Number One Draft Picks and the one that got away, Part One: Shaq Then

I watched this video the other day.  It reminded me of a story, and pissed me off, all at the same time.  I’ll wait until you’re done gawking before I elaborate.

Go ahead and press play, Orlando Magic fans. I dare you.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, living just outside downtown Orlando at the time.  I had swung by the local basketball courts less than a mile from my house for a pick-up game or two.

The talent was decent, nothing to write home about, but these courts were the closest place outside of the local Y to catch a game.

There was one kid who played there all the time, for the life of me I can’t remember his name, but I do remember when he told me what he told me.  Life, and an organization, would never be the same.

“You haven’t heard?” he asked in disbelief.  There were rumblings in town about Shaquille O’Neal’s departure but the sensible sports fans, the wannabe GMs among us, knew it was inconceivable to let him go.  When building a franchise from the ground up, which is exactly what the Orlando Magic were trying to do at that time, you do everything in your power to keep a generational talent in the building.  Until you don’t.

Shaquille O’Neal had agreed to move out west.  Having played in Orlando four brief yet dominant seasons, those years would prove too short.  As Shaq bid adieu, the Orlando Magic would start anew.  This came shortly after making the Finals with a perfectly constructed team that looked like it would dominate the NBA for years.  Keep in mind, this was the only team to beat Michael Jordan’s Bulls in their prime.

Alas, it was not meant to be. 

Established in 1989, the Magic were an expansion franchise looking to make their mark in a highly competitive NBA.  Their lucky day came three years later when they landed the number one pick in the draft.  That year’s no-brainer pick was a young giant out of Louisiana State, a kid the size we hadn’t seen before, and I mean ever.  His height and strength were inexplicable.  With skill, smarts, and charisma to boot, this was a young man who would impact a franchise, and the league, the moment he signed.

The following year, the Magic were fortunate enough to land the number one pick again, trading for Anfernee Hardaway and the rest is history.  Immediately drawing comparisons to Magic and Kareem, this (flashy) point guard-(dominant) center combo would be the wave of the future, undoubtedly bringing multiple championships to Central Florida alongside the pieces put around them.

After drafting Shaq, the Magic went from winning 21 games to 41.  With Penny, they upped that number to 50, 57 and 60 the following three seasons. 

Then, he was gone.

I remember the Orlando Sentinel poll.  After his four years in pinstripes, Shaquille O’Neal was slated for a new contract.  He was set to become the richest man in the league, and rightfully so.  These numbers seem silly now.  Back then, they were a big deal.

When the local newspaper asked whether the man who averaged 27 points and 12 rebounds was worth $115 million over seven years (what the Magic currently pay Jonathan Isaac), the citizens of Orlando balked.  So did ownership, who low-balled Shaq after he had just torn down rim after rim across the league.  At that time, paying a price for a player like that was unprecedented.  Then again, so was a player like Shaq.

In swooped Jerry West and the Los Angeles Lakers.  They might as well have packed his bags for him.  It would take the Lakers four more years, but they ultimately rattled off three straight championships with Shaquille O’Neal, in his prime, winning three Finals MVPs.

It’s inconceivable to think the same wouldn’t have happened in Orlando.

No one had seen a player like Shaquille.  Intelligent, he was a student of the game.  Early in his career, you could see this was a young man who wanted to make his mark.  It was his mission to become one of the greatest ever.  Orlando spurning him just fueled his fire.  He played in the era of David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon, who owned him early but not for long.  It was understood, if not a given, that he would become better than them.  He did.  Unfortunately for Magic fans, his desire for greatness was not matched by the franchise that drafted him.

These days, it’s laughable to imagine a franchise not taking advantage of the good fortune afforded them.  Shaq literally fell into their laps.  With players signing for three times that amount, and with Shaq’s impact growing farther away in our rearview mirror, the curse of a franchise who at best seems disinterested in winning becomes more regrettable with every losing season.  Orlando passing on Shaq is not quite Harry Frazee selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees, but it isn’t far behind on the list of all-time blunders in sports ownership history.

Now more than ever before, NBA franchises need superstars.  If you don’t have a name on the marquee, you don’t sell tickets and you won’t win basketball games.  And while the Magic made a championship run years later with another big man named Dwight Howard, they also lost him and looked to start anew.  They have been irrelevant ever since.

Orlando is a town that loves its basketball team, from the local blacktops to the new Amway Arena blocks away from where Shaq once played.  Magic fans root with a seven-foot chip on their shoulder, recognizing they should have valued Shaq while they had him.  You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.  Joni Mitchell never lies.

I didn’t vote in that Orlando Sentinel poll but I know how I would have.  There was no internet back then, at least not readily available.  For all those who thought Shaq wasn’t worth it, you’d never admit it now, but I hope you’re happy with what the franchise has become.

While multiple bad decisions have handcuffed this franchise (signing a broken-footed Grant Hill to a multi-year deal, getting nothing in return for second overall pick Victor Oladipo), none hold a candle to watching Shaq go.  Knowing they once let a top-ten all-time player leave town, there can’t be a Magic player who feels safe about his position with the team or worse yet, have the slightest bit of confidence their employer knows what the hell they’re doing.

2 thoughts on “Number One Draft Picks and the one that got away, Part One: Shaq Then

  1. Shaq and Penny…now there’s a trip way down memory lane. Makes me want to hit the archives and watch those two in action again.

  2. Bruce…

    Bill Simmons’ ESPN group did a 30 for 30 on what could have been with these two that was worth watching, unless you’re a Magic fan such as myself. Then you want to throw shit around the house during the entire episode.

    Here’s the thing, Bruce. While there was obviously free agency during that time, this was a time in the league where the teams still held all the cards, not the players as it is now.

    Shaq WANTED TO STAY! He just wanted to know the franchise had his back. I swear, how this doesn’t go down as one of the greatest all-time sports blunders, letting that guy walk out your door, is beyond me.

    Can you imagine that happening now?

    There was no erring on the side of caution with this guy. You sign him and make sure he retires in Orlando. Simple as that.

    Instead, you let him walk and watched him win four titles with two different teams on his way to becoming not only one of the greatest centers of all-time but one of the greatest ambassadors your game has ever seen.

    Way to go, Magic.

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