Before winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, future Hall of Famer and current NBA on TNT/NBATV analyst Shaquille O’Neal began his career with the Orlando Magic, who drafted him with the No. 1 overall on May 17, 1992. In his four seasons, he helped lead the Magic from the bottom of the East to the pinnacle of a championship 20 years ago. Following the 1995-96 season, O’Neal became a free agent and decided to sign with the Lakers. Despite playing for other the aforementioned Lakers, Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, O’Neal always made his home in Orlando, FL and this past Friday night, the team he first played for honored him in a big way.
On Friday night, versus the Detroit Pistons, the Orlando Magic inducted O’Neal into their Hall of Fame. O’Neal joins former teammate and the Magic first overall pick Nick Anderson and the team’s first general manager Pat Williams.
In his four seasons (1992-96) with the Magic, O’Neal averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 328 games. The Magic won 208 out of those 328 chances, winning 50 games or more in each of those three seasons.
O’Neal was honored before the Magic’s Friday night tilt versus the Detroit Pistons at the Amway Center, who defeated the Magic 111-97. O’Neal also joined the FOX Sports Florida broadcast team of David Steele and former teammate Jeff Turner to help call some of the action in the second quarter on Friday night.
“This is a great city. A great organization. The people here were great. It was a fabulous time,” O’Neal said at the induction ceremony earlier in the day on Friday.
“Being a young man growing into an adult here. We won a lot of games. We had that heart break in 95. That still kind of upsets me. B Hill [Brian Hill] knows. Nick knows. Jeff knows. We could have beaten those guys blind folded, but we let one get away.”
When the Magic selected O’Neal with the first pick of the 1992 out of Louisiana State University, he made an impact right away as the team went 41-41 in 1992-93, barely missing the playoffs as the Indiana Pacers overtook them for the No. 8 and final playoff spot. O’Neal won Rookie of the Year averaging 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.
In the off-season then Magic head coach Matt Guokas stepped down as head coach and was replaced by Brian Hill. In the draft that summer, the Magic selected with the No. 1 overall pick Chris Webber out of Michigan, but dealt him to the Golden State Warriors for No. 3 overall pick Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway out of them Memphis State and three future first-round picks.
The new dynamic duo of O’Neal and Hardaway lead the Magic to their first 50-win season in franchise history going 50-32 making the playoffs as the No. Seed in the East. The first playoff series was one to forget as they were swept 3-0 by the eventual Eastern Conference runner-up Indiana Pacers 3-0.
The team added some much needed championship experience in the off-season signing free agent forward Horace Grant, who alongside future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson win three straight titles in the early 1990s.
The quintet of Grant, Hardaway, O’Neal and sharp shooters Anderson and Dennis Scott became one of the most dynamic starting five in the NBA.
The team won 57 games in 1994-95 winning their first Atlantic Division title in team history and the No. 1 overall Seed in the East. They were an incredible 39-2 at home. O’Neal averaged 29.3 points, 13.2 boards and 2.9 blocks per contest
The Magic won their first playoff series defeating the Boston Celtics 3-1. In the East Semifinals, they outlasted Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls defeating them in six games.
They battled tooth and nail with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but defeated them in seven games, becoming the second fastest team to appear in the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, the young Magic in Game 1 of The Finals versus the more experienced Houston Rockets could not hold on to a double-digit lead and fell in overtime 120-118. The Magic were swept by the Rockets in four games, capturing their second straight title and become the first team in NBA history to not only win the title as a No. 6 Seed, but defeated four teams with 50-plus regular season wins in the postseason to win the title.
The Magic played like a team on a mission the next season as they went 60-22 capturing a second consecutive Atlantic Division title and the No. 2 Seed in the East, bested by the 72-10 record of the Bulls, the best regular season in NBA history. O’Neal averaged 26.6 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on the season.
In the playoffs, they swept the Detroit Pistons 3-0. In the Semis, they took care of the Atlanta Hawks in five games. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls and an in shape Jordan were too much for the Magic to handle.
The Bulls made things difficult for the Magic right from the opening tip winning Game 1 121-83, the worst playoff loss in Magic history. The Bulls overcame an 18-point halftime lead in Game 2 to win 92-88 going up 2-0. The Bulls destroyed the Magic in Game 3 winning 86-67 and they completed the sweep in Game 4 winning 101-86 to advance back to the NBA Finals and eventually outlasting the Western Conference champion Seattle Supersonics 4-2 to win their fourth title in six seasons and the beginning of their second three-peat.
The Magic were never the same again as mentioned earlier O’Neal left in free agency for the Lakers. Hardaway was eventually traded to the Suns in the off-season three years later. Scott, Anderson and Grant also eventually moved on as well.
While he did eventually win titles in Los Angeles and Miami, O’Neal wishes that he would have stayed and finished the task in Orlando.
“I truly believe that I would have stayed there at least with the team we had, Penny, myself, I believe we could have gotten one or two,” he said on NBATV’s “Gametime” earlier in the week.
While he put the Magic on the map with his play on the court, O’Neal also became one of the game’s biggest personalities at the time. Not only was he an All-Star, dipped his toe into Hollywood a little bit staring in the movies “Blue Chips” and “Kazak.”
He also delved into music and his 1993 debut album “Shaq Diesel,” received platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America. O’Neal was also a guest rapper on the late great Michael Jackson’s song “2 Bad” from his 1995 album, “HIStory.”
While his career in Orlando may have been a short one, O’Neal’s four seasons in Orlando were ones not to forget and his overall career is one that some of the current Magic players respect and enjoyed.
Current Magic forward Channing Frye was once asked by O’Neal early in his career if he could get his shoes after the game because one of his sons was a fan of his.
“You look up to the guy,” Frye said of that first meeting. “Were vastly different players. I think at the end of it, everybody watched ‘Blue Chips’. Everybody watched ‘Blue Chips.’ I don’t know if everybody watched ‘Kazaam,’ but we make mistakes sometimes.”
Forward and Long Island, NY native Tobias Harris said on Friday that he and his younger brother Tyler watched “Kazaam,” and they really liked the personality that O’Neal brought to his character.
“It just showed his personality. He was able to do a lot of things off the floor. Just his whole charisma and his spirit. I think is probably one of the best things about him.”
There are very few players in NBA history that can come into the league and make an impact from day one. Have the ability to bring it on the court and be even more amazing off of it. O’Neal was able to do that in Orlando and those teams also brought a style of play that was must see television.
On top of that, O’Neal said he learned in Orlando how to become a leader on the court and while it did not lead the Magic to a title, it all came together for him in L.A. and in Miami
He said earlier in the week on NBATV’s “Gametime” that Guokas said to him in his early days with the Magic, “You’re our leader. The team is yours. We go as far as you take us.”
“I just wanted people to remember my name and just wanted to be like the greats before me. David Robinson, Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Patrick Ewing.”
The unfortunate thing about this great story is that it did not end with a championship. With that being said, it did have a lot of good times in the beginning and in the middle and despite a rough patch at the end, it ended with the Magic honoring the player that put them on the map with his induction into their Hall of Fame and very soon O’Neal will receive the ultimate honor by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“If they’re going to have a Hall of Fame, Shaquille O’Neal has to be in the Magic Hall of Fame,” Hill, now a co-host of the pre-game show Magic Live on FOX Sports Florida said of his former player this past Friday.
“One of the NBA’s greatest all-time players. Obviously a great career here in Orlando and just a wonderful guy to be around and a lot of fun to coach.”
Information, Statistics and quotations are courtesy of 3/26/15 2 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Isiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal; 3/27/15 6:30 p.m. “Magic Live” on FOX Sports Florida with Dante Marchitelli and Brian Hill; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaquille_O’Neal; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando_Magic; www.basketball-reference.com/playoffs/NBA_1995_finals.html.