The atmosphere of Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic Hall of Fame ceremony brought out the fanboy in even the most professional of reporters. Unable to process the moment, I saw Shaq and his immense size, and he is every bit as large as life as I made him to be as a teen. He’s not the reason I became I Magic fan; I’d been following since Day 1…
But this was better than any Christmas gift I ever got: the opportunity to thank him for providing memories.
There was no need to elaborate with O’Neal; but my late-father, brother and I bonded over hoops and bonded over the Orlando Magic. It was the medium by which we shared our love, spending time together, and coming to just love the game of basketball.
Then, as fans of the budding Magic brand, that lucky ping pong ball came popping through the tube in 1992.
A future sure-fire Hall of Fame talent was coming to The City Beautiful! The Magic would rapidly improve to nearly making the playoffs but being eliminated from it by the Indiana Pacers. The very next draft, the Magic would go on to trade for the draft rights to Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, and it seemed the foundation was poured for a great dynasty. Obtained for the price of the Magic’s second consecutive No. 1 pick, Pat Williams acquired three firsts and a dynamic combo guard to pair with a dominant Hall of Fame Center.
Even so, Shaq expressed surprise that he was going to be taken No. 1 overall.
But everyone else knew it, teams were praying for that pick.
“It was rumored that I was going to be the first pick, but I wasn’t really sure. Then I got to meet family, he sent down this beautiful private jet, we had a secret meeting and he told me I was going to be the first pick.”
O’Neal did not bash the experience of spending his first four years with the Magic. He said it was “a great experience (so) I’d like to thank you and your family for giving me the opportunity…and I love you for that, I appreciate you.”
He embraced Rich DeVos the way a child would his grandfather, and it was a tough experience to know the prodigal son was headed off to the bright lights of Hollywood, but time had healed that wound:
Shaq said the same thing to me, when I stammered the words “Thanks for the memories.” He had to ask me to repeat myself because it was loud, and he said solemnly “You’re welcome, I appreciate that.” He brought so much excitement to the Magic and to our lives.
“It was a business decision, you know, it was never personal”
At one point we were so spastic over a big win against a hated rival in the Indiana Pacers, and my terrier jumped right through the screen of our house and just never stopped. Maybe we all couldn’t handle Shaq Diesel. He did rip a basket to shreds like a splintered tooth pick.
Oddly, when O’Neal left, we were still fans of him. I had his “bulleye” Reebok shoe because I have huge feet and found them on clearance. I had his rap albums. I even sat through the entire film “Kazaam.”
He was gone from Orlando, but not from the radar of many of us growing up. Unlike when the franchise lost Dwight Howard, no O’Neal jerseys were burnt; we remained fans of his even through the waning years of his career in Cleveland and Boston.
One reporter asked him, “Knowing what you know now, would you have stayed?”
“I definitely would have stayed,” Shaq said.
We lost our superstar, but never lost our hero.
We lost our center, we never lost our team.
Those mid-90s Magic teams will forever exist as retro teams in video games, as memorabilia, and as memories, and no one can take away what Shaq brought to the organization. He made the Magic a global franchise; no talent since has done so.
But being team media is something I never could have expected, and this is a special privilege, that I full realize.
As a kid no one could have convinced me I would have the opportunity to talk to my favorite players growing up.
Or, to be on a first name basis with Orlando’s first lottery pick, and Anderson is every bit as personal as he was aggressive with a basketball—telling him I still have an autograph he signed for me when I was 12 solicited a good laugh from one of the Magic’s first premier talents prior to the arrival of Shaq and Penny. I was now able to converse with a guy whose cards I’d hoped to get in packs.
It was so surreal that it seemed I would wake up from a great dream at any moment.
Shaq went on adding that the Magic could have beat the Houston Rockets in the 1995.
“We could have beat those guys blindfolded.”
There’s that memory of losing to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glyde Drexler”—and, I still have a Shaquille O’Neal Sports Illustrated poster never removed from its original shrink wrap. There was no doubting our gratitude to have enjoyed a talent like Shaq’s for howsoever brief it was.
O’Neal mastered everything in life except free throws; and those barely mattered give his nearly entirely unstoppable drop step. His game was entirely unstoppable and there was precious little an opponent could do, especially since fouling him hard didn’t guarantee he wouldn’t power it through the rim and get to the line for a three-point play.
No. 32 brought us memories, and it began to be overcome with some strange emotion, wishing I could show my father the video I made of O’Neal—how close we were to his face, and ultimately that I was working the field I’d long hoped I could fully integrate myself with.
I was a biochemist in the room amongst journalist, one who could describe organic chemistry in depth, but not how to conduct a proper interview.
And yet, I was there.
I’d attended 12 games as a reporter between 2010 and 2012; but this was an exclusive event for Magic team media. There may never be another day like it in my life, the chance to tell Shaq he was the man who helped make my childhood even more enthralling. The NBA still interests me, and Dwight Howard was a great talent to have in Orlando; as was Tracy McGrady and Penny Hardaway; and so on. But it isn’t the same as when I was a child and these players were larger than life.
And I met the largest and the most influential of them all. It’s hard to even process.
It is a day and a handshake I’ll never forget. It was like cementing the memory of someone whose impact on my life went far beyond the stats, the basketball impact, but into giving our family a treat to watch both on the TV and using the season tickets we split with four other families. Opponents didn’t always matter, because Shaquille was on the Magic and we got to watch a top-10 all-time talent in his early years.
That can’t be taken away.