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After Michael Jordan's first retirement, a kid believed Shaquille O'Neal was the next big thing

shaq and mj

When Michael Jordan came back from his first retirement in the 1994-95 season, there was an expectation that the Chicago Bulls would once again dominate the NBA. Fans thought that Jordan's return, which helped power the Bulls to win 24 of their last 34 games, would give them enough momentum to make another title run. However, there were too many factors that worked against the Bulls. One is obviously Jordan's physical condition. Fresh off his baseball stint, his body wasn't primed for professional basketball action. Two, the Orlando Magic and a young but already dominant Shaquille O'Neal had other ideas. They booted out the Bulls in just six games and went on to make the NBA Finals. They eventually lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. But that great moment of eclipsing a Michael Jordan-led Bulls was one for the books.

We're not here to talk about the what-ifs. Or to appraise the 1994-95 Orlando Magic team at the expense of the Bulls. Instead, we're here to talk about the relationship between Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan. After all, over the last two decades, the two have expressed utmost respect for one another. 

When Jordan first announced that he's hanging up his jersey and sneakers for good, the whole world was caught off guard. There was a lot of confusion about why Jordan would call it quits after snagging his third title in a row. O'Neal was one of those players who could not believe that Jordan was walking away from the game.

"I was shocked. … I just want to say I miss playing with him," O'Neal said then, as culled by Jack M. Silverstein via substack.

As in the case of professional sports, one's competitive spirit is put aside when fellow competitor bids goodbye. Like every single NBA player during those days, O'Neal knew that Jordan's retirement was a significant loss to the game. 

However, as soon as Jordan left, fans were on the lookout for the next face of the NBA. That was October 1993. Kobe Bryant was still an incoming sophomore at Lower Merion. Interestingly, before the legion of Kobe-Jordan comparisons, it was actually Shaq who was declared heir to the throne, none other than a certain Wayne Rhymes who was 14-years-old back then.

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"I think now it's going to be Shaq or somebody else, and kids are just going to forget about Michael after a while, like they did Magic," said 14-year-old Wayne Rhymes of Phoenix. "Most people only like people who are playing."

The kid would turn out to be right. There's no debate that Shaq is the most dominant big man in NBA history. There's simply no one like him. His Los Angeles Lakers were the last team to win three consecutive titles — a record that's still standing for almost two decades. A three-peat is one of the many things O'Neal has in common with Jordan.

There was even belief back then that the Lakers would win their fourth title in a row. However, this remained a fantasy as problems off the court started to trickle on court. The Lakers' alpha males Kobe and Shaq weren't seeing eye to eye. They had one last crack at the title in 2004 with the help of Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone. It wasn't enough. To make things worse, the Lakers dealt Shaq to Miami. 

Some say it was the right move. They felt that Shaq was heading towards the tail end of his career anyway. However, Jordan — who was then fresh off his third and final retirement — thought differently. For him, the decision is actually very trivial. The Lakers should have kept Shaq.

"I would have never gotten rid of Shaq [O'Neal]. It's as simple as that. You've got three championships with a big man, and big men are hard to find." "Not only that, you have the most dominant big man in the game today. You don't just send him away because you got some problems."

via Raahib Singh, The Sports Rush.

Now, there are a lot of criticisms of Jordan as a front executive. We all know that he's the one who picked Kwame Brown. However, this time around, Jordan was dead on in his remark. Shaq went on to win his fourth title two years after his breakup with the Lakers. The Purple and Gold, for their part, had to endure five agonizing years before raising the plum.

We rarely see Jordan and Shaq mentioned in the same sentence. The names Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, and even Charles Barkley are the usual suspects. But as we discovered, Jordan and Shaq are inextricably linked. They're considered the best of their generation. They have the titles to prove it. And more importantly, they hold each other to the highest acclaim. 

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