Shock came over the NBA and the sports world early Sunday as reports surfaced that Los Angeles Lakers’ legendary guard Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine dead in a Los Angeles-area helicopter crash.
That evening and in the days since, NBA teams and players have done their part to honor the memory of Bryant, who passed at just 41 years old. In Sunday’s contest at the Amway Center between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers, the teams traded violations to honor Bryant.
The Clippers controlled the tip and took a 24-second violation. Orlando reciprocated with an eight-second violation. During Bryant’s 20-year NBA career, he wore jersey Nos. 8 and 24. Throughout that career, Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, a five-time world champion, four-time All-Star Game MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time NBA Finals MVP and a league MVP.
With the exception of the 2008-09 season, Bryant and the Magic saw each other just twice per season. Still, there were some connections between the late legend and Orlando that were worth noting.
Over the next several days, we’ll be looking at several aspects of Bryant’s legendary career as it relates to the Magic. In the first part of the series, we revisit when Bryant and a former No. 1 overall pick of the Orlando Magic, center Shaquille O’Neal, became the first dynasty of the post-Michael Jordan era.
Orlando’s first superstar
It wasn’t long after the Magic selected the LSU center first overall in the 1992 NBA Draft that basketball fans in Orlando came to believe they would get to witness a dynasty before their very eyes. During the 1992-93 campaign, O’Neal was named the NBA Rookie of the Year as the Magic improved their win total by 20 from the previous season.
The following season, Orlando used the No. 1 pick to draft Michigan forward Chris Webber, but swiftly traded him to the Golden State Warriors for Memphis guard Anfernee Hardaway. Hardaway finished second to Webber for Rookie of the Year, but averaged 16 points, 6.6 assists and 2.3 steals as a rookie.
The combination of O’Neal and Hardaway looked like a dynamic duo that would take the NBA by storm for years to come. In Hardaway’s first three seasons, the Magic went from 50 wins and their first-ever playoff appearance to the NBA Finals to a franchise record 60 wins. Unfortunately for Orlando, all of those seasons would end in playoff sweeps.
After falling in three games to the Indiana Pacers in the 1994 NBA Playoffs, the Magic made a memorable playoff run in 1995 where Orlando closed the Boston Garden, handed Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls his first postseason series defeat in five years and outlasted Indiana in seven games.
Unfortunately for Orlando, its first NBA Finals appearance was marred by four straight missed free throws from guard Nick Anderson against the reigning champion Houston Rockets in Game 1. The Magic were never the same that series and went quietly in four games.
Despite going 60-22 the following season and breezing through the first two rounds, Orlando ran into the buzz saw that was the 72-10 Chicago Bulls. With a resurgent Jordan and the newly added Dennis Rodman, the Bulls swept the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals before topping the Seattle Supersonics in six games in the 1996 NBA Finals for a fourth title in six years.
In four years in Orlando, O’Neal averaged 27 points per game, made the All-Star Game each season and won one scoring title. Beyond basketball however, O’Neal was a household name, appearing in video games, movies and as a musical artist. As free agency approached, O’Neal left Orlando for the bright lights of Los Angeles and the Lakers.
New dynamic duo, same postseason results
In the same offseason that the Lakers acquired O’Neal, they made a draft day trade with the Charlotte Hornets that would change the trajectory of the franchise. For center Vlade Divac, the Lakers acquired guard Kobe Bryant. The No. 13 overall pick of the Hornets entered the NBA straight from his Philadelphia-area high school.
Bryant averaged 7.6 points as a rookie, but by year No. 2, had evolved into an NBA All-Star starter. Despite a talent-laden roster that included four All-Stars, O’Neal experienced growing pains in Los Angeles just as he had in Orlando.
After falling to the Utah Jazz in five games in the Western Conference Semifinals during the 1997 playoffs, O’Neal would watch his next two playoff trips end the same way each of his trips in Orlando did – in sweeps. The Lakers would be swept by Utah in the 1998 Western Conference Finals and then by the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference semifinals.
Bryant had replaced Hardaway as O’Neal’s superstar sidekick, but as the 1990s came to a close, the Lakers were still without a championship. That offseason, Los Angeles brought in a head coach known for getting superstars over the hump.
The dynasty begins in L.A., a new era in Orlando
With the dynamic duo of Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson delivered the Chicago Bulls six championships in an eight-year span after years of falling short. With Jordan retired, Jackson was just two years removed from a second three-peat in Chicago.
As for Hardaway, he would make the All-Star Game in each of his first two seasons post-O’Neal, but did so while missing a total of 88 total games. Hardaway played in all 50 games during the lockout-shortened 1999-2000 season, but shot just 42 percent from the field and scored a career-low 15.8 points per game.
As the Lakers brought in Jackson, the Magic were rebuilding. The same offseason, Hardaway left Orlando for the Phoenix Suns. Meanwhile, Doc Rivers was given the reins for a Magic team that came to be known for its “Heart and Hustle” in his first season as an NBA head coach.
With Darrell Armstrong being the most notable name on an overachieving team Magic that went 41-41 for the first time since O’Neal’s rookie year, Rivers was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Meanwhile, the O’Neal-Bryant combination was on to bigger things in Los Angeles.
That year, the Lakers finished an NBA-best 67-15. In the first season in Jackson’s “triangle offense”, Bryant averaged a then career-high 22.5 points per game while shooting a then career-best 47 percent from the field.
Los Angeles did feel some resistance from the Sacramento Kings in the first round but the Lakers prevailed three games to two. The next series, O’Neal found himself across the court from his former sidekick, Anfernee Hardaway, and the Phoenix Suns.
The series saw Bryant and Hardaway put up stellar performances as both averaged 21 points per game. O’Neal however, averaged better than 30 points as the Lakers downed the Suns in five games. The dynamic duo was on to the Western Conference Finals to face the deep and talented Portland Trail Blazers.
The teams split the first two games in Los Angeles, but the NBA Finals seemed an inevitability for the Lakers after taking the next two games in Portland. Down three games to one however, Portland won the next two games to force a decisive Game 7 back in Los Angeles.
It didn’t look as though the Lakers would get off the schneid as Portland led 75-60 in the final quarter. Los Angeles answered with 15 straight points to draw even and eventually went ahead for good with four straight points from Bryant. In what may have been their most iconic moment together in Los Angeles, Bryant delivered the dagger with a lob to O’Neal for a one-handed slam to put the exclamation point on the Lakers’ first NBA Finals appearance since 1991.
The 2000 NBA Finals featured the foe that O’Neal’s first NBA Finals appearance was clinched against – Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. Up two games to one, Indiana looked to have a decent chance to even the series in Game 4 as the contest went to overtime. Midway through the extra period, O’Neal fouled out.
With the Lakers nursing a 112-111 lead, Bryant scored six of the team’s final eight points to deliver a 120-118 win. Two games later, O’Neal and Bryant combined for 67 points in an NBA Finals-clinching 116-111 win for their first championship.
As Jackson had done twice before in Chicago, the Lakers would three-peat, winning the NBA Finals again in 2001 and 2002. The 2001 playoff run for the Lakers was the best in NBA history as Los Angeles went 15-1 in the postseason. An overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the lone blemish.
The run to complete the three-peat saw more bumps in the road as the Lakers trailed two games to one and then three games to two the Kings in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers would find a way to win the final two games, including Game 7 at Arco Arena to advance to a third straight NBA Finals. There, they handled the New Jersey Nets in a four-game sweep.
What was in L.A. and what could have been in Orlando
With Bryant as his co-star, O’Neal was able to accomplish in Los Angeles what he and Hardaway never could in Orlando. During that time, the 7-foot-1 superstar who was once beloved in Orlando saw himself become the villain in the City Beautiful. While Bryant had become a superstar, Hardaway was a shell of his former self.
Hardaway spent eight seasons in the NBA after leaving Orlando, but appeared in fewer than 45 games in four of those seasons and was never an All-Star again. After averaging just shy of 17 points per game in his first season in Phoenix, Hardaway never averaged more than 12 points per contest for the remainder of his career.
Bryant and O’Neal would spend eight seasons together with the Lakers, reaching the NBA Finals four times. With the exception of the lockout shortened 1998-99 season, the Lakers never won fewer than 50 games with the dynamic duo.
In the aftermath of the O’Neal departure, the Magic managed to tread water. Orlando went seven straight seasons following Shaq’s departure with a record of .500 or better. On the other hand, the Magic would not win a playoff series until 12 years after O’Neal left for Los Angeles.