ORLANDO, Fla. — Nick Anderson and Pat Williams have a keener appreciation than anyone for what life with the Orlando Magic was like before, during and after Shaquille O’Neal.
The three of them will be reunited Friday when O’Neal becomes the third inductee into the Magic’s Hall of Fame located inside the Amway Center.
Of the teams added by the NBA since 1988, only the Magic and the Miami Heat have won so much as a conference championship. It’s no coincidence that the Magic’s first trip to the Finals came three years after the drafting in 1992 of O’Neal, the center who also played an integral part in the Heat’s first title in 2006.
"Yeah, we’re both going to be in the Magic Hall of Fame," said Anderson, who remains the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and now serves as a community ambassador for the Magic. "But he’s an NBA Hall of Famer. So to have my name raised up next to him is an honor and a privilege."
Williams, the co-founder of the Magic who was their general manager for almost the entirety of O’Neal’s four years with them, said winning the draft lottery following the team’s third season was "almost indescribable." Not only was O’Neal the clear-cut prize after starring for three years in college at LSU, but the fortuitous turn of events came a mere eight months after Rich DeVos officially took over ownership of the Magic.
"I wound up saying to Rich, ‘This doesn’t always happen like this here. I want you to make sure you understand that people have been in this league for decades and are longing for something like this,’ " Williams said.
The Magic had taken Anderson with their first-ever draft pick in 1989 and selected Dennis Scott a year later. The arrival of O’Neal transformed them from a 21-win team to a 41-win team which barely missed the playoffs, and the addition of Penny Hardaway began a run of success which would not come close to being matched.
"We probably became the toughest ticket in America, at home and on the road," Williams said. "I once thought I’m not sure if Shaq ever played to an empty seat, at LSU or in the pros."
"It was a pleasure," Anderson said. "When we traveled, all the people came to see us. And he was mainly the reason why. They wanted to see Shaquille O’Neal. So when they were looking at Shaq, they were seeing me too."
Over a two-year span, the Magic went 117-47, a record which included a then-NBA record 40 consecutive regular-season victories at home. O’Neal remains among the top five players in franchise history in several categories, including points (fifth), rebounds (second), blocked shots (second) and scoring average (second).
"He and Penny were a remarkable pair," Williams said. "People tend to forget how good they were together. And after four years, it was over, proving how fragile is the world of sports."
After the Magic were swept by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1996 Eastern Conference finals, a steady stream of speculation surrounded O’Neal — particularly while training with the U.S. Olympic team just outside of Orlando — about what he would do with his original contract with the Magic having expired. Los Angeles Lakers general manager Jerry West pulled off several trades designed to create the salary cap space needed to sign O’Neal. One of those deals involved acquiring the draft rights to a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant, who would combine with O’Neal for three championships in a row in the early 2000s.
With the way the rules were set up at the time, the Magic never got any sort of compensation for losing him.
"I can remember my dad calling me the day Shaq was holding up that Lakers jersey during the Olympics with Jerry West," Anderson said. "My dad called me right after that and said, ‘You know your championships went to L.A.’ And it was true. But I don’t have any bitter taste in my mouth about what somebody does what they thought was best for them, and he felt that was best for him. So I have to respect that, just like I respect any other young man who moves in a situation. I don’t care what sport it is or what job you’re in. If you think you’re doing what’s best for you and your family, then I have to respect that."
Unlike LeBron James, who left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Heat in 2010 amid similar clamor but returned to his original team last summer, there would be no second act with the Magic for O’Neal. It’s almost hard now to fathom him going from Phoenix to Cleveland to Boston in his final three years before retiring.
"We had Dwight (Howard) then. And he was basically through," Williams said of O’Neal. "We all want a few more years, but he probably shouldn’t have (kept playing)."
Anderson, Williams, Hardaway and Scott were among the many individuals honored last season by the Magic during their 25th anniversary. But attempts to bring in O’Neal were unsuccessful, primarily because of his obligations as a studio analyst for TNT on Thursday nights.
With no scheduling conflict this week due to the NCAA Tournament, the Magic announced earlier this month that O’Neal would be on hand for their game against the Detroit Pistons. Electronic billboards around town have trumpeted his upcoming appearance. He attended a Magic-Golden State Warriors game as a fan in late November, and the overwhelmingly positive response by fans made it seem that what happened 19 years ago has been forgiven and forgotten.
"As the years go on, with teams’ hall of fames, the bad blood eventually evaporates," said Williams, who saw the Philadelphia 76ers go through something much the same honoring Wilt Chamberlain. "You remember all the good things they did, and the hard feelings are gone. And Shaq will always be remembered as an Orlando Magic guy. Obviously the plan was that he’d spend his whole career here, but Shaq had other ideas and opportunities."
"There comes a time when you just have to let things go," said Anderson, who played three more years with the Magic after O’Neal joined the Lakers. "It’s just like holding on to stress. Why do you want to hold on to stress? You have to let bygones be bygones.
"Why hang on to sour grapes? They’re not going to get any riper."
Except for 30-something veterans Willie Green, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Channing Frye, no one on the current edition of the Magic likely has any recollection of O’Neal in a Magic uniform. Rookie Aaron Gordon hadn’t even been born when they reached the Finals, only to be swept by the Houston Rockets.
"Think about Larry Bird," Williams said. "This generation never saw him."
So before O’Neal’s time in Orlando fades even further from memory, he’ll be inducted in a place where his exploits will never grow old.
"He’s our guy, our player, our draft pick … part of our original family," Williams said.