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Reflecting Back on Shaq's Magic and NBA Career

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

By John Denton
Sept. 8, 2016

ORLANDO – Twenty years have passed since Shaquille O’Neal staggered the Orlando Magic with his defection elsewhere, and while time has soothed that devastation, it also has lent a heavy dose of perspective.

``Big Aristotle,’’ ``Big Daddy’’ and ``Big Diesel’’ also ultimately became the ``Big Gypsy’’ and ``Big Agitator’’ over the rest of his illustrious and power-packed NBA career.

Sure, O’Neal won four championships and bulldozed his way to all-time great status, and that career that will be honored with Friday night’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. But along the way, O’Neal’s wide wake was always littered with broken backboards, burned bridges and busted bonds.

The Magic were understandably rocked by O’Neal’s controversial departure in 1996, especially considering that he was taking with him a string of championships that Orlando figured to win with the dominating 7-foot-1, 330-pound center in the middle.

When O’Neal jilted Orlando, the blame game naturally ensued. Was Orlando not big enough for O’Neal? Was he insulted by the Magic’s initial contract offer? Was it the fan poll in the newspaper? Was the rift between he and rising star Penny Hardaway to blame?

Time would ultimately prove that what played out in Orlando was not the exception, but instead the rule. Maybe, just maybe, it was Shaq being Shaq.

Similar bickering and boredom led to O’Neal repeating the feat in Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix with messy divorces and enough drama to fill up a day-time soap opera.

So, for all of his basketball greatness, all of the largeness in his game, his power and his gregarious personality, O’Neal always had a way of both being dominant and demeaning, being powerful and petty and being awesome and agitating. At the same time – and usually with a mixture of snarl and smile.

So, as he’s set to enter basketball’s Hall of Fame, forgive Magic fans – and maybe those in L.A. and Miami as well – if they don’t exactly jump to their feet to cheer. From the first time he ever dunked in the Orlando Arena, most knew that the day would come when the behemoth O’Neal would be considered one of the basketball’s all-time greats.

That rumble toward greatness started in Orlando, where he was the face of the Magic from 1992-96. However, it bruised and banged along and ended elsewhere, and there is a bit of sadness that comes with that still-stinging defection.

Even from O’Neal, who said during his 2015 induction into the Magic Hall of Fame and again this past spring in an ESPN 30 for 30 segment that he should have never left Orlando.

``Do I regret it?’’ O’Neal asked, referring to his gutting departure from Orlando two decades ago. ``I never fully answered that, but I regret it sometimes. This is where I started and I should have stayed.’’

Even now, debate rages over what O’Neal said being good to hear or simply another dig making things more painful. Where there is zero debate, however, is the size of the impact that O’Neal had in Orlando for four seasons.

Big – very big. Big such as O’Neal’s Paul Bunyan-like size-23, triple-EEE shoes.

O’Neal, the first overall pick of the 1992 NBA Draft, ranks among the franchise’s all-time leaders in several categories, including rebounding (second, 3,691), blocked shots (second, 824), field goals made (third, 3,208) and points scored (fifth, 8,019). His 27.2 points per game average is the second-highest in team history. He helped Orlando reach the 1995 NBA Finals and the 1996 East Finals, but he was vanquished by Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon and Chicago’s Michael Jordan and he never was able to bring a championship to Central Florida.

O’Neal is also the franchise leader in another odd statistical category: NBA backboards taken down at two. On Feb. 8 of 1993 in Phoenix, O’Neal followed up an Anthony Bowie with a dunk so thunderous that it made the basket stanchion slowly collapse down to near floor level.

Then, on April 23, 1993, O’Neal did something even more awe-inspiring by dunking so hard that he broke the backboard down from the support stanchion. O’Neal’s strength was so other-worldly that his backboard-breaking dunk stole the thunder from Anderson, who scored a career-best 50 points that night.

``He brought it down! He brought the whole goal down!!!’’ current Fox Sports Florida play-by-play announcer David Steele screamed that night to listeners on the Magic Radio Network.

O’Neal also lifted up the fledgling Magic onto his boulder-sized shoulders, Steele remembered recently.

``Shaq put the Orlando Magic on the map – not just in the state of Florida or in the United States; he was this global phenomenon,’’ said Steele, one of just three Magic employees to work for the franchise all 27 years of its existence. ``When we traveled, it was like a traveling rock show. Everybody wanted to see Shaq.’’

And then, on July 18, 1996, he was gone. O’Neal went on to win three of the titles he seemed destined to win in Orlando in Los Angeles, the city where former agent Leonard Armato always wanted the superstar center to be so that he could fully capitalize on his marketing/acting/rapping potential.

In a NBA TV conversation that aired earlier this week, O’Neal blamed his fizzled relationship with Hardaway in Orlando on, ``the business of basketball,’’ refusing to acknowledge that he was jealous of Hardaway’s rising stardom in Nike – something that came out in the ESPN documentary when he and Hardaway portrayed themselves as buddies.

Sure enough, the same thing would ultimately happen in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson and in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley.

With the Lakers, O’Neal more than lived up to the star big-man lineage of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by leading L.A. to a three-peat of titles. But along the way, he sniped at then-owner Jerry Buss, fought constantly with Bryant in another petulant power struggle, ripped Jackson on the way out of town and allowed his conditioning to slip. When he once waited until just before training camp to have surgery on an arthritic toe, O’Neal cracked: ``I was hurt on company time and I will heal on company time.’’

Jackson, whom O’Neal once referred to as a second father, was dubbed ``Benedict Arnold’’ when O’Neal demanded and received a trade to Miami in 2004. Whereas O’Neal left Orlando before ever winning a title, his messy divorce from the Lakers busted up a dynasty that always seemed to have more titles in it than just three.

With the Heat, O’Neal was met with great fanfare, but his stay there was filled with tremendous highs and lows. He admittedly played a major role in Stan Van Gundy’s resignation as head coach and he only ceded control of the team to Wade after the guard almost single-handedly won the Heat the 2006 NBA title – and got O’Neal a fourth ring.

Years later, a cooling of the relationship with Wade and a heated confrontation with Riley followed, resulting in another ugly exit. Even after he got to Phoenix and his career was clearly lagging, O’Neal continued to rip on Riley’s decisions.

Singular seasons followed in Cleveland and Boston with O’Neal playing just 53 and 37 games because of injuries. Just as O’Neal used to playfully criticize hated rival Patrick Ewing of ``hanging on’’ and playing well past his prime, O’Neal did the same thing. He was but a shadow of the player who averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks a game while shooting 58.2 percent from the floor and 52.7 percent from the free throw line over his career.

Time, of course, lends perspective to most all situations. The Magic were wise enough to realize that what transpired with O’Neal’s messy divorce from Orlando in 1996 repeated itself in other cities. No matter the lingering sting of his exit, O’Neal’s earthquake-sized impact on the Magic was enormous. The Magic acted accordingly by being the first to honor him with an induction into the team’s Hall of Fame.

Now, with O’Neal on the precipice of entering the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, the Magic have put aside any grudges and ill will and congratulated arguably their best player ever on reaching the game’s pinnacle.

Again, time lends perspective.

``On behalf of the DeVos Family and entire Orlando Magic organization, we extend our heartfelt congratulations to Shaquille O’Neal on his well-deserved induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame,’’ Magic CEO Alex Martins said on Thursday in a release. ``With his larger-than-life personality, overpowering play, and generous community endeavors, Shaq made an indelible mark while in Magic pinstripes. Without a doubt, his great contributions to our organization and city will never, ever be forgotten.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.