Friday was a special day for the Orlando Magic and the city of Orlando. There was a buzz in the air, a different kind of feeling surrounding the Magic's upcoming matchup with the Detroit Pistons, but it had nothing to do with the game. It all had to do with that the team was doing beforehand.
Nearly one year after opening their team-centric Hall of Fame, and enshrining their first class led by co-founder Pat Williams, the Magic honored another one of their most important people in franchise history. Despite his rocky exit, and his bashful words throughout the years, the Magic honored former number-one overall pick Shaquille O`Neal as the second player to be added to their Hall of Fame, joining his former teammate, and the team's first-ever draft pick, Nick Anderson.
O'Neal, now a broadcaster for Turner Sports, came into the league and began dominating right away. During the press conference to announce O'Neal as the next member of the Hall, Magic CEO Alex Martins listed O'Neal's impressive achievements with the franchise, including a Rookie of the Year award, First Team All-Rookie honors, Second Team All-NBA honors, two Third Team All-NBA honors, and four All-Star Game appearances. On top of those accomplishment, O'Neal also ranks near the top of the franchise leaderboard in rebounds (second), blocks (second), field goals made (third) and points scored (fifth).
Martins, who was with the franchise when O'Neal was drafted, touched on just how important O'Neal was to the city. "He was a leader in helping the Magic win the 1995 Eastern Conference Championship and reach its first NBA Finals in 1995," said the CEO. "He came to us in our infancy, and he truly put Orlando and the Orlando community, when it came to professional sports and international acclaim, on the map. In addition to all of his professional accomplishments, he was a pillar of our community; always giving back, and always making a positive impact, particularly with the children of Central Florida."
O'Neal, candid as ever, appeared emotional when Martins called him up to address the crowd, wiping tears from his eyes. The dominant big man was clearly honored to have been chosen for the team's Hall of Fame, and took every opportunity he could to thank team owner Rich DeVos for what he did for him. "I’d like to personally thank you and your family for giving me the opportunity. As a youngster I always wanted to be a part of a professional family... Here, now, today, I’ve always wanted to say thank you for giving me the opportunity for that. I love you for that. I appreciate you."
The four-time NBA champion also spent time reminiscing on his past, including a story on the first time he met the DeVos family.
"I could remember the first time I was contacted by the DeVos family, like 10 days before the draft, because it was rumored that I was going to be the first pick but wasn’t really sure, and I met the lovely DeVos family. He sent his beautiful private jet to pick me up--I was in San Antonio--I came to Orlando and we had a secret meeting. We flew down, met the family, met Alex [Martins], and he informed me that I was going to be the number-one pick and it was a great experience."
With former coach Brian Hill and former teammates Anderson and Jeff Turner in attendance, O'Neal was able to go back and talk about the team's heartbreak in the 1995 NBA Finals. "We won a lot of games, we had that heartbreak in ’95; that still kind of upsets me. You know, B. Hill knows, Nick [Anderson] knows, Jeff [Turner] knows, that we could’ve beat those guys blindfolded. But, you know, we let them get away."
Admittedly, when he received the phone call to be honored, he was a little bit surprised. Multiple times O'Neal said that it was "very, very unexpected" and that it wasn't necessary that the franchise do such a thing.
"It was a great honor. It was very, very unexpected. I got the call and I couldn't believe it," said the 7-footer.
"It's unexpected because I came here to win. We won games, but then we didn't and I made a business decision [to leave as a free agent] ... It was all business. Do I regret it? I never fully answer it. I regret it sometimes. Is this where I started and should have stayed? I actually wish they made it a law that whoever drafts you, you gotta stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA championships]"
While leaving in 1996 was a business decision, O'Neal also said his impatient nature also influenced it. "I just wish I would've had more patience. It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that [is] I wanted to win then. Even when I got there [to Los Angeles], I still got bashed and it still took four years to win. But I was very impatient. I was very young, and I thought that if I go there with those guys out there, that I could win right away. And that wasn't the case."
His move to the Lakers hurt the Magic as a franchise, but O'Neal admits that if he could go back, things would be different. "Knowing what I know now, I would've stayed," he said. "I would've stayed, fulfilled my seven years, and then after seven years looked at it differently."
Though he can't go back and change what happened, his statements on wishing he would've stayed do bring up some very interesting questions about the franchise's past, and the landscape of the NBA in general. Would Kobe Bryant have five rings? Would Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls have been able to win three straight championships once again? How much of a dynasty would the San Antonio Spurs have been able to build? The list can go on and on.
Magic head coach James Borrego said the first time he saw O'Neal as a coach was with the San Antonio Spurs. "The most memorable part when I first saw him in person, it was a game I’m sitting behind the bench, and just to see him physically play against Tim Duncan, and the size, the dominance, the strength, just how overpowering he was is just a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’m not sure we’ll ever see someone that size with that kind of presence that he had."
Between the first and second quarters of Friday's game, Martins and Magic chairman Dan DeVos presented O'Neal with a small commemorative item at center court. The bruising big man received a standing ovation from much of the crowd, and was cheered for loudly each time he was shown on the in-arena jumbotron throughout the contest.
The continued celebration of the team's greatest players was once again a hit. O'Neal seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture by the team and the reaction he received from the fans.
There may be a lot of unanswered questions due to some of his comments, but one thing is for certain: O'Neal is, and always will be, a Magic Hall of Famer, and the most influential player in the franchise's history.