Shaquille O’Neal was one of the most dominant players of his time, taking the NBA brand to a new level. Shaq stared at almost every station. His popularity did not detract from that. On this date in 1992, he was drafted by Orlando Magic, a franchise that was hungry for success.
The draft lottery changed everything. The No.1 pick promised the jackpot, Shaquille O’Neal. A center of incredible dimensions. 2.16 meters, 147 kg. Bursting with strength. “There were eleven teams that had a jersey with O’Neal’s name on it”, said then Magic GM Pat Williams.
Everywhere in the States, the fans were spellbound in front of the TV that Sunday. The tension on the stage in Secaucus, New Jersey was almost tangible. The upcoming draft was finally considered the best since the class of Michael Jordan in 1984 with O’Neal as a cherry on a fat pie.
The disappointment of the Timberwolves was accordingly great, as they were the worst team with the highest chance of winning the first pick, as they only won the third pick. When Commissioner David Stern next pulled the logo of Charlotte Hornets out of the oversized envelope, the winner was determined.
The Orlando Magic were the first to select from the great talent pool in Portland on June 24, they won the jackpot, they had Shaq. It was like a big bang! Huge euphoria erupted around Orlando, O’Neal was already a superstar in the league before he had entered the court of the Orlando Arena.
And only a week after the start of the season the hype nationwide had no limits. As the first player ever, the rookie was named “the player of the week” in his first seven days playing in the league.
“He’s ‘the new kid on the block’, the same as when Magic or Michel Jordan came to the league, which is great,” said Knicks coach Pat Riley. Even Suns-forward Charles Barkley was not stingy with superlatives about the 20-year-old rookie. “He’s an incredible talent, he’s the future of the NBA.” Both later made their experiences with Shaq.
A new dominance on the center position
Needless to say, O’Neal secured the Rookie-of-the-Year Award. 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks put Shaq Attack on average. As the fifth player ever, he was chosen as a freshman in the starting five of the All-Star Game. Invitations to talk shows, advertising contracts, photoshoots. The brand Shaq was born.
He took the league by storm and did so with a remarkable self-image and self-confidence. No Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, no Wilt Chamberlain had this dominance at the beginning. “My dad used to tell me, do not let anyone push you over,” he later explained.
When Shaq speaks of his father, he means stepfather Phil Harrison, an Army sergeant. His biological father Joseph Toney came into conflict early with the law and was imprisoned for various drug offenses. Shaq had no contact with him until today.
Despite all the personal successes in his first season, it was not enough for the playoffs, although they made 20 wins more than last year. A year later, Orlando, then led together by Shaq and rookie Anfernee Hardaway reached for the first time the playoffs.
His third season ultimately also brought the final breakthrough in terms of sport. O’Neal was the league’s top scorer with an average of 29.3 points, the Magic won the Atlantic Division and reached the NBA finals after victories over Boston, Chicago and the Pacers led by Reggie Miller.
O’Neal delivered strong performances, but the experienced Houston Rockets with the Hakeem Olajuwon were one size too big. Orlando was swept. Despite the disappointment, it was the temporary climax of his young career.
The first injury followed. Shaq had to miss 28 games due to injuries. Something that should accompany him throughout his career. The Magic closed the season with 60 wins behind the record Bulls. However, in the Conference Finals, they did not stand a chance against Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman.
And after that, things became bad for Shaq. The relationship with the press was tense, they were against him. The relationship with coach Brian Hill was previously considered problematic and Penny Hardaway wanted to step out of the big shadow of the center.
Shaq had enough of Orlando and suddenly enough money. He was paid 121 million dollars by the Los Angeles Lakers for a seven-year contract. Of course, it was said that he looks only at the money. “I’ve had enough of hearing only money, money, money, money, money, I just want to play ball, drink Pepsi, and wear Reebok,” he said smugly to the critics.
The center liked to play with the media, and Los Angeles was the perfect place. He had already recorded his first rap album in Florida. “Shaq Diesel” achieved platinum status. Three more albums followed. With the movie “Kazaam” he finally dived into the glittering world of Hollywood. With moderate success. He did not care.
Already as a little boy, he was the entertainer. Because of his size, Shaq was teased. At 13 he was already 2.10 meters. “Children can be cruel, very cruel, he just did not look like an average boy,” his mother explained the difficult time.
In addition, frequent removals came. New cities, new schools, new children. The step-father’s military life brought that with him. At times O’Neal lived in Wildflecken in northern Bavaria. Only as a broken clown, he received the sympathies of other children.
That always accompanied him at the Lakers. Together with Kobe Bryant, he formed a fearsome duo from the start. As different as they were, as many problems as they had together, they were difficult to stop in the field. The only thing missing was a coach who could steer this elemental force in the right direction.
The Lakers reached the playoffs three times in a row between ’96 and ’99, but failed twice to the Utah Jazz, and once they were swept by the eventual champions San Antonio in the second round. During the lockout ’98, there was a first major conflict between the two. In training, there were blows between O’Neal and Bryant. Shaq repeatedly criticized the selfishness of the young Bryant and also had the feeling that the then-interim coach Kurt Rambis preferred the Shooting Guard.
The Front Office drew the right conclusions, gave a coach position to “Zen Master” Phil Jackson, and thus the success was on the way. Not only did Jackson manage to control the powder keg, but with the launch of the Triangle Offense, he also provided the perfect setting to make the most of the two superstars – though they often did not.
Three times in a row Shaq, Kobe, and the Lakers won the title. O’Neal was named Finals MVP each time and also secured the MVP award and scoring title in 2000. This dominance led to a tactic being applied by the opponent’s coaches. Former Mavs coach Don Nelson fouled the Big Man, again and again, to take advantage of his weak free-throw quota. Other coaches copied the tactics. “Hack-a-Shaq” is until today a winged term in the league.
“It drove me crazy about how lazy he was”
It was not the only attack he gave his critics. While teammate Bryant was obsessed with his game in the offseason, O’Neal enjoyed life to the fullest. Often he got completely out of shape to the training camp. “It drove me crazy about how lazy he was,” Kobe said about the time together.
So in 2000 Kobe experienced the best time of his career to date, while Shaq had more to contend with his kilos than with the opponents. After a 38-point performance by Kobe, in which the center only had 18 points, O’Neal then bluntly demanded an immediate trade. Jackson dismissed it as “childish”. Of course, that was out of the question, but the theater went through the entire Lakers era.
In 2002, O’Neal was plagued with arthritis, but instead of having the injury surgically treated in the off-season, he enjoyed the summer and dropped out at the start of the season. “I hurt myself during working hours, so I get out of work during working hours,” Shaq commented on the criticism of his late surgery appointment.
A year later, in an ESPN interview, Kobe called his teammate “fat and out of shape” and complained about Shaq’s demands for more salary, while newly-acquired veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone played for a small fee. Internally, anger grew, and yet the Lakers made it back to the finals – against the Detroit Pistons.
After five games, the home-high favorite went as a loser from the place and the reason for a lost championship was found quickly. “Shaq defeated himself, he played too passive, he just had one big game, he always looks to be a scorer, and he does not have the concentration on defense and rebounding,” said Assistant Coach Tex Winter.
Shaq, however, made it clear at the post-match press conference that one or both of them would not return and that everyone would have to decide for themselves what would be best for them – including him.
The Lakers gave Free Agent Bryant a new $136 million deal and decided to trade O’Neal. Because the interested Mavericks were not ready to send Dirk Nowitzki in return to Los Angeles, the Lakers finally accepted a bid by the Heat. For Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a first-round pick, Shaq went to Miami.
Shaq overcame the theater and injuries, played in 73 games, and led the Heat to the best record in the East. With Dwyane Wade O’Neal had the new big number of the NBA at his side with immediate effect. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they lost to the Pistons in seven exciting games. O’Neal complained that coach Stan Van Gundy did not run enough plays for him.
He then signed a new five-year contract of $100 million. During an ankle injury that forced him to miss 18 games, Pat Riley took over coaching place from van Gundy. Riley then used the center extremely dosed. O’Neal recorded career lows in almost all categories.
“I do not care about winning, not stats, if I score 0 points and we win I’m happy, if I score 50 or 60 points, break records and lose, I’m pissed off and then I know that I did something wrong. “
Just in time for the playoffs, O’Neal was back in shape. With 30 points and 20 rebounds, he led the Heat against Chicago in Game 6 in the second round. In the Conference Finals, it came to a renewed duel with Detroit – this time with the better end for Miami. Wade and Shaq led the Heat for the first time in an NBA final with superior performances. The surprise against Dallas succeeds. The fourth title for Shaq. And O’Neal insisted on sending a trip to Los Angeles. “I’ve proven that I can win anywhere – not just with the shooting guard in Los Angeles.”
But even in Miami, it was not forever peaceful. The injury problems came back and the dominance of the earlier years faded increasingly. In February 2008, it came to a scandal. In a dispute with Coach Riley O’Neal was fierce and pushed him against the chest. It was his end in Miami. Riley traded Shaq to Phoenix.
It’s just one of many clashes in his career. Shaq did not shy away from the confrontation, he even looked for it. In 1996 he fought fury with Dennis Rodman, three years later he pushed Charles Barkley. He then threw a ball at him. Both have to take a shower. “It’s one thing to beat tough slogans and the other things to be really tough,” Shaq said after the argument with Rodman.
Even with the Suns, he spared no friction. In 2009, 23-year-old Dwight Howard scored 21 points against him. Shaq, who only scored 19 points himself, retorted, “I’m really too old to try to score more than an 18-year-old, that’s not my job anymore.”
After the Suns missed the playoffs at the end of the season, they sent him to Cleveland. Shaq was looking forward to his new teammate LeBron James. “My motto is very simple: Win a Ring for the King.” He accepted his minor role as James’ associate. He did not reach his goal.
A statement from Kobe Bryant then made him change the team one last time. When the Lakers star picked up his fifth ring, he publicly showed it under Shaq’s nose. He responded directly: “I do not mess with little guys who just have to run around, always have the ball and throw on the basket 30 times per game, like D-Wade or Kobe, if Tim Duncan has five rings, the journalists can write that he may be better, I’ll accept that.”
However, the Celtics saw his ambition tickled and signed him. It should be the last grip on the title. But once again it was injuries that knocked him out. It did not make sense anymore. He tried it again in the playoffs. They lost against Miami. Only a few days later he announces his retirement. First via Twitter and then in Orlando.
What remains are four rings, an MVP Award, 3 Finals MVP Awards, 15 All-Star Nominations, 3 All-Star MVP Awards, and, above all, lots of entertainment. Shaq managed to get the NBA to a new level of entertainment. He remains one of the most popular players in history to this day.