“Unfortunately, there was a guy wearing No. 23 out there.” Said Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill after Game 4 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.
Every time I look at my stack of VHS tapes — full of every Orlando Magic/Shaq/Penny Hardaway highlight, half-time feature, interview and SportsCenter recap I came across between 1992-1996 — I think about that horrible day of May 27th of 1996. That day in 1996 was the day a part of my childhood died. It was the last game of the Shaq and Penny era. An era that was supposed to be full of NBA championships for the most dominant center and multi-dimensional point guard in the league. But thanks to the best shooting guard in the league — who was looking for revenge after losing to the Orlando Magic a year before — it ended with the sight of my favorite player walking, alone, off the court and to the lockers as a disappointed looking Penny stayed on the court to congratulate his opponents and a high-five giving Michael Jordan, who probably burned Penny’s hand since his was still hot from knocking down 16-of-23 shots for a game-high 45 points.
“It’s really sickening because we are a better team than what we displayed,” Hardaway said after the 106-101 loss. “Even though we had injuries and everything, it’s still hard to take and live with.”
In the Magic’s defense, this wasn’t your typical Jordan and Bulls either. This was the 72-win Bulls that would go on to win the first of three NBA championships between 96-98. Still, this was the Orlando Magic team that won 60 games without Shaq (thanks, Matt Geiger!) for much of the first half of the regular season. This was the Orlando Magic team that was supposed to be looking for redemption after being swept by the Clutch City Rockets in the 95 NBA Finals. Again, this was the Magic team that was supposed to produce multiple championships with a lineup of Shaq, Penny, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, and Horace Grant. But, after getting swept by Jordan and the Bulls on this day, the team and my dreams quickly fell apart.
On July 16th of 1996, the Orlando Sentinel newspaper posted a poll asking, “Is Shaq worth $115 million for seven seasons?”
That might sound like scrub money in today’s NBA but on this day in 1996 that was the biggest contract offered to an NBA player. 91.3% of 5,000 fans called in and left a “NO” on the paper’s answering machine. When those results made it to the Dream Team 3 practices, Shaq was teased by Olympic teammates (especially Charles Barkley) about it, especially since Alonzo Mourning just signed a deal for $105 million.
Two days after the poll ran, Shaq conducted “the original decision,” announcing he was taking his talent to La La Land (worth mentioning is Shaq did give the Magic a chance to match the Lakers 7-year/$121 million deal but they decided not to). That decision led to a new stack of VHS tapes from 1996-2004 and another Shaq-related story of redemption, championships and the falling out between two superstar teammates.