Shaquille O'Neal remains as large as the No. 32 jersey hanging above Orlando Magic

Shaquille O'Neal remains one of the biggest and most magnetic figures in Orlando Magic history. Despite plenty of controversy he still casts a large shadow on the franchise he helped establish.
Shaquille O'Neal was always a larger-than-life figure with the Orlando Magic. Now he gets a larger-than-life honor in his adopted home.
Shaquille O'Neal was always a larger-than-life figure with the Orlando Magic. Now he gets a larger-than-life honor in his adopted home. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

There is still an aura about Shaquille O'Neal.

When he walks into a room, it is impossible not to know he is there. If his size does not do that, then his personality will fill the entire room.

O'Neal will always be the center of attention. Everyone's eyes naturally point toward him.

That is O'Neal. Everyone knew from his time at LSU when he became the No. 1 pick in the 1992 Draft that he was destined for greatness. O'Neal was inevitable.

From the moment he touched down in Orlando as the top pick in 1992, he became the center of the Magic's universe. He was the team's first All-Star and the first player who could lift them into the postseason. The Magic mattered because of O'Neal.

He was larger than life from the start. He remains larger than life.

It was fitting then that O'Neal would tower over the franchise that started his career. It is fitting that his presence would always be felt with his jersey hanging above the team in the Kia Center rafters.

O'Neal was larger than life and he deserved a larger-than-life honor.

This honor, though, took O'Neal by surprise. And a reflective O'Neal understood something was different about his four years in Orlando and how that set up his Hall-of-Fame career.

"It's definitely unexpected," O'Neal said before Tuesday's game and jersey retirement ceremony. "When we did the ring of honor thing [the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame], I thought that was it. I am honored to be the first. It was definitely unexpected. I was not expecting this at all. I will take it. The No. 32 will probably look very good up there."

O'Neal's presence in Magic history is still a big one. It is impossible not to tell the Magic's story without mentioning O'Neal several times. There may not even be a franchise if not for that lucky ping-pong ball that delivered O'Neal to Orlando.

In four seasons, he averaged 27.2 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game and 2.8 blocks per game. He ranks sixth in points, second in scoring average, third in rebounds, second in rebound average and second in blocks. He led the team to its first playoff appearance, first playoff series victory and first NBA Finals.

He changed the franchise's direction completely, giving them notoriety beyond their success on the court. He made the Magic an international brand. He made Orlando a city bigger than it previously was.

"When Shaq came in, he changes your life," Dennis Scott said after the Magic's practice Monday. "He changes how we do things. He changes how we travel. We flew commercial. All of a sudden, we had a new plane. We went from a van to two buses. We went from a regular hotel to Ritz Carltons. It's because of Shaq. That's the impact he had for this franchise and this city."

That was the presence O'Neal brought to the team. He changed everything about how the franchise was perceived and what the franchise could do.

His teammates always loved him -- and more than just for the attention he brought with him and how much he pushed the franchise to cater to its stars and players more. As Anfernee Hardaway said during the retirement ceremony, he was only great because Shaquille O'Neal lifted him and made him great. O'Neal would say the same for someone like Hardaway.

Retiring O'Neal's jersey was long overdue. The fact that it took so long and the Magic seemed so hesitant to retire his jersey perhaps made this moment all the more special.

Magic CEO Alex Martins said the time was right to retire jerseys now during the team's 35th anniversary season, moving off the team's policy since establishing the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame 10 years ago of meeting specific criteria for the elevated honor.

Retiring jerseys was an ongoing internal discussion, Martins said. This anniversary appeared to be the right time to honor O'Neal.

"To be the first to have their number retired by an organization is a very special evening," Martins said before Tuesday's game. "I think that there is no one more deserving to be the first than Shaq. Shaq put the Orlando Magic on the map. The foundation of his Hall of Fame career started right here in Orlando in his first four seasons. All the accolades and awards he received over the course of his career started here."

In many ways that is what O'Neal's return felt like: A homecoming.

This is where his NBA journey started. Everything O'Neal built in his career began with his time in Orlando.

O'Neal's tenure in Orlando was something different. He took the league by storm and was a tour de force from the moment he stepped on the floor.

But even with his move away from Orlando, he remained a presence in the city. He remained a part of the City Beautiful in some capacity, even if he was not on the floor for the hometown team.

O'Neal may not have always received the warmest welcome when he returned wearing a different team's jersey. The showman and competitor in O'Neal did not allow him to be gracious with his former home, but Orlando never left O'Neal.

But Orlando always meant something to him. It was still home. It was the foundation for everything he accomplished.

That much was clear as he reflected on his time with the franchise he put on the map.

"There's an old saying: 'Never forget where you came from,'" O'Neal said before Tuesday's game. "My professional career started here. I've been living here mostly all of my life. The fans have been hospitable. I never thought this day would happen. When I came for the ring ceremony, I thought that would be the last time I would be honored here. . . . But like I said, I'll take it."

In his retirement, O'Neal has always said the right things about his time in Central Florida. He said he wished basketball was not a business, and it would have made sense for him to stay.

Maybe that is revisionist history. There will always be part of the Magic fan base and part of Magic history that will wonder with regret over O'Neal's departure. It is a mistake the franchise has never really lived down.

The title O'Neal's talent promised did not happen in Orlando. As quickly as O'Neal appeared to change the Magic, he was gone. And the Magic as a franchise was left chasing his shadow for nearly a decade.

Still, O'Neal's time in Orlando persisted. Even though he went on to win titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat and have a sprawling career in the spotlight, people still return to his time with the Orlando Magic.

The 1995 team still engenders great memories for Magic fans and throughout the league as one of the best young teams in the league's history. They were not merely a flash in the pan. Even though their star burned bright, they resonated in Orlando and beyond.

O'Neal has accomplished a lot in his time in the league. This honor meant a lot.

"This, truthfully speaking, will probably be the most impressive one," O'Neal said. "To start here, to put in the work and play four years and be honored this way will probably be the most special one. When I went to L.A., I kind of forced it. I've got to be up there. This one, when we did the ring ceremony upstairs, I thought that was it. When you delivered the message on TNT, I wanted to cry. But I don't cry in public."

If there is one thing Orlando had over all the other places O'Neal played, it is that this is the place where O'Neal created a new legacy. Everyone in Magic history has had to measure up to his long shadow since Shaq.

Those are big Size 22 shoes to fill. They always have been.

That is why O'Neal ultimately had to get his jersey retired. This team is his legacy. It is where everything started.

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The Magic are not the Magic without him.