Here's a dose of bittersweet irony: Nineteen years after he left, Shaquille O'Neal now will stay with the Orlando Magic for good.
Finally, Shaq has a permanent home with the franchise at Amway Center. The Magic will induct him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame, located on the Terrace Level, before Friday's game against the Detroit Pistons.
O'Neal has been viewed by many for so long as a treasure and a traitor. He was the club's No. 1 pick in 1992 and led Orlando to an NBA Finals appearance in 1995. After just four seasons, he bolted for the L.A. Lakers as a free agent. He won three titles while the Magic steadily declined.
Retired since 2011, O'Neal, 43, is scheduled to be here to receive a plaque and speak with the media. He also will be honored on the court, which still might produce some mixed reactions.
Take a look back at Shaq's memorable moments in Orlando:
Look out, Mickey Mouse
Orlando's reputation as a backwoods sports town changed forever on June 24, 1992. That was the day that the Magic — armed with the No. 1 lottery pick heading into their fourth season — selected O'Neal out of LSU. "Look out, Mickey Mouse. I'm coming for you," Shaq wrote in his 2011 autobiography, "Shaq Uncut." The most imposing player in college basketball turned a 21-61 Magic team into a 41-41 club in his rookie season. Three playoff runs and a 1995 Finals appearance would follow as fans took a big-league joy ride along with Shaq, aka The Diesel.
On Nov. 6, 1992, 20-year-old Shaq made his regular-season debut as a rookie against a team he would lead to a title one day: the Miami Heat, the Magic's bitter in-state rival. He scored 12 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and had eight turnovers during Orlando's 110-100 win. "I played all right," he said. Shaq spent most of the day playing the Sonic the Hedgehog video game with his 4-year-old nephew. "I killed him," O'Neal joked.
Unsuspecting basketball goals were no match for the 7-foot-1, 325-pound O'Neal. He pulled down the entire stanchion hydraulics while facing the Suns in Phoenix on Feb. 8, 1993. His dunk snapped a steel hook anchoring the base to the concrete floor. Said an arena manager: "It was the strength of Shaq." Two months later, in East Rutherford, N.J., against the Nets, Shaq demolished a basket on a slam, causing a 47-minute delay. "I got hit in the head by the shot clock, but I'm all right," O'Neal said. "I'm a knucklehead."
Shaq toyed with the Detroit Pistons on Feb. 16, 1993, scoring 46 points and hauling in 21 rebounds in the Magic's 124-120 overtime loss. The Pistons used the popular "Hack-a-Shaq," putting the poor free-throw shooter on the line. O'Neal missed four free throws in the final minute of regulation. The problem would haunt him, but he usually made light of it. He played himself in Scary Movie 4, tossing bricks at a basket and once said, "If I was able to shoot 80 percent from the line, I'd probably be an arrogant person rather than a humble one. Everything happens for a reason."
Shaq had an oversized, child-like personality and grandiose plans off the court. After winning Rookie of the Year, he did national commercials and sang rap songs, working with Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. He acted in the basketball-centric movie, "Blue Chips," with Nick Nolte and future teammate Penny Hardaway. He then played a genie in "Kazaam" and a superhero in "Steel." Little-known fact: Shaq didn't think he'd ever act or rap given his slight stuttering problem that made him feel insecure.
Shortly after Shaq's birth, his father, Joe Toney, abandoned his mother, Lucile, then 18. His mom remarried, and Shaq always considered his strict stepdad, Philip Harrison, a military man, his real father. Nicknamed "The Sarge," Harrison was an ever-looming presence around the Magic. Toney said on the Riki Lake Show that he yearned to reunite with his son. Shaq, on a plane bound for Orlando, wrote these poignant rap lyrics about Harrison: " . . . as far as I'm concerned he's my father, 'cause biological didn't bother."
Shaq vs. Penny
After befriending Memphis Tigers star Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway on the set of "Blue Chips," Shaq wanted the Magic to pick him over Chris Webber in the 1993 draft. The club swung a trade for Hardaway, and Penny and Shaq became the NBA's most promising duo. But their friendly one-upmanship — if Penny bought a Ferrari, Shaq bought two —– turned sour when Hardaway started considering himself Shaq's equal. "The bad thing is when you have two alpha males that don't have the same understanding, things can go haywire," Shaq wrote in "Shaq Uncut." "That's what happened with me and Penny." That also happened later with Shaq and Kobe.
During the 1994-95 season, Shaq, Penny and former Chicago Bull Horace Grant helped the Magic become the fastest expansion team reach the NBA Finals (year six). But they were swept by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, blowing a big lead in Game 1 and never recovering after Nick Anderson missed four game-clinching free throws. O'Neal screamed at Anderson in the locker room. But Shaq and Orlando's young club were immature and overconfident, with O'Neal and other teammates partying hard before the series. To this day, O'Neal calls it a "lost opportunity."
'We've lost him'
After the Magic were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the 1995-96 conference finals, Shaq had a decision to make that would change his world — and the course of Orlando's franchise. In the summer of 1996, Magic owner Rich DeVos was reluctant to give Shaq an $100 million contract . . . until it was too late. O'Neal was also bothered by an Orlando Sentinel survey in which 91 percent of the people said he wasn't worth $115 million. The Lakers swooped in with a $121 million offer. With no ability to match — this was before restricted free agency — Magic GM John Gabriel and CEO Bob Vander Weide met with Shaq's LA-based agent, Leonard Armato, on an Atlanta volleyball court in an 11th-hour plea to keep O'Neal. Armato was shagging volleyballs for Olympic star Holly McPeak, his future wife, before the Summer Games started. Gabriel said the Magic were willing to match the Lakers' offer, but Armato was mum. After leaving, Gabriel muttered to Vander Weide, "Bob, we've lost him." Shaq led L.A. — not Orlando — to three titles. The Magic didn't fully recover until 2004, when another young superstar center named Dwight Howard came along.
Shaq and the Lakers didn't meet in Orlando until Feb. 22, 1998 — O'Neal's second season in Hollywood. As former Sentinel columnist Larry Guest wrote, jilted fans and the Magic's "burned-out shell of the woebegone franchise that had let him get away" had to wait "nearly two years to tweak the haughty nose of defector Shaquille O'Neal." Patrons booed him mercilessly and held up unflattering signs. One called him "Pond Scum," playing off Shaq calling the city "a dried-up pond" (which he later regretted saying, given he still has a home here). A short-handed Magic team upset Shaq and the Lakers 96-94. Anderson — the '95 Finals free-throw goat and later a target of Shaq's ridicule — hit the game-winning 3-pointer. He strutted the floor, mimicking O'Neal's neck-bobbing "chicken dance." Said Shaq, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds despite foul trouble: "That's entertainment. It was a fun game. I just wish we could have won. But I've been booed before. That didn't have anything to do with my play. It's not like I'm going to jump into a lake filled with alligators now because I'm upset about what happened."