Shaq: I wish I had never left Orlando
ORLANDO, Fla. — Considerably older than when he last wore an Orlando Magic uniform, Shaquille O’Neal said Friday that he thinks of himself as having gotten much wiser since leaving them after four years to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
"If I know what I know now, I would have stayed," he said after joining former teammate Nick Anderson and Pat Williams as the third inductee in the Magic Hall of Fame. "I would have stayed and fulfilled my seven years and then looked at it differently after my seventh year."
The Magic offered O’Neal a seven-year contract during the summer of 1996 reportedly worth more than the $121 million he accepted from the Lakers over the same length of time. A team that reached the Eastern Conference finals two years in a row and the NBA Finals in 1995 had to pretty much start over from scratch with no compensation for losing the 7-foot-1 center who had averaged 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds.
"I try not to live my life now on ifs and would have, should have," said O’Neal, now 43 and known best in his post-playing career as a studio analyst for TNT. "But do I regret leaving here in ’96? Yes, I do."
Among those joining O’Neal, Anderson and Williams at the induction ceremony prior to the game against the Detroit Pistons were former teammate and current FOX Sports Florida analyst Jeff Turner, former coach Brian Hill and three generations of the DeVos family that has owned the Magic since 1991. Patriarch Rich DeVos, now 89, was wheeled in shortly after the start of O’Neal’s three-minute acceptance speech.
After losing more than 50 games in each of their first three seasons, the winning of the 1992 draft lottery and subsequent selection of O’Neal with the No. 1 pick gave the Magic instant credibility and widespread recognition. Hill was promoted from assistant coach to head coach the following year, and two years later, they defeated the Indiana Pacers in a seven-game series and went on to face the Houston Rockets for the NBA championship.
”This was a great city, a great organization,” O’Neal said. ”The people here were great. It was a fabulous time, and I had a great time being a young man growing into an adult here.”
But the memory of getting swept in four straight to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets continues to stick in O’Neal’s craw.
”It still kind of upsets me because B Hill knows, Nick knows, Jeff knows we could have beaten those guys blindfolded,” he said. ”We let one get away.”
During his speech and in talking to reporters afterward, O’Neal often referred to the honor as unexpected and criticized himself for what he perceived as a lack of patience in his formative years.
”I just wish I would have had more patience,” he said. ”It was all about I wanted to be protected from the bashing. What I mean by that is I wanted to win. And even when I got there (Los Angeles), I still got bashed, it still took four years to win. I was very impatient. I was very young. I thought that if I go there with those guys, I’d think I could win right away.”
It wasn’t until 2000 that O’Neal won the first of his three consecutive titles with the Lakers. Los Angeles had hired Phil Jackson to coach by then, and the Magic had fired Hill and seen Chuck Daly go in the ensuing post-Shaq era.
Anderson, Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott and Horace Grant were all traded away in the summer of 1999 after the Magic never advanced beyond the first round post-O’Neal.
”We had a young, fabulous team. We really did,” O’Neal said. ”It was a shame that it got torn apart.”
He remains the second-leading rebounder in franchise history behind only Dwight Howard, who also ended up leaving the Magic for the Lakers under different circumstances and with far less successful results.
"When I first came in, Rich DeVos said, ‘I want you to be the greatest big man ever,’" O’Neal said. "’That’s a lot of pressure on a 19-, 20-year-old kid. But that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to uplift the city. I wanted to play well. I wanted to make it exciting."
He was chosen for the All-Star Game in all four of his seasons with the Magic and tried to remain motivated by what his adopted father, Phillip Harrison (who died in 2013), told him after the two attended an NBA game when O’Neal was younger.
"He paid $20 for the tickets, and the game was awful," O’Neal recalled. "So on the way home, he had a tear in his eye and he says, ‘Son, if you ever make it big time, make sure you put on a show for the fans who paid their hard-earned money to come watch you play.’ That’s how I tried to play every night."