It's about time - the Orlando Magic have finally retired the jersey of Shaquille O'Neal

It's about time - the Orlando Magic have finally retired the jersey of Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal has been duly honoured
Shaquille O'Neal has been duly honoured
More than a decade after the end of his career, Shaquille O'Neal has once again been honoured, this time by the franchise he began his career with - the Orlando Magic.

Overnight, the Oklahoma City Thunder, battling for top spot in the Western Conference, came out on top against the Orlando Magic. But that wasn't the most important thing for the fans in Florida.

No, the most important thing was that 28 years after leaving the franchise, and almost 13 years after announcing his retirement, Shaquille O'Neal finally saw his jersey mounted on the ceiling of the Amway Center.

And while we're on the subject of dates, it was almost 11 years since the Lakers retired his jersey on April 2nd, 2013. Purists will argue - and rightly so - that it was with the Californian franchise where he had his heyday. It was there that he won three of his four career titles, picked up his only MVP award (which should have been unanimous), and earned the reputation of being the most dominant player ever.

But it was in Orlando where he made his league debut. The Magic were lucky enough to benefit from the first pick of the 1992 draft, and it only took the management half a second to choose this seven-foot, 150kg centre who already seemed unstoppable at college. And unstoppable is the right word.

His four seasons in Orlando were unforgettable. It's rare for a rookie to come in and change the game single-handedly. Unfortunately, it was a period in his career that is often underestimated.

Incredibly, the league was forced to reinforce its backboards because Shaq was regularly breaking them into a million pieces.

In his four years with Orlando, Shaq averaged more than 27 points, 12 rebounds and 3 assists. Amazing stats for, let's not forget, what were his first four seasons in the NBA. But they only brought him one MVP podium finish (2nd in 1995) and no All-NBA First Team selections.

His departure from Orlando marked the end of that era. In 1996, he became a free agent for the first time in his career, and could sign wherever he wanted. He put the Magic on the map, taking them to the NBA Finals in 1995, just six years after their creation. Yet Florida was not "crazy about Shaq". Fans didn't think he was worth the $115 million the franchise offered to re-sign him.

The Lakers didn't question it though. $120 million was offered to him over seven years: welcome to California, "Big Aristotle"! A remarkable deal when you consider the money being handed out over the last few years to players who are not always first-rate.

Admittedly, rumour had it that things weren't going so well with teammate Penny Hardaway, but that wasn't the main reason.

For one thing, Shaq didn't get on with his coach Brian Hill. He felt restricted (imagine what would have happened if he felt free!

But above all, the Magic's first offer was $54 million over 4 years! $13.5 million a year for an ultra-dominant 27/13 player. Yes, you read that right. Meanwhile, Alonzo Mourning, who was drafted No.2 behind him, signed for the Heat for $105 million over 7 years. And for the Magic, it was clear. There was no question of offering their superstar more than $15 million a year.

What if Shaq had spent his entire career in Orlando? Where would the Magic be in the hierarchy of NBA franchises? The Magic are still waiting for their first NBA title, despite reaching the final again in 2009. But the O'Neal-Hardaway duo of the time was clearly one of the best in the NBA, and it is still maddening just how the franchise let him slip away. Today, he would have been offered a supermax contract as soon as the free agency season opened. Truly a different era.

Is that why it took so long for the Magic to retire his jersey? These days, teams hold grudges against certain players to the point of dragging out these tributes (Vince Carter still hasn't had his jersey retired in Toronto, for example).

But at least the first jersey retired in the history of the Orlando Magic is that of the best player in their history.


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