As Shaquille O’Neal gets set to be enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, many remember the big man for his dominating performances for the Los Angeles Lakers. With Kobe Bryant by his side, O’Neal won an unprecedented three championships in a row, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Yet it wasn’t Los Angeles that made O’Neal into the terrorizing presence that he was.
Taken first overall in the 1992 draft by the Orlando Magic, O’Neal, then a wide eyed 20-year-old, made his impact felt right away in Orlando. O’Neal began wrecking havoc on the league seemingly the second he stepped on the parquet floor in the old “O-Rena,” averaging nearly 24 points and 14 rebounds his rookie year, earning him Rookie of the Year honors, as well as an All-Star nod.
Three more years came and went with O’Neal continuing to be a man amongst small children, leading the Magic to their first playoff appearance, then their first NBA Finals appearance. The former LSU Tiger, along with then sidekick Penny Hardaway were set to lead the Magic for what many believed would be forever, bringing championships to Orlando by the boat load.
Then, it all came crashing down.
After losing in the Eastern Conference finals to the eventual champion Chicago Bulls, the Magic and O’Neal hit a stalemate. The seven-footer wanted to stay in Orlando, and made it clear when he was added to the franchises’ Hall of Fame in the Amway Center he wished he had, but was low balled by the team, ultimately leaving for Los Angeles and what appeared to be bigger, and better opportunities.
The Magic, in turn, struggled, despite having Hardaway still in the fold. They were never the same after O’Neal left, well, not until they hit the jackpot in the lottery once again in 2004 with Dwight Howard.
Despite his less than ideal exit from the franchise, and comments he made after leaving, O’Neal’s time with the Magic can’t be forgotten or overlooked.
If not for O’Neal, Orlando may have never become the basketball town that it is today. The man commonly known as “The Big Aristotle” changed the way people looked at Orlando, and helped make Orlando the town that it is today.
As we look back on his career, Shaq is mostly remembered for his time with the Lakers and all the glory he brought them, but his time in Orlando was equally as important. Without Orlando, O’Neal wouldn’t have become as big of a transcendent players as he did, without O’Neal, Orlando wouldn’t have developed into the basketball hotspot it now is.
Yes his departure from the team and city was not the best, but O’Neal still changed everything for the Magic, and that’s what he should be remembered for. This is a time to celebrate Shaq for everything he did on the court, from bringing down backboards, to taking the Magic to their first NBA Finals appearance, and appreciate everything he’s done, and continues to do in the community.
The past is the past, it can’t be changed. Now we sit and cheer as one of, if not the greatest player in Orlando Magic history gets the enshrinement he deserves.
Thank you Shaq for your time in Orlando, and congrats on the well deserved honors.