“Our owner, Rich DeVos, said, ‘Why not us? Why not now?’ Everybody was saying we’re too young to win a championship. We hadn’t suffered enough. Little did we know, we would be suffering by the end.” —Tree Rollins
They were destined for greatness. Back in the mid-1990s, you couldn’t imagine a more promising basketball pairing than the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. O’Neal was powerful and agile, plus swift and skillful in a way that hadn’t been seen in a 7-footer since Wilt Chamberlain (and hasn’t been seen since O’Neal retired). Hardaway was seen as the rightful heir to Magic Johnson — a tall, transcendent point guard who would headline the new generation of NBA superstars. If you wanted to build an ideal basketball team, you would start with a center and a point guard. If you wanted to build the perfect team, you would start with O’Neal and Hardaway. The Magic, only a few years removed from their lowly expansion-team origins, skyrocketed to fame with their abundant talent and black-and-white pinstripes. O’Neal and Hardaway were surrounded by capable role players like Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant. Together, they seemed poised to become the NBA’s next dynasty.
Perhaps no NBA team has ever featured two players more marketable than O’Neal and Hardaway. The two filmed Blue Chips together and became dueling campaign faces for Nike and Reebok. O’Neal had his wide smile and an outsize personality to match his towering physique. Hardaway was more reserved, but possessed that unforgettable nickname and a Chris Rock–voiced alter ego to talk trash for him. The possibilities seemed endless, as if the championship rings and parades would be a formality.
And then it ended. The Magic’s competitive window slammed shut faster than anyone imagined, thanks to O’Neal’s unexpected departure to Los Angeles, the firing of Magic coach Brian Hill, and the decline of Hardaway’s game thanks to knee injuries. It took years for the franchise to build another competitive team, and even though the Dwight Howard–led Magic reached the NBA Finals in 2009, the pride mixed with disappointment from 1995 and ’96 remained strong.
The Shaq and Penny Magic are in an unfortunate class similar to the ’70s Blazers, ’80s Rockets, or 2000s Kings — a story of unfulfilled potential and a dynasty that never was. “We were just having so much fun playing the game,” Scott said. “We weren’t really thinking about making history or understanding how good we really could be. All that stuff was happening so fast.”
Penny and Shaq. Shaq and Penny. For a brief time — they played only three seasons together — most of the NBA believed no one could stop them.
Everyone quoted in this piece is identified by the positions they played or jobs they had during the mid-1990s. Phil Jackson declined interviews for this oral history.
When former Philadelphia 76ers GM Pat Williams confided to Orlando businessman Jimmy Hewitt that the NBA planned on expanding to Florida, he asked what city could best host a team. Williams was surprised when Hewitt said Orlando, which was known as a football town. Soon after, Williams agreed to help bring a team to the city. The Orlando Sentinel ran a contest for fans to help pick the name of the team. The finalists included the Heat, Juice, Tropics, and Magic. By chance, Williams’s young daughter had visited the city and later described it as “Magic.” The team’s name became a no-brainer after that.
I moved here in June of 1986 to help start the franchise. Our goal was to try and convince the NBA to put a new team here, and we were successful. They awarded us the team in April of ’87.
I think I was Pat’s first hire in the summer of ’87. [At first], there’s no arena. There’s no team. There’s no uniform. Everything is in the making. Initially, there was a little tongue-in-cheek snicker: You’re not going to have any luck with basketball in Central Florida. This is football country.
This was college football country and always had been. In Orlando specifically, it was high school, Florida Gators, boxing, wrestling, and some fly-by-night minor league football teams. It was a ghost town for [professional] sports.
We were going to build through the draft. That was Pat’s motto — never give up draft picks.
We were the perfect model for how to build from the draft. Nick was first, then me. Then we got a couple bad ones with Stanley Roberts and Bison Dele — may he rest in peace — and then you get Shaq and Penny.
The day after I got drafted [as the team’s very first pick], I went home and [people] were like, “Is that an NBA team?” I would tell them, “Yes, it’s a new franchise. It’s coming into the league this year.” They couldn’t believe it until there was actually an NBA game.
The first preseason game was against Detroit in October of ’89. They were coming off the championship and Orlando beat them. The crowd went crazy. My call is embarrassingly excited for a preseason game.
Everybody ran off the floor like we’d just won the world championship. Chuck Daly was so gracious in the press conference. A reporter asked if he was taking it easy on the expansion team. He goes, “Heck no, they beat our butts.”
It sounds funny, but that’s probably in the top-five all-time Orlando highlights, just because everybody thought it was a playoff game and you knew the Pistons didn’t really care.
The teams weren’t very good in those early years, but they scored a lot of points and they had some flamboyant personalities — Scott Skiles, Reggie Theus.
It was a competitive group because we were all trying to prove that we belonged in the NBA. There was no seniority or anything because it was all brand new. We lost a lot of games, but the good thing was, we were competitive.
Orlando finished 21-61 in 1991-92, but better times were on the horizon.
In those days, the lottery was very simple. Sixty-six Ping-Pong balls in that machine and that was it. We had 10 of the 66 Ping-Pong balls [in 1992]. Everybody at the lottery table, they all had their own Shaq jersey hidden underneath the table. They kept turning the cards over and the next thing you know, Charlotte and us are the two remainders. [Then] they turn over Charlotte and there we were. That was a thrilling moment, and David Stern was very gracious and happy to see me up at the table.
That was one of those once-every-10-years no-brainers. I don’t think it required a lot of reporting or intel or that type of thing.
We didn’t bring anybody [else] in. No workouts. Shaq was the man. We knew we had a franchise player if we could get him signed. They played hard-to-get. His agent played very distant and removed and didn’t do any celebrating.
My dad, he always used to tell me, when you’re starting a team, you need a big man. “Y’all can get a big man in the middle, that’s going to be the centerpiece of a championship.” When we got Shaq, I said, Here it goes.
There was some early drama right off the bat of whether or not he wanted to come to Central Florida.
“Shaq was the man. We knew we had a franchise player if we could get him signed.” —Pat Williams
People were saying he should be in a big market. I said the way media is today, big markets are important to a degree, but what’s more important is the marketing coalition that surrounds somebody. We didn’t say we weren’t going to be in Orlando because we want to be in a big market. We embraced it as an opportunity.
[Armato] said, “Why don’t you trade him to L.A.? Trade him to the Lakers.” [I told him], “Leonard, we’re not going to do that. We’ll start him right here.”
I’m not saying I didn’t say that, but I don’t remember saying that.
There was a crowd gathered, and Shaquille sort of had yet to say that he wanted to be part of the Magic. I remember him stepping to the podium and he said, “I want to be where there is” — and then he [sang] the old Mickey Mouse thing — “M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.” And everybody exploded in applause.
Shaq was never adamant about going to L.A. or any big market. He went to LSU, so it wasn’t like he was saying, “I need to go to some big market.” Our strategy wasn’t to force anybody to go anywhere. Maybe if he was picked by Minnesota he might have said, “I don’t want to go there.”
They flew me in a couple days before the draft. It was a beautiful city. For me, it was all about going there and getting my parents a house. That was the first thing I had to do. I said, “Daddy, you need to retire. Mom, you need to retire. Come with me.” So we got there — this is the going joke with me: I stayed at the Hyatt and spent like $500,000. It was me, my mother and father, brothers and sisters. Room service, movies. They go downstairs, charge it to the room. Three months later, half a million. My accountant says, “You know you could have bought a house by now?”
He was built more like Jermaine O’Neal [then]. He was pretty slight coming out of school.
When he first got in the league, he would dive on the floor, dive over the top of courtside seats to try to save balls. He was just full of life.
I had been around the NBA and had played against the big centers and all these phenomenal, physical-specimen guys who were so strong. So I thought, Here’s a young guy coming in. He’s got a lot to learn. We played in a pickup game when he arrived, and right away I knew that he was stronger than a lot of people gave him credit for when he came out of college. And he was so fast. There was no question how special he was going to be.
If I did that [holds out his palm], that motherfucking ball was there every time. I’d never have to say, “Scott, you missed me.” Or if Scott [Skiles] missed me one time, I’m getting that [ball] 10 times in a row. Seriously.
[Shaq] and Dennis Scott were really close friends and they would pull pranks. They would dress up. Shaq would dress up with a wig or some crazy outfit and get off the bus.
When those two would get together, they would start freestyling or singing, making up song lyrics, and they would adopt some sort of Jamaican personality. They would be on the plane in their own little world and we would be cracking up watching them.
The biggest thing [for] players when they’re young [is] to understand the professional side of the league — the work ethic that’s involved on a daily basis. Guys come in and they’re young and they make a lot of money. But Shaquille, in particular, always had a maturity that a lot of other players didn’t.
What stands out as much as anything is the two baskets that [Shaq] broke that rookie year. One of them was in February in Phoenix. It was a nationally televised game and he broke the basket. It had not been done before to that extent and Phoenix was not prepared to roll in a backup, so we had a long delay.
I say this with a smile: It always bothered me a little bit, because I knew the game was going to be delayed another 20 minutes or 30 minutes and it kind of threw you off.
He broke a basket in New Jersey and brought it down almost right on top of the head of Dwayne Schintzius.
I think I played 33, 34 minutes and I [scored] 50. I’ll never forget, in the Orlando Sentinel, they were talking about how Shaq broke the backboard and then in small print they said, Oh by the way, Nick Anderson had 50 points.
No matter what anyone had done, Shaq would find a way to top it.
Talk about being a young team. [We] really didn’t have much experience — not as far as playoff basketball. But I could see we were taking steps.
The Magic finished 41-41 in O’Neal’s rookie year, equal to eighth-seeded Indiana’s record, but the Pacers held the tiebreak and Orlando missed the playoffs. After the season, the franchise elevated Matt Guokas to a front-office position and hired Brian Hill as head coach. The Magic improbably won the draft lottery for the second year in a row that offseason, and the team faced a decision that would shape its future: select consensus no. 1 prospect Chris Webber, a dazzling power forward who’d led Michigan’s Fab Five to consecutive appearances in the NCAA national championship game, or trade the pick and take less-heralded Memphis State point guard Anfernee Hardaway.
[In the 1993 draft lottery] we had one Ping-Pong ball out of 66. We just missed the playoffs. At the 11th pick, they turned the card over and it wasn’t us. An absolute chill went through that room because they knew that something really, really weird had taken place. They kept turning cards over and turning them over, and the next thing you know, it’s down to the final three. They turned over 3 and it’s Golden State, and they turned over 2 and it’s Philadelphia, and darn if we hadn’t done it again! And this time the commissioner was not happy to see me. That was a little too much.1
I had played with Shaquille in these games called the Olympic Festival that were held in Minnesota. It might have been my senior year in high school, Shaq’s freshman year [of college]. Nobody could stop him. Just give him the ball anywhere and he would finish. We played really well together.
This is my CEO mentality. I said, “I know C-Webb is a great player, but Penny — I need Penny.” So when they got Penny, I was thinking Magic and Kareem. And it worked! Penny was a bad boy — one of my favorite players.
Logically, it appeared Chris Webber all the way. That’s what we were going to do. [Then], the Sunday before the draft, John Gabriel got a call from Penny Hardaway and Penny said, “I know you’re not planning on taking me, but you should. I’m your guy.” So John said, “All right, come in Sunday and we’ll have a workout on Monday.” And the draft was Tuesday night!
They brought him back right before the draft and there was a bunch of us in town and we played a pickup game. From that, you saw the potential Penny had, that he could be a real difference maker.
I remember Anthony Bowie guarding me. He was their best defender at the time and they had him on me because that was the guy they put on every top 2-guard in the league. I knew I was going to have to do something against him to impress the execs and the coaching staff. I think I gave him every move in my arsenal that day.
Penny just put on a show. He was unbelievable in that workout. After it was over, we all looked at each other and said, “You know, I think we better do something here.”
The Magic knew when they worked him out — that was the guy. If Shaq was Batman, this was Robin.
I remember Penny walking into my office after his second workout, and I said, “Listen, I wish you well on whatever happens in the draft.” He got up and shook my hand and walked to the door, and [then] he turned around and walked back. He said, “Mr. Gabriel, if you draft me, I promise you, you’ll never regret it.”
After my second workout, I felt good about them not drafting Chris Webber.
I remember sitting with the ownership and trying to decide: Do we take the twin towers of Webber and Shaquille or do we believe enough in this ornery youngster who really wants to be here? A few other people weighed in. [Then] Pat pulled me into his office and said, “Do what’s in your heart.” I walked out and told ownership, “We’re taking Penny and the picks.”
I had been talking to Don Nelson of the Warriors throughout and he made it very clear that he wanted either Webber or [Shawn] Bradley. He wanted a big guy and would make a deal with us. So we decided that we would take one of those big guys and then trade him. And [Nelson] would give us three future firsts, plus the third pick.”
Pat orchestrated a deal with Golden State to get three number ones along with keeping a high draft pick for Penny, who is in essence the first pick. I said, “Pat, how’d you get three number ones out of Golden State?” He said, “I asked for five.”
That’s right. I asked for five and settled for three.
We had an open-arena watch party of the [draft], and since Pat got to pick the Ping-Pong ball, he got elected to go out and face the crowd. There were quite a few boobirds in the audience. His words were, “Those boos will be changed to cheers. Mark my words.”
Our fans were thrilled with the Webber pick. Thrilled. So I came out about 30 minutes later to announce this trade. They were absolutely furious.
People did not like that move. Penny was kind of an unknown. Chris Webber, of course, he was at Michigan with the Fab Five and everything else.
I thought they were going to attack me. Literally, I felt they were going to come down and attack me [for trading Webber].
I knew that everything we were moving into was going to be for the first time — whether it was playoffs, a championship — because the organization was so young.
Penny was so competitive, so talented. I sat by Penny on the bus and on plane rides — Penny was kind of moody at times. You’d have to know how to deal with him. It took a little bit to get him to open up, to get him to relax and be himself, because when he first got to Orlando, Jesus, he was secluded. He had his little entourage and that was it.
He had his entourage. He had his brand, but Penny respected guys who knew the game. Penny was a basketball genius.
[Hardaway’s] rookie year was one of the most impressive I’d ever seen in the NBA, and I’ve been covering it for 30 years.
The Magic became multimedia stars before they managed to make a dent in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. O’Neal became the face of Reebok’s (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to unseat Nike as the no. 1 brand in basketball sneakers and apparel. Hardaway’s fame skyrocketed thanks to Nike’s Chris Rock–voiced Lil’ Penny ad campaign. O’Neal became the star of his own video game, Shaq-Fu, on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. And O’Neal and Hardaway shared the silver screen together with Nick Nolte in William Friedkin’s film Blue Chips, a scathing look at corruption in college basketball. Shaq, Penny, and their teammates were bona fide celebrities — and they hadn’t even truly earned that status on the court yet.
When I was in college, my professor said, “I hope you save all your money because you can’t get endorsements. Big guys won’t sell.” We had a marketing [project]. He wanted us to create a product and sell them in class, so I brought in a Shaq shoe. I had a shoe and I had my Dunkman emblem on it. I had it like superglued on and I had a little B.S. commercial shot. He gave me a D. He said that ain’t going to work — that’s what he told me in front of the class. My mentality was all built off of criticism, proving other people wrong. That’s why I am who I am.
Shaq was a rock star back then. That was the beginning of his legacy.
When Shaq got there, Reebok was like, “Are you free?” Because they knew we were going to be on TV all the time. They gave me shoes and a check. I got a contract from Shaq. Most of us did. Shaq took care of all of us. [He’d say], “You want to be in the commercial? You want to be an extra? Come on!” Let me go make these couple extra hundred dollars and sit there and be an extra.
When they made my shoe, this company, Wieden+Kennedy, they said, “You know what? We need to do something different. What do you think about an alter ego?” I loved it because I don’t talk trash. I’m quiet, and to have an alter ego talking trash for me, I thought that was cool.
Lil’ Penny was more outgoing than the real Penny.
Penny was different than Magic and obviously different than Jordan, but it was a specialness about him as well. All the girls loved him. We had a big following everywhere we went. The home games were all sold out. Our away games were all sold out. Everyone wanted to see Penny and Shaq.
That whole Lil’ Penny thing made him an international star. I don’t think anybody saw that coming, but that was a huge part of his early career, where he became known through those commercials.
I never got the opportunity to be in the same room with [Chris Rock] during the commercials. He always did his voice-over and then I did my commercials. I was actually listening to the voice-overs — which were cracking me up — as I was doing the commercials.
Nike reaches out: “Hey, we’ve got this doll, Penny.” They kind of said, “Do whatever you want.” They would just record me and get a lot of wild lines and I would watch the commercials not knowing what I was going to see, to tell you the truth.
I used to say we were like the Beatles. We would go on the road and pull up to hotels. It could be two or three in the morning, [and] you’ve got 200, 300 fans standing outside the hotel. It’d be 20 below zero. Stuff just don’t happen like that.
Our bus pulled into the [Sacramento] Hyatt Hotel one day and there was this large crowd. Shaq always sat in the back, and he put on this Jheri curl wig with the hair coming down to his shoulder. People stand out there and they wait and wait for guys to come off. [O’Neal] literally walked off the bus and into the hotel without one person asking for his autograph. Nobody recognized him. How many 7-foot 300-pounders are there on the team?
We had so much fun because we were all at the same point of our lives. None of us was married. Shaq, Penny, and I and Dennis Scott all lived in the same development and we lived on lakes. Nick Anderson lived on a different lake that was up a little ways from us, but all our lakes were connected. After practice, we had boats and we had WaveRunners and we would ride to one another’s house. This week, I may barbecue at my house and have everybody over, and Shaq would do it the next week.
They all felt like they were rock stars, and just had a skewed perspective of life. At one point, after practice, several writers were talking to Nick and someone mentioned that ticket prices had just gone up. Somehow it evolved to trying to get his perspective on how much money people made and one writer said, “What do you think our salaries are?” And he said, “I don’t know — $200,000?”
We won 50 games and we went to the playoffs, but we were swept by Indiana in the first round. I think that feeling is what propelled all those guys to maybe have a different outlook into the next season.
The Magic still lacked one major piece before they could consider themselves serious contenders. A window opened for the team to advance to the top of the Eastern Conference after Michael Jordan retired in 1993. (Jordan would return more than halfway through the 1994-95 season.) Horace Grant was a reliable two-way power forward who had already won three championships with the Bulls. Chicago believed it had a deal to re-sign Grant, but Grant bristled over not being signed earlier. In July 1994, he bolted to Orlando for $17 million over five years. “I left on a clear conscience,” Grant told the Orlando Sentinel. “The [Bulls] organization had the problems, not me. When we were winning, they kept everything under the rug, but now that they’re struggling, you see all these things coming out. Obviously Jerry [Krause] is a liar.” To clear cap space for Grant’s salary, the Magic traded Scott Skiles and a future first-rounder for just a second-round pick. They were ready to let Hardaway run the offense.
Cap room was a bit of a newfound commodity. We traded Scott Skiles to Washington and were going to use those funds to sign Horace, and the league initially disallowed it, saying that we weren’t getting fairly compensated, that we were only doing it to create cap room. We said, “That’s wrong because?”
We added a guy that you didn’t have to run plays for. We had enough guys that could score, but [Grant’s] defensive ability, both one-on-one and as a team defender — he covered up for so many other people’s mistakes.
It was hard to part with Scott Skiles. [He] was in his later years [and] was already very much a coach on the floor. No one that I’ve come in contact with since was as much of a competitor. [But] Horace was clearly the finishing piece for us.
They tried it for one year with Scott Skiles and Penny. You couldn’t have both. Penny was hardheaded back then. I mean, when Penny was fresh out of college, you couldn’t tell him nothing. Skiles was tough as nails and the last thing he wanted to deal with was a rookie trying to take his position. Yeah, it would have been nice, but it wasn’t going to last.
You could see that this had a chance to be something special, because there was great chemistry on the court between Shaq and Penny, and Dennis Scott was one of the great 3-point shooters of that time. Nick was developing into a very talented 2-guard.
I’m not sure that even Penny at the time realized all the different things that he could do.
When I saw him dunk on Patrick Ewing, I said to myself, Oh my lord. This boy got unbelievable talent.
It was time for Penny to take over. …When he was healthy, [Hardaway] was one of the most dominant basketball players you ever laid eyes on. At 6-7, 6-8, playing the point, [he] could play three positions, could shoot the ball, handle the ball, defend. [He] did it all.
Penny didn’t mind deferring to Shaq. Penny understood [the mind-set]: I’m making the decisions, so I can get Shaq off. I can get myself off or anybody else that I want because I have the ball in my hands. They depend on me to deliver the ball to them.
I knew where my bread was buttered. I knew to get him the ball. I could get my points and make him happy. The accolades came from playing with him. It was easier — he was getting double-teamed and it was easier to get my game off. My first-team All-NBAs definitely came from having a guy like Shaq on the team.4
It was quite the challenge for [O’Neal] initially to accept that there would be another superstar alongside him. Because it would not only be sharing the basketball, but at that point, sharing the financial part of the game as there was no cap on what young players could make.
Shaq was an alpha male and he wanted to be the man. He was the most dominant center in the game at that time. So his ego was it’s about me. I think the perception out there was Penny and Shaq’s relationship was a lot like Kobe and Shaq’s relationship. I think Shaq had respect for both guys. They both had respect for Shaq when it came down to: It’s game time. We’re between these lines, so let’s just get it done. Maybe we have differences, but that doesn’t matter because that’s off the court.
If we ran [Penny] down to the post and got him the ball, he could turn and score over just about any point guard in the league. When he did that, you had to double-team him. That opened up scoring opportunities because he was a great passer out of the double. He’s got either Shaq diving to the rim or kick-outs to Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott. That’s where teams feared him.
[We] had it all, man. With me and Nick Anderson in the backcourt, that’s 6-6, 6-7. Then you come off the bench with Brian Shaw, another 6-6, and then Anthony Bowie’s 6-5, so we had the biggest guards pretty much in the league. It was a special team.
We were on a mission. We felt that we were the best team in the league, and especially in the Eastern Conference. We had Shaq, Penny, Dennis, myself, Nick.
Range was nothing for Dennis [Scott]. He could stand at 27, 28, 29 feet and shoot the ball the same way he shot a free throw. He had great mechanics — what we call “a loose wrist” in coaching. Great flexibility, great balance, and he was one of the rare guys that every time the ball left his hands, you thought it was going in.6
My dad used to tell me, work on your ballhandling and work on your outside shot, just in case you don’t grow to be 6-11 or 7 feet like people think you’ll be. I was 6-7 in sixth grade, so everyone thought that. I had this enormous growth spurt and never grew again.
I don’t think we even realized how good we were. That year we went to the Finals, I don’t think a lot of people remember we were 39-2 at home. How often does that happen?
We played [the Bulls] in Michael’s return game in Chicago. It was probably parallel to the NBA Finals in many ways because it was such a momentous occasion. We beat them in Chicago and I remember walking to the locker room with ownership after. I said, “I have the feeling this is a little omen of what’s to come.”
There were certain guys that [Jordan] had to bring his A-game [against]. Penny was one of those guys.
“I don’t think we even realized how good we were. That year we went to the Finals, I don’t think a lot of people remember we were 39-2 at home. How often does that happen?” —Nick Anderson
I played with Michael Jordan on the ’84 Olympic team. We got to know one another pretty well that summer and were friends throughout our playing career. It was the first time that I’d ever seen Michael have a difficult time guarding someone. I vividly remember Michael being so frustrated that he couldn’t stop him.
When Michael took those two years off, there was a gap of when we were coming into our own.
The Magic led the Eastern Conference with a regular-season record of 57-25 in 1994-95. Their top seed earned them a first-round series against Boston, where they played the final two NBA games in the famed Boston Garden and defeated the Celtics in four games. The Bulls and a returned Michael Jordan loomed on the horizon.
The Celtics weren’t a great team that year, but Orlando was so young. Getting past them was huge.
We closed the Boston Garden — having won the last game there in our playoff series.
The confidence really mushroomed after winning Game 1 against Chicago, when Nick Anderson stole the ball against Michael Jordan late in the game. That’s probably one of the great victories in franchise history.
As [Jordan] was coming over half court, Nick kind of got a little piece of it and it got away from him a little bit, and then [Anderson] got a little piece of it again and we ended up with a steal and a fast-break layup by Horace.
I remember in that first game when we beat them, reporters made it seem like I said that 45 is not like 23.7 And then the next game, he came out wearing no. 23. He was sending a message that he was still no. 23.
I might have very calmly said, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” Michael Jordan is good enough without having to give him more motivation to have an unbelievable game against us.
I was like, “Oh, crap, we’re in trouble. Don’t piss off the GOAT, man. You don’t want him going off.” And he came back the second game, lit us up. You could tell he was on a mission.
We got ’em now. That’s the first thing that came to my mind. Everybody was kind of whispering that’s the 45 Michael Jordan, not the 23 Michael Jordan. So when he switched after the first game — back to 23 — I felt his resolve was shaken, [like] he felt he couldn’t play wearing 45.
He may have been what percentage? I don’t know — 75 percent of himself.
It seemed like they weren’t in sync. It just didn’t look like the same Bulls team — like they were off. They had just moved into the United Center and Michael did not like it. He didn’t have his spots down. He used to love to use the glass. The rims were more forgiving in the [Chicago] Stadium. A lot of things went in our favor during that series.
People don’t give us credit for that because that’s when Michael came back. I actually asked my son a couple weeks ago and he didn’t know. I said, “Yeah, you know who the last guy to beat Michael Jordan was?” He said, “Nobody.” And I said, “Me.” I had to go back and show him. I’m proud of that.
People will always say it was the year Michael came back and only played 25 games. You can say it if you want, but Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan. I think if you ask Pat Riley the same question — he dropped 55 on the Knicks after he came back — I’m sure Pat would say it’s the same Michael Jordan.
You know how emotional that series was for [Grant]. He left [Chicago] upset. He left on bad terms. He wanted to stay, but things happened and he said some things about Michael and he had to eat his words and come to Orlando.
Phil [Jackson], he dared me to shoot and beat them. Fifteen-, 17-footers. I was told that one of the [Bulls] came up to him and said, “Man, can we have somebody guard him?” And Phil was like, "No." P.J. said, "No, we’re gonna make Horace beat us." And I think I shot over 65 percent in that series.9
We hoisted Horace up in the air and he was swinging a towel around. Them Bulls fans didn’t like that.
We gave them so much motivation to come back and kick our butts the next year. I don’t know why. That’s just Shaq. He picked Horace up and put him on his shoulders and that was showing the Bulls up. I mean, they came back the next year with a vengeance.
I didn’t want to do that, but Shaq came to me and he said, “Man, get up on our shoulders.” I’m like, “No no no no.” And seriously, he really yelled: “You better get up here!” And he put me up and the excitement kinda took over.
We beat the Bulls. We beat Michael. We were the last team to beat him in a playoff series, so we have some history.
One of my aunties, she is a die-hard Bulls fan. My auntie always cooked cakes and stuff for me. She told me she wasn’t going to cook no more cakes for me because I beat her Bulls.
We just beat the greatest player in the world. That became my downfall in my first Finals. We were happy. We beat Mike, so we thought we had it.
The Pacers had Reggie [Miller] coming off screens, and Byron Scott. They had Derrick McKey, the Davis boys. They were really tough.
That was extremely tough, because for the first time I can remember, it was an inside-outside attack. Penny’s versatility, Shaq’s dominance — both guys [are] more than capable of taking over games. It was a brand-new look for everybody in the league and trying to figure out how you can stop those guys.
“We beat the Bulls. We beat Michael. We were the last team to beat him in a playoff series, so we have some history.” —Penny Hardaway
It just seemed like whoever had home court was going to win the last game. No one could win on each other’s court.
[In Game 4,] Brian Shaw made one to put Orlando up one and Reggie Miller made one and then Penny made one and then [Rik] Smits hit a shot at the buzzer to win the game. It was just bam-bam-bam-bam — one of those NBA classics.
We had that one chance to beat them and Tree Rollins, who we told, “Don’t go for the pump fake,” went for the pump fake and Rik Smits hits his jump shot with time running out.
Derrick McKey, when we came out of the timeout, he said, “Hey, if you do get the ball, you’ve got time to give a little head fake.” I’m pretty sure Reggie was the first option. If he wasn’t open, I was going to be the other option.
I subbed Tree in just because he had been in that situation so many times before, and those were my last words: “Stay down, keep your hands up and don’t go for his pump fake. If he makes it over you, he makes it over you.” But players are instinctive and Tree, his whole career, was a shot-blocker.
We all told Tree not to jump. Tree was a player-coach that year. The whole game he’s sitting there with a clipboard, then all of a sudden at the end he gotta go in. If you could have seen him after the game, Tree felt like he had killed us. He was hurting. Nobody could talk to him for a couple days.
I was frustrated. I knew Rik was going to pump fake. I’m still sticking to my guns and saying the guy did not turn the clock on [in time]. It was one of those homers like in the old days of Philadelphia, when they had that great scorekeeper who could work that clock till the last 10th of a second. One point three seconds for him to catch the ball, pump fake? Come on. We didn’t have the replays of the clock back then.
Luckily, [that was] one of the few games we got Shaq into foul trouble. I don’t know if it would have been the same if Shaq was guarding me.
Mark Jackson made some comments. Larry Brown made some comments about us. I think we said to the media that they forgot Game 7 was on our floor. We came out and took care of business.
I thought quite honestly, at that point in time, Indiana was a better team. They matched us with their size at almost every position. They were experienced and battle-tested, and every game was won by the home team and went down to the wire with the exception of Game 7.
Those are games where you either step up or get embarrassed. There wasn’t no in-between. Majority of the time, we stepped up.
In that Game 7, I don’t think any team I’ve coached had ever played a better game — as far as handling the game plan defensively and with the offensive execution and with how hard they played.
They had to grow up in that series, Shaq and Penny.
The young Magic would square off against the veteran Houston Rockets in the 1995 NBA Finals. The Rockets were coming off a championship, but Orlando was confident to start the series, since it had hammered Houston in its two regular-season games. The Rockets (47-35) began the playoffs as the 6-seed in the West, with 30-to-1 odds of winning the championship, and they remain the lowest-seeded team to win an NBA championship.
We owned them during the regular season. With our athleticism, we thought it would overwhelm them. We were very confident when they beat the Spurs because we did have problems with the Spurs, but we didn’t have problems with the Rockets.
During the regular season, I used to have my way with [Hakeem Olajuwon]. But I celebrated too early. Once I got to the Finals, I felt I had him and I didn’t keep the mentality up. But he helped me get four more, because after losing, I said, “OK, now I know I can’t celebrate until it’s over. And even if I win [a championship], I can’t celebrate until my career’s over.”
The stories are [that] the Magic were out partying; Shaq and Dennis Scott were out partying.
Once we got there, we felt like the job had been done. We’ve got home-court advantage. Shit, we knew we were going to win at least two at home.
We weren’t a regular-season team. Honestly, we used to give games away in the regular season. Mentally, it’d be like, Oh, we’re going to lose today. And then we’re like, We’re going to win five or six in a row to stay where we need to be. We had that ability because we were a veteran team, but at the same time we were an aging team, so we couldn’t play out for 82 games.
Shaq was a true big man. He was a center. He was a 5. Dream was really a 4 playing the 5, and he was a tough matchup. He was smart, highly skilled, and Shaq wasn’t really into his own zone at that time, meaning he wasn’t the Shaq [who] went to L.A. That Shaq was dominant. If he would have met Dream at that time, then Dream would have had problems, but Shaq was still young. Dream was established and in his prime.
They’re two different players with contrasting styles. Shaq is the power player. Hakeem was the finesse player. They each presented problems for the other, and with Shaq’s power, Houston spent a lot of time double-teaming and forcing the ball out of his hands. When you have a guy like Shaquille O’Neal guarding somebody, you don’t always have to come with the double, but Hakeem just had that unique style, to be getting the ball 12, 14 feet away from the basket and using his speed and footwork to create problems. We really had to mix up our defenses with him.
You had a guy that was fundamentally sound against a guy that was young, flamboyant, and talented. He taught me everything I needed to know about being a winner.
We actually played the best basketball that we played the entire year in the first half [of] the first game against Houston. We really did. We were guarding 90 feet to a man. We just had a great first half.
They beat us both of those [regular-season] games and here we are starting this series, and they’re free-stroking on us. There was a feeling of concern.
We came to the huddle. It was Clyde, myself, Hakeem, Sam [Cassell], and Robert Horry, like a semi-huddle. We go, “I think if we get it to eight, they fold.” And so, we get it to eight and we come back and we say, “If we win, they won’t win a game in this series.”
Photo: Getty Images
You figured that Hardaway would make enough plays, [that] Shaq would be able to make plays.
If they just utilized the whole bench during that series, I honestly believe we would have won. I’m sitting there for the first game. They can say I’m a bad guy or whatever they want, but sitting there for the first game and watching that we’re up 20 going into halftime,12 and you never take none of your bench players and let them play? Those [starters] are tired. I can hold my own on defense and they know that. Ain’t too many guys that are going to just blow past me or go around me or Donald Royal or other guys that we had on the bench. You can’t win an NBA Finals with six guys.
At times, there were disagreements because of the bench’s style of play. With Bowie backing up Nick and Royal backing me up, we were perfect complements because Donald was a better defensive player and a better driver [than me]. But if Shaq was on the floor and Penny was on the floor and if Donald was on the floor, now the defense wasn’t stretched out because Donald wasn’t a great outside shooter.
I started during the regular season. In the playoffs and the Finals, I think I played two minutes the whole game.13 I had a very bitter taste in my mouth, especially the way we lost. God bless our boy Dennis Scott, but we were hurt defensively and that was why I was there.
When you’re sitting there and coach is asking guys, “Are you tired?” Why the hell did you ask if they’re tired? You know they’re tired. Put somebody else in.
It seemed like Robert Horry, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell, Mario Elie, it seemed like they didn’t miss a shot at all. When we double-teamed Dream, I thought, Man, it’s just their destiny to win because they are not missing.
Game 1, Kenny Smith had an unbelievable game hitting 3s. I played for Houston for two years with Kenny. I never saw him shoot the ball that well. I really felt, Not this guy. This guy’s going to beat us? But great players are made in the playoffs, and he beat us.
We had Houston on the ropes and the next thing you know, they’re back into it, but we survived and now Nick has the two free throws and it looks like we’re home free.
I went up; I missed two free throws.
That was his opportunity to be the man. Penny had the commercials. Shaq had all his stuff. I had my Reebok commercials. It was Nick’s time to shine.
It was just one of those things that unless you saw it in person, you probably wouldn’t believe it. Nick, at that time, he was not a bad free throw shooter. Seventy percent shooter with 10 seconds to go — you’re up three and he needs to make one to give you a four-point lead. He missed two. The second [miss] careened off the iron and [Anderson] waded into the lane and got the rebound and then got fouled again.
That was the amazing thing. He gets fouled again. So it’s kind of, “We’re OK. We got a reprieve.”
When he missed the first two, I was so mad. I was mad at Mario [Elie] because he didn’t box out and [Anderson] got the rebound. So I’m screaming at Mario. Forget about Nick. I wasn’t even worried about Nick. I was like, “The guy missed two free throws and you don’t box out?”
Just make one. I’m not the greatest free throw shooter, so I can’t be telling people to make two shots.
I just wanted him to make one. That was it: Make it a two-possession game.
Then [I] got the rebound and went back. I missed the four free throws.
That was the biggest choke job in sports.
Your heart stops.
That was it. We were never competitive after that.
When he missed the fourth, I came from the top and grabbed the rebound, making sure we got it, and we called timeout.
People forgot, we were up 25, 23 — somewhere around there. But it came down to later in the game and one thing led to another.
Four in a row at home in front of our bench? I’d give my whole playoff check to say he wouldn’t have did that, but once he did it, what do you do? He’s your teammate and if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten that far.
Kenny Smith hits a 3 and sends the game to overtime.
We had to get the ball in and get a shot up. [Smith] made a move at the top of the circle and got some space and knocked it down.
I go up for the shot and Penny’s 6-7. I couldn’t see the rim. I literally could not see anything. It was like divine intervention — instead of jumping straight up, he jumped and he moved. And I saw the rim for that split second. I just [let] go and I knew it was good.
When that ball hit home, that building went to total silence. Just died. And we go to overtime.
I remember thinking, Uh-oh, I’ve seen this enough in sports when strange things happen to a team, then that usually does not bode well.
The whole thing was like a bad movie.
They won it on a tip by Olajuwon off a missed shot at the buzzer.
The media scrutiny after the game, Jesus Christ. [Anderson’s] locker was next to mine. I was like, “Jesus, let me get out of here.”
I can vividly remember walking into the locker room and feeling clearly defeated, [which] we hadn’t felt all season long.
We knew Nick had a lot of confidence. Being a Chicago kid, we knew he was very tough, so we figured he was going to come back the second game and make up for that. So we didn’t really say anything to him. We weren’t down to the point where we thought the series was over.
I dealt with that. I never said anything about it for years, but emotionally, mentally that bothered me for a long time. It made it seem like I lost the game. It was because of me. I’ll never forget people would write articles: “Nick the brick.” “Nick choked.” As a young player, that changed my game. I stopped being aggressive because I was always thinking, What if I miss? That bothered me for years.
Nick went from a guy that we used to post up, run the offense through — a guy who had 50 points on the road! He went from maybe taking 60 to 90 3s in a season to taking 200 or 300 3s. That’s how much those free throws messed up his game. He didn’t want to get fouled anymore.
I can’t fault Nick for that. I know it bothered him the rest of his career, but these things happen.
I think it affected them more than it would have a more experienced team. I think it rattled them. Shaq and Penny came back and played solid in Game 2,14 but I think it shook up some of the [other] players and I think that lack of experience really hurt. Winning Game 1 would have been huge for the confidence of a young team, and losing that game worked just the opposite.
After losing the first two at home, it was very hard to get our guys to believe they could win four out of five. I could sense it in their minds.
Nick Anderson bought a Ferrari in Houston and he can’t even drive a stick. We’re like, “Why are you buying a $150,000 car during the Finals, in Houston of all places?” That kind of relaxing attitude was not good, and Houston saw it and they just drove us. We were never in it.
[We lost the third game], then in the fourth game, it was one of those deals where you can’t believe it can happen to pro guys, but it can. They started off making a few shots, and we panicked and started looking and saying, “[After] this great season we just had, we’re 0-3. We’ve got a chance at being swept.” Everybody started going one-on-one to get it back. As a result, they beat us pretty bad the fourth game.
I got confetti thrown all over me. I go to the locker room and we can hear them celebrating. It’s so loud we can’t hear nothing. So we’re like, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” And then we finally get on the bus [and] the highway is backed up because everybody’s celebrating. And they found out we’re on this particular bus. Aw man, the people are throwing eggs, they’re sweeping brooms at us. It was a nightmare being in traffic for about two hours, getting tortured by fans.
It’s hard to say, [but] we got swept by a team that we thought we were much better than and it was just an empty feeling. It just works that way. I was thinking we’ve just got to regroup and see what happens. I didn’t think we were going to get back to the Finals every year, but I figured we would win a ring eventually.
I was surprised. I told Brian Hill at the end of the series that we knew how close that was. It wasn’t a dominating sweep.
We were just too young to win a championship. We didn’t know what it took, but the talent was there.
That’s when I realized what the naysayers meant. We were too young. We were too inexperienced. At that time, no matter what we did as a coaching staff, our guys couldn’t bounce back. They were not hardened enough. Shaquille was ready to go, but as a team, we couldn’t shake those two losses.
I still believe to this day, if we had won Game 1, we would have won the series.
I honestly believe, and no one else would probably say this with me, but I honestly believe that if we had Scott Skiles on that team, playing against Houston, we win easily. When you have a floor general like Scotty Skiles, a guy that’s tough, hard-nosed — he finds a way of getting it done.
I’ll never forget after they had beaten us in the fourth game, watching them celebrate and saying, “This is going to be us next year.”
Losing to the Rockets and getting swept, it was just a bad taste in my mouth and I knew the Bulls were going to come back the following year.
You remember when LeBron left Cleveland and he went to Miami, he said, “We’re going to win not just one championship, but two and three.” That was how I felt with that team, that we were going to have great success for years and years, and it didn’t happen.
I really thought the next year would be the year that we would come into our own and have a legitimate shot.
Orlando won 60 games in 1995-96, even though O’Neal missed more than 20 games with a broken wrist. The season contained some memorable moments, including a winter storm that stranded the team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they shared a hotel with the cast of Sesame Street Live and Marilyn Manson’s band. Heading into the playoffs, the Magic found themselves on a collision course with the 72-10 Chicago Bulls, who set the NBA record for single-season wins in Michael Jordan’s first full season since returning from retirement.
Shaq missed the first 22 games of the year with a broken wrist. People kept telling us we’d be below .500, [but] we started 17-5 with Jon Koncak as our starting center. [O’Neal] ended up missing 28 games that year and we still won 60.
I ended up playing quite a bit. We started off pretty well. It put us in a position that when he came back, we were not that far behind.
We were supposed to fly into Philly and a Nor’easter hit right when we got in the air. We thought we’d be able to get into Philly [but the plane was forced to land in Allentown]. By the time we got to the airport, we were lucky to make it to the Holiday Inn and we spent two or three days in four feet of snow.
I went to my room and lay down and Joe Wolf called me and said, “Hey, let’s go get a burger or have a beer or something.” We go down to the bar and half the team’s already there.
We walk in [the bar], there’s three groups: Marilyn Manson and his people, Sesame Street On Ice, and us. What a mixture. Shaq goes in and he knew Marilyn Manson. He goes in and he picks him up in the air like he was a toothpick.
Coach Hill just said, “We can’t do anything for a couple of days. Enjoy yourself.” And it was a true team bonding experience in the middle of the season. We couldn’t go outside. It was snowing inches upon inches. Although we did have some fun in the streets. We played football and ate together and joked around.
We sat down at the bar with about the whole town of Allentown. I think we drank up everything at the bar.
Sooner or later, they were going to start running out of food. It was good that we got a chance to get out of there.
We had a police escort [with] snowplows that took us to the airport because the NBA said we had to get back to Florida to play. I think we left at 11 a.m., got back at two and ended up playing at seven that night.
Penny really established himself and the Lil’ Penny doll and was having some commercial success. There was always an undercurrent that Shaq had to make sure everybody knew that he was the man. I think Shaq, just like he had trouble in L.A. with Kobe, eventually I think it bothered Shaquille with all the success Penny was having.
I don’t know, maybe he looked at it that way. I can’t really — he never said that to me.
Egos, egos, egos. And it’s just a darn shame that all the talent that Shaq and Penny had, they couldn’t just be one and win championships. That’s what it should have been all about. Not who gets the perfect parking space or who gets the commercial.
I think it’s a misconception that players have to like each other. The key word is respect. Don’t matter if you like me, but I know you respect me.
Shaq had an uneasy relationship with the media early in his career with Orlando. They would write stories about our cars and how we lived. It was outside the game, and that used to bother Shaq.
If you’re going to have two stars on a team and you’re going to have Shaquille O’Neal with the other star, Shaquille O’Neal is always the main man.
Orlando finished the 1995-96 season at 60-22 — good for second in the conference, behind the Bulls’ best-ever 72-10 record. Orlando blitzed through the Pistons and Hawks, losing only one game in the first two rounds, to set up a rematch against the Bulls and Michael Jordan, who was back to his old self.
Michael was at full strength. It was over. Everything as we knew it was over.
They were on a mission. They added Dennis Rodman and they went for the jugular. We didn’t have enough to beat them.
With Horace getting hurt,17 we just didn’t have enough firepower.
Michael had a full year under his belt. They had a huge chip on their shoulders, which the Bulls had never had to have a chip on their shoulders because they were always the best.
The guy that was on a mission was Jordan. Jordan was so competitive and was so pissed off from the year before. I watched every Bulls game that season that I possibly could, because I knew we were going to have to go through them to come out of the East. There were nights when he just willed that team, when he yelled and screamed at teammates who he didn’t think were playing hard.
Scottie Pippen guarded me mostly. He knew how to make you uncomfortable. He knew how to make you use your weak hand and not play to your strengths. They were a great help defensive team, so when you beat him, somebody was right there. It was almost like they had the Penny and Shaq rules, like, “We’re not letting these guys do this. Last year, we allowed them to do whatever they wanted.”
We thought we could get a couple games, get into a flow, and figure them out. In reality, they had come into the series already knowing that they had figured us out and [they] took it to us.
[Losing in 1995] was extra incentive. We saw the challenge. We stepped in front of it; we faced it and we conquered it. It was not a Michael Jordan thing. I think the team had gratification, not just Michael Jordan.
There was something missing. I think we can all look back and see that now. We might not have known that then, but something was missing, because that team should have won a championship.
I thought we had taken a step backward. Even though we had injuries, we almost got complacent [that] year. I was like, We’ve got to tighten this thing up, because we’re still young enough. We still have a great chance.
The summer of 1996 was a banner year for NBA free agency. Jordan, Reggie Miller, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard, Alonzo Mourning, and several others hit the market. None of them — not even Jordan, who was 33 at the time — was as coveted as O’Neal. He was 24 years old — not even close to his prime — and there was no ceiling on what he could sign for. O’Neal was coming off his rookie contract, and the Magic did not have access to restricted free agency or the right to offer longer, more lucrative contracts to players it had drafted (those protections would be added under future collective bargaining agreements). Still, O’Neal was expected to remain in Orlando.
Shaq told me, “I want to stay in Orlando.” Everybody thought I wanted him to come to L.A. In the back of my mind, I thought it would be cool if he came to L.A., but at the same time, if he wants to stay in Orlando, then that’s OK too.
In Los Angeles, our owner, Jerry Buss, always wanted to acquire players that would give us an opportunity to play for championships. And when you’ve got a player of Shaquille’s caliber — his ability to dominate games and be the most destructive force in basketball at that time was pretty unique. Those opportunities don’t come along very often.
My uncle Jerome was with me. We had a conversation with Orlando. We were like, “This is what we want.” They denied it. Then we had a conversation with Mr. Jerry West. He accepted it. So I left that day. I wasn’t messing around.
Shaquille, one of the things I tried to talk to him about — we won a lot of championships here and we’ve had really great teams and great players. I insisted to him that maybe we could do it better than Orlando. I felt we had players here who would give him a better chance to win.
That was the year that Alonzo [Mourning] got [$105 million]. I know that [O’Neal’s] representation wanted in excess of that. There was a legitimate point of time, still early in Shaquille’s career, where he hadn’t really won anything yet. No one was doubting his talent, but it was reasonable to argue what was fair market value. We were a young franchise and we had some things going [for us] like no state tax.
They didn’t match quick enough. Forget matching. You’ve got to make the offer at the beginning. Everyone knows I wanted to stay. My house is 80,000 freaking square feet. You think I wanted to just leave that thing? Eighty thousand. It ain’t like I was planning to go.
There was a poll in the Orlando Sentinel: “Is Shaq worth the maximum salary?” The poll came back that he’s not worth that much or something. The [Magic] came in with a four-year deal. They didn’t say maximum salary. They said four years and here’s how we’re going to do it. They said they want to leave cap room for Penny. It really, I think, disappointed Shaq. Once the poll came in and the Magic were saying they didn’t want to pay him the max for the seven-year deal, he’s like, “Well, let’s look at some other options.” That’s when the Lakers basically said, “We’ll do whatever we can to get him.” That’s why the negotiations didn’t take very long.
That let me know and it let all the basketball people know — this small town Orlando don’t know basketball.
The [Magic] had [an offer of] 80 [million] and then they put up billboards [that] said, “No man’s worth $100 million.” Jerry West said, “I’ll give you whatever you want.” And then, the crazy thing is, I was going to come back [to Orlando] and get the 80. That’s when Juwan Howard got [$101 million] and Mourning got 105. So we called John [Gabriel] up and John wasn’t talking right, and Jerry West said, “Hey, right now we can give you 98, but we can probably get you some things on the side.” He called me later — about three in the morning — and said, “We’re going to get you 120.” I said, “I’ll meet you over there.”
“My house is 80,000 freaking square feet. You think I wanted to just leave that thing? Eighty thousand. It ain’t like I was planning to go.” —Shaquille O’Neal
I had called around the league, and fortunately for us, Vancouver secured the deal for us [by taking George Lynch and Anthony Peeler off the Lakers’ salary cap] because we didn’t have to take a player back. That put us over the top and we were able to finalize the deal with [O’Neal].19
Did owner Rich DeVos lowball Shaq? Yes. That’s pretty clear that the first few offers they gave him, they were afraid to give a young kid that much money, even though Alonzo Mourning had a $100 million contract with the Miami Heat.
When it’s time to be a free agent and the organization that drafted you doesn’t do everything they can to keep you, he was like, “The hell with you.” The [Magic] were mad because they were like, “You’re not spending enough time on your craft.” He was spending time with his commercials, Shaq-Fu, and all this other stuff. That was far from the truth, as we’ve all learned.
Once he made his mind up, that was it. He was gone. He had no interest in talking to us. But he kept his home here. His family is here. He never left Orlando.
We just moved at a pace which I thought had a pretty decent process to it, but was just long enough to give Jerry West time to make the trades he needed to bring [O’Neal] out west and get him signed by the Lakers.
I think [Armato] was interested in having Shaquille here, but for a long time there was never any indication he would come. You’re just trying to pin people down and say, “Hey, look, if we do this, would you guys consider coming here?” When we traded Vlade [Divac], he knew we were serious about what we were trying to accomplish.
I always thought it would be nice if he was [in Los Angeles]. I lived there and was obviously very familiar with the market, but I wasn’t prepared to push him if that wasn’t where he wanted to go. That’s your duty as a representative, to do what’s best for your clients, what they want.
That was the year they traded Divac and got the first [round] pick and drafted Kobe from Charlotte with that pick. That was Jerry West’s finest moment. That was marvelous front-office work by him.
I said, “You belong in Los Angeles with your personality.” And obviously [O’Neal] had a desire to get involved with a lot of things other players wouldn’t even think about doing. Movies — he wanted to be Clark Gable.
I was [rapping and acting] anyway. I was doing that in the summer. It was lucky for me to go out there and do that, but that wasn’t the reason. The 120 was that reason. I’m a businessman. There wasn’t nothing else.
Jerry Buss and I discussed it on many occasions, that this is an unprecedented amount of money for a basketball player. But one basketball player can change a franchise.
When we knew the Lakers were getting the most money, ownership flew to Atlanta to meet with [O’Neal’s] representation. But by the time we landed back in Orlando, Reebok, I think, had already called a press conference.
I was at a press conference for the Olympics in Atlanta and we were all on a panel and they asked me how did I feel about losing Shaq, and I was like, “What do you mean?” That’s how I found out.
I will never forget sitting on my couch, watching track and field during the Olympics, when the press conference came and Shaquille O’Neal was holding up a jersey going to the Los Angeles Lakers. My cell phone rings right during that time: My dad says, “You know your championships just went to L.A.?”
I saw it on the news. [It was] like Mike Tyson hit me. You cannot recover from a guy that size, in his prime, that dominant [leaving].
I was devastated. I still had to play the Olympics, but I knew the Magic were not the Magic anymore without Shaq. There’s no way you can replace him. It crushed me because I felt like we were going to do so many more big things together. And he left. I knew going to L.A. was going to be great for those guys. Kobe was young and [the Lakers] are going out to get a supporting cast [for] their stars. I knew it was going to be trouble.
Rich [DeVos] would not be a guy that would hold a guy like Shaq or Dwight Howard back. You’ve got an owner that would tell a guy, “If Orlando is not where you want to be, then we want you to do what you want to do.”
I don’t think we appreciated Shaq enough in Orlando. And I think the fans, because back then there was a big deal about his free throw shooting. How could we ever win a championship because Shaq can’t make free throws? They’re going to foul him at the end of the game, we’re going to lose, and that’s what the fans were putting in the papers when he was a free agent. I think that helped him leave to go to the Lakers.
He called me — and I didn’t return his call — before he signed with the Lakers. And to this day I wish I had just answered that call, and maybe he would have still been in Orlando.
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It was unfortunate that I left. I think if we would’ve stayed together, we would’ve at least got one. I don’t know about winning three in a row like we did in L.A., but I know we would have got one.
That was a time of mourning around here. I was heartbroken. You can always look back at what if.
At first I thought about, Did I make the right move? But once I won those three in a row, I know I made the right move. As a youngster, I was kind of reluctant to go to L.A. because I wanted to make my own mark. I wanted to be the guy in Orlando. I wanted it to be my jersey only in Orlando. But it’s a great honor [now] to be next to those [Lakers greats]. But at first, when I left, I thought it was the wrong decision.
I think it broke a lot of sports fans’ hearts [in Orlando]. Some people — longtime Magic fans — still haven’t gotten over it.
I’m saying to myself, “How do you let Big Fella walk out of here with nothing?”
Most of the fingers are pointed at Shaq because he bailed after four years, and then when he came back the next season and seasons after that, he was booed. He was the villain in the eyes of most fans.
When he got there, the whole city of Orlando got paid and all the players benefited from him being there, but once he left, it was like a hole.
No way he would have ever got to Los Angeles [if Orlando had won a championship in 1995]. It would have been called Shaqland, not Disney World. That would have changed the whole name of the city.
We had nothing. We all got traded. I got traded to Golden State with Felton Spencer. At that point — without [O’Neal] — none of us got paid.
As exciting as it was to get him, it was equally deflating to lose him. It took a long time to get over it.
The Magic’s first season without O’Neal got off to a 24-25 start before turning sour over what would later be described as a mutiny against coach Brian Hill. After Richie Adubato was hired to replace Hill as interim coach, the team rallied and made the 1997 playoffs, where they lost in the first round to Miami. Chuck Daly became Orlando’s coach the following season, but knee injuries limited Hardaway to just 19 games. He would never fully recover. O’Neal, meanwhile, would go on to win three championships with the Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
The one thing I was taught early on is, once your [team is] at a certain level, be careful of taking a step back for either retooling or rebuilding. When we lost Shaquille, we pretty much kept the group intact and needed Penny to step up.
I welcomed it with open arms, but I knew it was going to be difficult without Shaq. To have him leave, the word I use is “devastating.” You just can’t lose someone of that magnitude.
Penny became a coach killer. He was really hard to deal with for the coaches or the media or most anybody. It was him or nothing. He couldn’t stand when Brian Hill kind of erupted at him in the locker room after a game. As a group, I guess they were typical (of the) NBA.23
The story goes that in the locker room, the [team] decided that they just weren’t going to play for Brian Hill anymore. There were a couple games where they basically just laid down and didn’t play defense.
You had the feeling that the players weren’t performing. They came back from All-Star break and went on a losing streak, and the players didn’t seem engaged like before. You started wondering if Brian was going to make it.
I believe Peter Vecsey reported that Hill was going to be fired. John Gabriel pulled him into a coat room or something and told him what was being reported. He didn’t fire Brian immediately, but it was clear something had to happen.
We’re in Chicago and Brian walks in and says, “Hey, I think I’m getting fired.”
What we normally do is go to the coach’s [office] and start watching tape. But somebody said Peter had this breaking story about the coaching staff, so we turned it on to see what Peter said, and when he said that, of course we looked at each other.
All [the players] were kind of involved. Horace Grant, that’s his big regret to this day — the player coup with Brian Hill. He’s not proud that he was a part of it.
I was just along for what the team was going for. I’m honestly just a team guy. It was a unanimous vote and that’s what we went with. There wasn’t anybody pulling anybody’s arm or anything like that.
The real kicker was we were on the road for a two-game trip. We had to go to Charlotte after we left Chicago and, man, each second [felt like] an hour. That’s where I gained even more respect for Brian Hill. When we flew into Charlotte, he had a coaches meeting and told us, “We’re coaching to win this game and we’re going to give it everything like we normally do. Don’t worry about me or about the staff being fired. We’re going to show up and do our jobs.”
It was one of the toughest things that we ever had to do. But it gets to a point where you need to make a change. It wasn’t so much about the wins and losses but a team [not] responding [to] leadership. So we made the change.
It’s part of the business. Like I said at my press conference afterward, I thank the DeVos family for the opportunity. I was there seven years — three as an assistant and four as head coach — and maybe guys needed a different voice. I hold no ill feelings toward anybody. I think it would have worked out better for everybody if they had waited till the end of the year. But that’s about all I would get into with it.
I ended up talking to a couple players just to try and find out, “Hey, what’s the problem? Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Why was it hidden instead of having an open dialogue?” We tried to get to the root of the problem. At that point in time, it was too late.
I’m not going to lie. I was pissed. I just could not believe that with all the love that we had for each other, this would be brewing. To the players’ credit, if you will, nobody leaked anything. Nobody said a word. I thought by me being a player-coach, I would have heard something.
That’s a touchy situation. I was the captain, and the captain’s going to take the biggest hit. When you’re the captain, they’re going to be like, “You’re the reason it happened.”
Brian had his foot on the pedal a lot and he kept pushing. There’s guys in the league that can handle that. Some can’t. One of the things I think every player has to understand is that coaches push buttons because we try to get wins. I don’t know if Penny understood. I think Penny, in his mind, thought he was being picked on.
I think Penny got the blame because a lot of media pointed the finger at him. That was unfair. It wasn’t just Penny Hardaway. The team overall wanted a change, and Penny got stuck because he was the star of the team.
It was very common for an opposing player to tell us, “Thanks to Brian Hill, you guys are never going to win a championship.”
To this day, I have not found out what happened. It was just really a bad, bad thing because we had so much good stuff going. For that to happen — I watch Jerry Springer a lot, so bear with me — it’s kind of like your brother having sex with your wife. It was [that] unbelievable.
That was the beginning of the end, really.
When you get fired, you’re completely demoralized. You understand it’s part of the business, but it’s not easy. This is what you love to do. This is your life. I’ve been fired four times — two times I should have, two times I shouldn’t. But it doesn’t matter. It’s four times that you’re going through hell.
That still bothers me to this day. Looking back at it now, a lot of the blame for us going backward was put on Brian Hill unfairly. Especially now, me being a coach,24 you know it’s a player’s game and if your teams don’t win, you get replaced. At the time, I remember us getting together as a team and kind of [saying], “Is he still getting to us? Do we need a new voice? Because obviously we’re not going in the direction that we need to be going.”
I went in, I said, “Brian, I can’t take this job. This is rough, man.” And he said, “You have to take it.”
Richie was the perfect guy to take that team over because he was just a fun, great coach — kind of a happy-go-lucky personality.
When I took over, we had a home game and every one of our players were booed on introduction. Can you imagine on your home court, they introduce your team and everyone’s booed?
The fans didn’t understand what was going on. The fans loved B-Hill and he had just taken us to the Finals and the Eastern Conference finals back-to-back. It’s just fans being passionate.
When Richie took over, the coaching staff said we would not use Brian’s office. We just met in Richie’s office and my office or in the conference room.
Then we got into the playoffs. We were eight games over .500. We played Pat Riley’s 61-21 team and he had Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway. When I played them, I lost Horace Grant, [who] got hurt going into the playoffs. They beat us the first two games in Miami. Then we came back home and played the two games at home. I gave the ball to Penny. I brought him in the office and I said, “Look, you think you’re better than Grant Hill, and so do I. The five plays that Detroit runs for Grant Hill, we’re putting them in tomorrow. They’re very simple, a lot of isolation. If we lose, then we’re out, so we’ve got to give it all we have.” He scores 41 and 42 and we won both games. [That] put us in the fifth game down in Miami, [and] Tim Hardaway hit a couple of real big shots to beat us down the stretch. [Then] I got fired. I won 65 percent of my games and got fired. They wanted Chuck Daly.
Chuck was a no-nonsense guy. Penny and Chuck did not see eye-to-eye. It was just a matter of time before the franchise moved him, and they were headed that way anyway, because after Shaq left they weren’t in contention.
Daly opted out, even though he had two more years on his contract for some pretty good money. I was there at Daly’s house an hour or so after he announced that he was hanging it up. Penny sent over roses to Terry, who is Chuck Daly’s wife. [When] she [learned] it was from Penny Hardaway, she took the flowers and put them right in the trash. That was a pretty vivid indication of how Penny was regarded in the Daly household.
[Penny] had a great ’96-97 and then injuries started to play a part.
Joe Dumars — I will never forget it. I was going up for a rebound and he slammed his knee right into the back of my knee. I don’t even know if he knew that he hurt me. And then from that point on, my knee never felt the same.
Tree Rollins described Penny as a European sports car. When everything was running, it was beautiful, but the slightest little problem would bring it to the curb.
Just Google [it]. Go and look at the highlights of Penny Hardaway. In his prime, healthy: 6-8, can pass, shoot, explosive. If that guy had been healthy, you could say he’d have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
My knee just wasn’t feeling well. I couldn’t explode. I couldn’t run. After the game, it took me a long time to get out of my car to walk into my house because I didn’t want to straighten my knee. It was swelling up so bad that just straightening it out was excruciating. I’d go on to the next day, recover a little bit, practice, play another game, and after the game, man, it would be hurting.
He didn’t have quite the lift — and that was one of his great gifts, his jumping ability.
He would tell me on the court, “My knee ain’t right. They’re telling me it’s all right.” I used to tell him all the time, “You have to get a second opinion.” He started missing games. It really started messing with him mentally.
He had a chance to be one of the greatest, but then the knee went out and he never was the same… Plus, after Shaq left, Penny — there was too much on his platter. I think he was a great, great complement to Shaq, but I think alone, it was just too much we asked of him.
If not for injuries, we’d be talking about possibly one of the greatest players of all time at his position with his size and his skill set.
I was one of the first guys to get microfracture [surgery]. And the way it happened was that the doctor didn’t really explain to me what a microfracture was. He went in to repair a meniscus and said, “If I can do a procedure that will help you prolong your career, I’ll do it.” He drilled a hole and then told me afterward, “I was able to do the procedure.” I didn’t know what it was. I was like, “If this is going to help my career, OK.” It’s like a six-month, almost to a year, recovery. My quad depleted, couldn’t even get the strength in my quad, and then I tried to play on that. And that’s when my career went down. That was [later], in 2001.
We were faced with the situation to sign him to a long-term deal — he was still young — or trade him for multiple players and draft picks. We had to evaluate: Was this going to be a wise investment? I remember ownership had spoken to me and said, “Are you and Pat ready to do this, or should we see if Penny wants to come back and try to reelevate his game and the franchise?” I actually called him once the deal was almost done and asked him one more time, “Is this something you would actually do? Come back to the Magic?” I recall him telling me, “I really believe it is time for me to move on.” And I said, “We’ll make the deal.”28
It all ended before it really started. Orlando’s Shaq-and-Penny era felt longer than their three years and one Finals appearance. O’Neal’s decision to leave Orlando for Los Angeles helped convince the NBA to institute a luxury tax for teams that exceed the salary cap. The tax was partly intended to restrict big-market franchises’ ability to lure marquee players away from the teams that drafted them, although it underestimated many owners’ willingness to pay penalties in pursuit of assembling a championship roster. The reign of two of the generation’s finest talents playing together was cut short, Hardaway’s health gradually deteriorated, and the question of how good the Magic could have been lingers as one of the great “what ifs” in NBA history.
It’s a shame we couldn’t stay together longer. That’s what I always think about. Look at the Bulls before they started winning championships — they took their lumps. I think first from Boston, and then they had to get through New York and Detroit. But that team stayed together. They finally got over the hump and won back-to-back-to-back championships.
In hindsight, I think every one of us probably regrets that the group couldn’t stay together. It could have been really special for years to come.
My opinion: It would have been more than a couple [championships].
The first six years were great — it felt like nothing could go wrong. Then the last eight years it was torture because I didn’t have my athleticism. I didn’t have my speed, my quickness. I could never get myself back healthy. I wasn’t myself and I had to play basketball not being me. It was like living a nightmare, really.
A lot of people forget about Penny. I think he was a fabulous player. The unfortunate thing about him is he’s going to be one of those “if” players. What if he didn’t get hurt?
I don’t think the city or team has recovered from that — even now.
I used to have this conversation with Dwight Howard years ago. I used to tell him, “Shaquille O’Neal at your age, even at a younger age, he’d have killed you.” But he don’t seem to think so. I used to tell him, “Man, you just don’t understand. You caught Shaq on his elder years and you still really couldn’t do nothing with him. But a young Shaquille O’Neal? Ain’t nothing you could do but holler, ‘Help, help, help!’”
From my perspective, it was the highlight of my career, having the opportunity to go to the Finals — to coach Shaquille, to coach Penny. And to help in the development of other guys. I have no ill feelings about those days. It was a fantastic opportunity, and one I’m very proud of.
There isn’t one person in the league that wouldn’t tell you, “Just give me a shot at it. Just give our franchise a shot at winning it all.” To get that far and to accomplish what they accomplished at such an extremely young age, it’s something that people will be proud of for a long time.
What we thought was going to be a 10-year run turned out to be three or four. Well, as it turns out, the Bulls were still good. The next year, ’96, they killed us in the playoffs. I’m not sure we would have gotten past the Bulls for a few years. But at some point, it was going to be our turn if we could have kept that whole ship afloat.
We did a game with Penny last year. We brought back players for the [franchise’s] 25th anniversary, and it was a big deal because Penny had not been back to a game. There were hard feelings when he left, and he was worried about how fans would react. He had a tremendous, tremendous reaction from the fans. I saw the emotion was just etched all over his face.
It meant a lot because I felt like I left a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in Orlando. I gave it my all whenever I stepped out on the floor, and it made me feel really good to have a standing ovation from the Magic fans.
Time kind of heals those wounds, and the [fans] forget why they booed, and [they] cheer his greatness. That was neat, and I think he was moved by the whole thing.
I still make my home in Orlando. I just got my hair cut and even my barber was talking about those days. You would think they would be talking about the Dwight Howard days. They went to the championship round also, with the Lakers. But they always talk about those [Shaq and Penny] days. Those were great days.