What we learned from Orlando Magic Madness 2020

Dennis Scott's 3-point shooting was revolutionary in the NBA and helped boost the Orlando Magic. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images)
Dennis Scott's 3-point shooting was revolutionary in the NBA and helped boost the Orlando Magic. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images) /
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Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers
Shaquille O’Neal was an immediate force in the NBA that vaulted the Orlando Magic into contender status. (Photo credit should read TONY RANZE/AFP via Getty Images) /

Shaq is (almost) forgiven

One thing that has become clear as anyone begins to study Orlando Magic history is that Shaquille O’Neal casts a shadow over the entire organization.

O’Neal is arguably a top-10 player of all time. The fact he was the Magic’s first true star and captained perhaps the best team in Magic history still resonates.

The fact his departure was jarring and so earth-shattering in a way the franchise still is trying to recover from. Yes, the Magic went to the Finals again since Shaquille O’Neal left, but Dwight Howard played very much in O’Neal’s shadow. So much so that the messiness of his departure was done to avoid the messiness of O’Neal’s departure.

O’Neal may not be the best player in team history — this poll suggests he is and the weight of the debate is likely leaning toward O’Neal — but he is undoubtedly the most critical player.

Talking about any of the Magic’s great players still presents some saltiness. Nobody left the Magic on good terms.

O’Neal bolted in free agency as the franchise floundered to catch up to both market realities and the new economics of the league. Anfernee Hardaway bolted as fans soured on him and demanded more from his deteriorating body. Tracy McGrady forced his way out frustrated with management. Howard did what Howard did.

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All were booed in their first returns to Orlando. Anfernee Hardaway said he was unsure he would be welcomed back when he returned fo the team’s 25th Anniversary season. Hardaway was indeed cheered.

McGrady has been welcomed back and might be the most popular player among the Magic’s former players along with Hardaway. Fans have forgotten the circumstances of their departure — or understood it was not their fault they left. McGrady was the runner-up in our tournament.

But O’Neal’s exit was much higher profile. He left a title-contending team and left the franchise trying to fill those giant shoes for the next decade. They never truly filled them — although Howard got close.

It still stung, especially with O’Neal’s penchant for creating media-driven storylines. O’Neal was still a persona non grata in Orlando. Even after he retired as he needled the Magic’s new center as he eclipsed many of O’Neal’s marks.

It is impossible not to put O’Neal in the top two of Magic history. Just like it is impossible, even with how unpopular he is, to keep Howard out of the top four. Like with O’Neal, Howard will be forgiven someday too.

O’Neal has clearly hit that point where his departure is no longer what defines his tenure with the team. His play and his legacy define them now.

O’Neal has always been the top of the mountain in Magic history. Even in a popularity contest, O’Neal is the clear standard-bearer for Magic history.