THE SHAQ/PENNY YEARS

By John Denton

There weren’t many wins in those first three seasons for the Magic, but that all changed in 1992 with the drafting of O’Neal. From the very start, there was fretting that O’Neal didn’t want to play in a smaller market in Orlando. But when he arrived in Orlando, Williams and the fan base breathed a sigh of relief and O’Neal made an instant impact.

The Magic barely missed the playoffs in O’Neal’s first season and they became a postseason fixture a year later when Hardaway joined the team.

Former GM John Gabriel made the controversial decision to trade the 1993 top overall pick (Chris Webber) for Hardaway and three future first-round picks. The move proved to be a stroke of genius as the Magic quickly had the game’s most dominant center in O’Neal and a two-time first-team All-NBA point guard in Hardaway.

Teaming with homegrown talent in Dennis Scott and Anderson and marquee free-agent acquisition Horace Grant, O’Neal and Hardaway closed down the Boston Garden in 1995, vanquished Michael Jordan in the second round of the playoffs and whipped Indiana in a Game 7 that is considered the loudest crowd environment in Orlando Arena history.

Anderson figured prominently in what is considered the most important play in franchise history in Game 1 of the second-round playoff series against the Bulls. With Chicago in possession of the ball and holding a one-point lead, Anderson caught up with Jordan as he drove up the floor. Jordan was unable to hear the warnings of his teammates because of the ear-splitting noise from Orlando’s fans, and Anderson poked the ball away. Hardaway took it the length of the court and fed Grant for a game-winning dunk. Afterward, the voice of the Magic, David Steele, continued to yelp, ``Anderson stole the ball! Anderson stole the ball! Anderson stole the ball!’’

Orlando wasn’t as lucky in the NBA Finals as Anderson missed four free throws in the final seconds, allowing the Houston Rockets to steal Game 1. Houston again rallied in Game 2, and Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon was too much even for O’Neal to handle in the post in Houston’s four-game sweep.

After Orlando lost in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals, O’Neal sent shock waves through the basketball world when he jilted the Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers. The defection, which was announced in Atlanta at the Summer Olympics, devastated a Magic franchise that was convinced that it was positioned to form a dynasty in Orlando for years to come.

``We really thought we were going to win three, four or five titles if we would have just stayed together,’’ Anderson said once.

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