By Barry Janoff
March 29, 2015: The Orlando Magic got their old band back together, including the elusive former star who left the group at the height of its popularity.
In the summer of 1996, Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic parted company after four seasons under acrimonious circumstances when he signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers, for which Orlando received no compensation.
He joined the Lakers that season with then 17-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant, and the pair led Los Angeles to NBA titles in 2000-01-02.
The impact of O'Neal's Orlando departure caused an almost two-decade rift between the franchise and it's former superstar, lasting until 2014, when team officials invited him to be part of its 25th anniversary season-long celebration.
Although he was unable to participate in those festivities, O'Neal returned to Orlando on Friday (March 27) to be inducted into the Magic's Hall of Fame, just the third person in franchise history to receive the honor.
Reflecting on the team and teammates he had in Orlando, which included Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Nick Anderson and Jeff Turner, O'Neal said, "We had a young, fabulous team. It was a shame it got torn apart."
O'Neal, basking in the glow of his first NBA home, said during his Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, "Knowing what I know now, I would have stayed . . . This is where I started and should have stayed. The DeVos Family (owners of the Orlando Magic) deserve a couple (of NBA titles)."
The two-part induction included a pre-game afternoon ceremony with family, friends, media, former teammates and coaches; followed in the evening during a game against the Detroit Pistons — coached by former Orlando head coach Stan Van Gundy — that included a video tribute, a special GameDay program featuring Shaq from his Orlando days, Shaq head cutout giveaways and several minutes of standing ovations.
As the adage goes, "Time heals all wounds."
"This honor is based on his impact both on and off the court, and the impact he has had in the community in Central Florida," Alex Martins, CEO for the Magic, said during Shaq's induction ceremony into the Magic Hall of Fame, located within the team's home Amway Center arena. "He put the Magic and the community on the international map when it came to sports."
The event was attended by the other two Magic Hall of Fame members — Anderson, who played for the team from 1989-1999; and Pat Williams, who co-founded the expansion franchise and still remains there as the team's senior vice president.
Also in attendance was Hill, who as O'Neal's head coach in Orlando was at the center of a combination real and perceived battle for team power that ultimately saw Shaq sign with the Lakers.
"This honor is unexpected," O'Neal said in a short acceptance speech. "This was a great city, a great organization. The people here were great. A great time. We won a lot of games, had a heart-breaking loss in 1995 that still upsets me. B-Hill knows, Nick (Anderson) knows, Jeff (Turner) knows we could have beat those guys (Houston) blindfolded. But we let one get away."
Hill, now a Fox Sports Florida broadcaster and commentator, said regarding the blindfold comment, "I'm not sure about that."
Like O'Neal, two decades has put their differences in a new, revisionist light.
"He was great to coach," said Hill. He was a leader on the floor. He worked hard everyday. But the thing that stands out the most is his personality."
Mostly due to his busy schedule, the game during which O'Neal was honored came against the Detroit Pistons and head coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached the Magic from 2007-2012. Their split came about due to a clash of interested between Van Gundy and then Magic center Dwight Howard, who, like O'Neal, ultimately ended up with the Lakers.
Van Gundy put a damper on the festivities, coach the Pistons to a 111-97 win over the Magic.
In 1992, the Orlando Magic selected O'Neal out of LSU as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
That first season, the Magic went from 21-61 in 1991-92 to 41-41, and over the four seasons of O'Neal's tenure in Orlando went 208-120 and reached the NBA Finals in 1994-95 (losing in four games to the Houston Rockets).
Shaq and the Magic took decidedly different paths after parting company, which occurred while O'Neal was training with the U.S. Men's National Basketball Team prior to their gold medal run in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
After his three NBA title run with L.A., Shaq went on to win another NBA title, with the Miami Heat in 2006, before finishing his career with stints with the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.
He also went on to a career as a pitchman that had he remained in Orlando rather than going to Los Angeles may not have covered what became a landscape of product endorsements. The list currently includes AT&T (pictured), Arizona Iced Tea, Gold Bond, Icy Hot, Reebok, Buick, Zales, Phillips Van Heusen, Peerless Clothing, 2K Sports, Bloomsbury Publishing and Monster Electronics.
Not to mention appearing in such classic movies as Blue Chips, Steel and Kazaam.
He has been an NBA analyst with Turner Sports since 2011.
Orlando has had a serpentine ride since the departure of O'Neal, reaching the NBA Finals just once — 2008-09, losing in five games to Bryant and the Lakers — and over the past three years recording three 50+ loss seasons.
Despite having not played with Orlando since 1996, O'Neal is still fifth on team's all-time scoring list (8,019), second in scoring average to Tracy McGrady, first in blocks per game, second in FG percentage, third in minutes per game; and second to Dwight Howard in rebounds, rebounds per game and total blocked shots.
"Knowing what I know now, I would have stayed. This is where I started. The DeVos Family (owners of the Orlando Magic) deserve a couple (of NBA titles)."
Howard's career with Orlando mirrors O'Neal's in many ways. He was selected by the team as the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick (out of SW Atlanta Christian Academy) in 2004 and led them to a Eastern Conference title. Also like O'Neal, Howard had real and perceived run-ins with his then head coach van Gundy before departing under caustic conditions when he requested a trade to the Brooklyn Nets before, again like O'Neal, ultimately landing with the Lakers.
Will there be a time some two decades from now when Howard is welcomed with open arms into the Magic Hall of Fame? Will he echo O'Neal's words, who as he basked in the glow of the love now being show by the Magic, "Knowing what I know now, I would have stayed."
"As the years go on, with teams' hall of fames, the bad blood eventually evaporates," Pat Williams told Fox Sports Florida. "You remember all the good things they did, and the hard feelings are gone. And Shaq will always be remembered as an Orlando Magic guy. Obviously the plan was that he'd spend his whole career here, but Shaq had other ideas and opportunities."
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