Orlando Magic 35th Anniversary: 35 best players in Magic history
2. Shaquille O’Neal (1993-96)
By Philip Rossman-Reich
When the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery took place, legend has it that every team hoping the ping pong balls bounced their way had a specially made No. 1 jersey underneath their dais. That jersey had Shaquille O’Neal’s name on it. There was no doubt who was going No. 1 and at that time there was no doubt someone’s franchise would change forever.
For a team gaining distance from its expansion years, the fledgling franchise needed a star. They needed something that would signify a turn toward winning. They needed something to maintain the energy of those early years.
Getting O’Neal did more than supercharge a franchise. It gave the team a player who could be the sun the whole universe revolved around. This was a superstar player. A clear future Hall of Famer. And a center who would define the next decade of the league — and probably more.
O’Neal’s arrival immediately made the Magic matter on a national stage. Orlando went 41-41 in his first season — an all-star season as a rookie. The team was in the playoffs for the first time in his second season and were in the NBA Finals in his third year.
He was a rocket ship that instantly made the Magic the most popular team in the league and a team that looked like it would be the future of the league.
O’Neal averaged 27.2 points per game and 12.5 rebounds per game with the Magic. But those numbers do not really state the impact O’Neal had in his career with the Magic.
Orlando had O’Neal for a precious four years, but his presence on the franchise remained constant throughout. The Magic as an organization were always chasing the high and the spirit of his presence.
O’Neal would become a champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. But he was a different player in Orlando — a mixture of power, size and athleticism that no one in the league understood how to handle. He would be just as likely to lead a fast break as he was to trail and finish at the rim. He was a freak athlete.
No player is culturally more important to the Magic.
He literally gave Orlando as a city an identity beyond Disney by shattering backboards and taking this small-market team to the pinnacle of the NBA. The whole NBA world revolved around him for the better part of two decades.
The city itself is probably not the bustling metropolis it has become if not for O’Neal being here. The Magic certainly are not the same franchise without him and his outsized presence.