than when they had O’Neal.

Plenty of people would also point out that O’Neal went on to win four titles in Los Angeles with the Los Angeles Lakers and become one of the most dominant forces on the court in the league. In fact, he is still probably one of the most present faces in the NBA with his work on Inside the NBA on TNT’s NBA broadcasts and his various advertising outlets.

Shaquille O’Neal is as big as the NBA gets, at least since Michael Jordan. The fact he was in Orlando even for four years — and still calls Orlando home — is something that still feels unfathomable.

Tracy McGrady put up a more valiant fight in this than I thought. That is a testament to his popularity and perhaps where fans place the blame for his somewhat bitter departure in 2004.

This will deserve its own essay and post, but for many Magic fans like myself (I am 31, the same age as the franchise), we learned basketball while McGrady was playing basketball. We became mature as basketball observers, watchers and players while McGrady was putting in yeoman’s work in the TD Waterhouse Centre, carrying an overmatched Magic team further than they had any right going.

I personally recognize O’Neal as the Magic’s first Hall of Fame player. But McGrady was the one where I felt an immense sense of joy that he got the nod to enter Springfield.

Maybe that was because there was some doubt he would get in because of his lack of team success — McGrady never got out of the first round until he was riding the bench for the final year of his career with the San Antonio Spurs in 2013.

McGrady holds just about every season average and single-season scoring record the Magic have. But with the team struggling to fill in for the injury to Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady never experienced much team success. He made the playoffs in three of his four seasons in Orlando.

Despite making All-NBA teams in all four seasons in Orlando including two first-team nods, McGrady could never get his team over the hump in the playoffs. That was not for a lack of trying on his part. He put in some of the Magic’s best all-time performances.

There is nothing anyone would take away from McGrady. And while fans were upset with his trade request at the time, they and even he laugh about it now, blaming poor management for his eventual departure.

Tracy McGrady might be the most popular of the Magic’s former elite players after all four left on less-than-ideal circumstances (Anfernee Hardaway has surged in popularity as everyone has forgotten how nasty that exit turned out to be).

If the Hall of Fame put jerseys on players on their hall of fame plaques, O’Neal would undoubtedly be wearing a Lakers jersey. That is where he won his titles and played in his prime. That would make McGrady the likely first Magic player in the Hall. His best years were in Orlando and he was truly a son of Central Florida.

Still, everything goes back to Shaq.

McGrady’s time in Orlando was memorable and special. But it remains a short blip in the run of history. The best moments of the franchise’s history — the ones they make a documentary about — are the ones that have impact within the larger NBA story. That is reserved for the teams that go deep in the playoffs.

Even though the 2009 team would win a game in the Finals, some might argue no team went as far or made as big of an impact as the 1995 team that O’Neal led.

He is the most consequential and important player in Magic history in almost every way.

His exit was messy and frustrating, especially for a young franchise that was just discovering itself in the league. To have such a great player leave was devastating. Orlando did not recover — even when McGrady was in town. O’Neal’s departure even colored how the Magic handled their next star, creating maybe a bigger mess.

Fans disliked O’Neal for a long time. But they have changed their tone. History heals all wounds. And O’Neal is celebrated in town once again.

There could not be a better winner for our #MagicMadness tournament.

Next: 10 more classic games to watch (1990-95 edition)

Thanks to everyone who participated and voted in our #MagicMadness tournament. As I said, we will be back with some other takeaways from the vote. If this delay lasts longer, we will come up with more fun ideas like this to pass the time!