Shaquille O'Neal's shadow never left the Orlando Magic, his No. 32 won't either

The Orlando Magic will retire their first jersey giving the honor to a man who still casts a shadow over the entire franchise and in almost every way defines its history.

The Orlando Magic will make Shaquille O'Neal's No. 32 the first jersey they retire and hang from the rafters at Kia Center.
The Orlando Magic will make Shaquille O'Neal's No. 32 the first jersey they retire and hang from the rafters at Kia Center. / RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports

It is impossible now to understand just how much Shaquille O'Neal changed the Orlando Magic.

When Pat Williams somehow returned home from the 1992 NBA Draft Lottery with the top overall pick, everyone knew things were about to change for the young franchise in the small city in Central Florida. They perhaps did not know or understand what a superstar could do for a franchise and a city.

Immediately, the Magic became playoff contenders, going 41-41 in O'Neal's rookie year. They missed the playoffs on the fourth tiebreaker. But that was just the beginning.

The Magic made their first playoff appearance in franchise history in his second season. Orlando reached its first NBA Finals in 1995 in his third year.

The Magic were on an ascent to success and it was all about O'Neal. The energy in the building was unparalleled for a young city experiencing a sports franchise for the first time. O'Neal was a rock star in Orlando in the mid-1990s.

Beyond what he did on the court, O'Neal was a cultural phenomenon. And everything the Magic have done or will do seems to revolve around the four years O'Neal donned the Magic pinstripes.

Everyone understood when the Magic began its Hall of Fame program a decade ago for its 25th anniversary season that the franchise would one day retire jerseys. Everyone understood when the team made that decision, the No. 32 had to be hanging there no matter how anyone felt about his bitter departure.

That day has finally come.

On Feb. 13 during the Orlando Magic's lone national television appearance against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the franchise will raise O'Neal's No. 32 to the rafters at Kia Center.

In four seasons with the Magic, O'Neal averaged 27.2 points per game, 11.8 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game.

He still ranks sixth in franchise history in points, second in scoring average, third in rebounds and second in blocks. He was the team's first All-Star and first player to get MVP votes -- finishing second in the 1995 season.

He was a truly dominant player and someone who completely transformed the Magic on the court. But his impact on the whole franchise goes well beyond his dominance on the court and hwo he helped create the Magic's first title contending era.

O'Neal truly transformed the franchise in every facet and aspect.

"When someone asks who was the first player to officially put the Orlando Magic on the map, the answer is simple - Shaquille O’Neal," Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a press release. "He took this franchise to new heights, both on and off the court, and his legacy is still felt within our organization today. On behalf of the DeVos family, we are excited to honor Shaquille by raising No. 32 into the rafters of the Kia Center, where it will remain forever."

It is safe to say that without the success the Magic had in those early years and anchored by O'Neal, there may not still be a franchise in Orlando. It could maybe be argued that Orlando would not be the growing metropolis it is without O'Neal's presence giving residents a sense of civic pride.

He put Orlando on the map and made the Magic one of the cool franchises in the league. It inspired the documentary This Magic Moment and is still one of the teams the league's fans think wistfully about.

O'Neal put the city and the franchise on a rocket ship to the top.

Even in his absence after his bitter departure for Los Angeles in 1996 cast a long shadow on the team. The Magic were always -- and are still probably -- chasing the high that were those early 1990s teams. Nothing may ever feel completely like it felt with O'Neal with its new feeling of success and the limitless possibility his era represented.

The Magic are still seemingly climbing out of O'Neal's shadow. It would make sense that his jersey would cast its shadow from the rafters. He is as a model every Magic player is trying to live up to.

O'Neal has made some amends with the Magic franchise his career started with. He was a young player enamored with the lights of the big city that Orlando could not provide. The Magic as an organization were too young to know really what they had in O'Neal. Both made mistakes that led to his ultimate departure.

But O'Neal has never left Orlando. And while he never won a title with the Magic, his legacy with the franchise is still an important one both for his career and for Magic history.

It would be impossible to retire any jersey for the Magic without eventually putting O'Neal's jersey in the rafters for the honor. He was simply too important for the franchise's history to leave out.

Like so many other things, O'Neal was the first to lead the Magic to anything of significance and the first to make the magic relevant on a national stage. It is fitting it will be his jersey first in the rafters.

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The Magic are what they are as a franchise because of those four seasons with O'Neal. And honoring him by retiring his jersey is a long overdue decision.