Posted Jul 1 2010 10:23AM
If LeBron James bails out on the Cavaliers, at least the hoopaholic citizens of Cleveland -- like the passengers on the Titanic -- will have had fair warning. This iceberg has been looming for more than two years and the end will have come inevitably as the band played hymns into the night before the bow dipped below the cold waterline.
Back in 1996, it landed on the Orlando Magic like a meteor from out of the blue.
"We were team of the future," said senior vice president Pat Williams, then the general manager. "We had a solid nucleus. I don't think anybody saw it coming or even envisioned it."
Then Shaquille O'Neal left.
Seemingly one minute Superman was flexing his muscles over Disney World and in the next he was jetting off for fame, fortune and a higher profile in Hollywood with the Lakers, leaving Orlando feeling like a small world after all.
"It was the ultimate punch in the stomach," Williams said. "At the moment that it happens, there are all kinds of emotions running through you. Disappointment, shock, betrayal. You step back and take a look at yourself as an organization and say, 'What's wrong with us? Where did it go wrong? Why were we rejected?'
"Hey, I'll be the first one to admit that it takes a while to pick yourself back up and recover. That would be the hard part for Cleveland or for anyone."
In 1995, O'Neal had led the upstart Magic to the NBA Finals, where they lost 4-0 to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Their run in the 1996 playoffs ended in an Eastern Conference finals sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
But Shaq had Penny Hardaway as his All-Star running mate and the world for the foreseeable future was still supposed to be their oyster.
Yes, Shaq was due a raise after his fourth NBA season and the Magic's initial offer was for $55 million. Where was he going to go to get more money and to have a better chance of winning a championship than right at home in Orlando?
"The Lakers, as you'll recall, logically couldn't get him because they were way over the salary cap," Williams said. "Then Mr. Jerry West went to work and performed his magic."
First, there was the trade of Vlade Divac to Charlotte for the No. 13 pick ... some kid named Kobe Bryant. A few days later, the Lakers sent Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver in exchange for virtually nothing and that opened up huge space under the salary cap.
"That's when all of the fears and tremors set in," Williams said. "What before that was considered impossible suddenly was very real. It rocked us."
What puzzled and bamboozled and left the Magic with the empty feeling in the pit of their stomachs is the same question that could gnaw at the fans in Cleveland for years -- why?
Just as LeBron's Cavaliers have won 61 and 66 games -- both the best regular-season marks in the league -- over the past two seasons, so were Shaq's Magic rolling with back-to-back seasons of 57 and 60 wins in 1995 and '96.
There were occasional gripes at coach Brian Hill. There was talk that O'Neal was envious of the high off-court profile that had developed around Hardaway and his 'L'il Penny' persona.
Maybe the last straw was when Team USA was training in Orlando prior to the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the Orlando Sentinel ran a front page poll that asked: "Is Shaq worth $80 million?" The overwhelming response to the poll was: No.
"I've always heard that his Olympic teammates rode Shaq hard over that poll, really killed him," Williams said. "He's got his pride. I guess he had other reasons, too. Maybe that was the thing that sent him over the edge and off to be a movie star. I always felt his agent, Leonard Armato, always wanted Shaq in Hollywood to be a bigger movie star and a better presence. The truth is he made better movies when he was in Orlando. Look it up."
But Shaq's departure -- for $121 million over seven years -- left the script in Orlando reading like a disaster movie for nearly a decade.
"Our owner (Rich DeVos) and his family were understandably devasted," Williams said. "We thought we had done everything the right way to build this team into one that would be challenging for championships for a decade.
"The Orlando Magic were a team on the rise in the NBA, a real draw and hot item in our community all around Central Florida. And then all of sudden we're not much of an attraction anymore.
"You're patching and plugging, putting fingers in dike and trying to keep the ship afloat, just to be respectable. It was a lot of tough sledding. You don't replace one of the best centers of all-time with Rony Seikaly and Felton Spencer. But we tried."
In 1997, the Magic tapped a pair of Hall of Famers -- Chuck Daly and Julius Erving -- to be their coach and a front office executive. But the front office cache did not win a playoff series in two seasons.
In 2000, it was the Magic who went on the offensive, signing free agents Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady and came close to reeling in Tim Duncan.
"The Admiral, David Robinson, sailed in from Hawaii at the last minute and torpedoed our armada," Williams said. "Think of how that would have changed the NBA if Tim Duncan had left San Antonio. It would have changed the balance like when Shaq went to L.A. But Duncan stayed, Hill had his injuries, the plan never worked out."
And the misery continued. It was eight years after Shaq's departure when the Magic won the NBA Draft Lottery and chose Dwight Howard with the No. 1 pick in 2004 and began the climb back contenders as the summer of LeBronmania hits.
"We don't know how it's gonna play out. Nobody can predict it," Williams. "We're living proof in Orlando that things can come out of nowhere that you never expected.
"This is gonna be the biggest summer of musical chairs. We've never seen anything like it. The league had a good playoff run, the best Finals in years with L.A. and Boston, the highest TV ratings since the Jordan years and now the most anticipated free agency in any sport. This will be remembered as a highlight period."
Even if it leads to a new Dark Age in Cleveland, Williams has proof that there can eventually be light.
"I think we knew at some point that we could come back, that it was gonna happen," he said. "There's no way to rush it, even though we like to think there is. Felton Spencer and Rony Seikaly are not gonna speed up the process.
"But you know what? If Shaq had not left we would not have eventually been bad enough to have had all the ping pong balls we had in the lottery. Then we wouldn't have Dwight Howard today.
"I know Shaq went to the Lakers and got his three championships. But if Dwight goes on and plays for another 12 years, we'll get ours. You've got to believe."
For a day, for a decade, for your sanity.
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