In the mid-1990s, the future of the NBA belonged to a young Orlando Magic superstar duo: Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. The dominant center and the spectacular point guard were well on their way to conquering the league and establishing a dynasty. One that shouldn’t actually have been created. And that was over before it really started.
This article originally appeared in May 2020.
When Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway shook Michael Jordan’s hands on the evening of May 27, 1996, his team-mate Shaquille O’Neal had long been on his way to the catacombs. The 2.16-meter cupboard shuffles its head down towards the cabin, closely followed by the dark shadow of a 0-4 bankruptcy in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Chicago Bulls.
At this point, nobody thinks that this picture would be the last of O’Neal in the Magic jersey. Possibly not even the center itself, certainly not Hardaway and certainly not the Magic fans.
On this night of disappointment, fans of the then still young Florida franchise dream of more successful seasons in the future, of deep playoff runs and championships. From the most dominant center of its era and one of the most spectacular point guards of the decade.
However, the reality after 1996 is different. Shaq wins one Larry O’Brien Trophy after the next in purple-and-gold instead of a pinstripe look. Hardaway’s career never really flourished after a serious knee injury.
With the loss to the Bulls that June evening, the Orlando Magic dynasty of the 1990s is over before it really started.
The beginning of the Shaq era for the Orlando Magic
The Magic was just launched seven years earlier. As part of the league expansion in 1989 from 25 to 27 teams, Florida gets its second NBA franchise. As usual for an expansion team, Magic’s early years in the Association have not been one of success. But that changed suddenly in 1992.
Luck in the lottery brought Orlando, last year the team with the second worst record, the first pick. Just in case, the then General Manager Pat Williams has already placed a Magic five-letter jersey under his table, like every other team in the Lottery. The label? “O’Neal”.
There’s no doubt that the Louisiana State University Center will be the first to go on the counter, and it will be. With Rookie of the Year furious under the baskets, Orlando scored 41 wins and 41 defeats in 1992/93. For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Magic missed a negative record, but missed the playoffs because the Pacers scored 5 points more with the same record in a direct duel with Orlando (444: 439).
Orlando Magic: Luck in the Lottery – and a surprise
As in real life, sorrow and happiness are very close in the NBA. While Indy is knocked out against the Knicks in the first playoff round, the Magic find themselves in the lottery again. Williams later describes what happens afterwards nba.com as follows: “That was a miracle. The basketball gods smiled very intensely at us during this time.”
The Magic logo is only engraved on one of the 66 ping-pong balls in the lottery, a 1.5 percent chance of the first pick. To date, it’s the Lottery’s most unlikely win ever.
In Orlando, anticipation rises in the weeks leading up to the draft for a potential big men duo Shaq and Chris Webber. When Magic actually announced the 20-year-old from Michigan as the number one pick on the day of the decision, the fans cheered at a draft party. But when Williams publicly announced a trade on stage shortly afterwards, they wanted “a revolt”.
Penny Hardaway: The Next Magic Johnson?
Instead of starting a new era with Webber and Shaq, the Magic swaps the Big for three future first-round picks and the third 1993 pick of the Golden State Warriors: Anfernee Hardaway. This is probably also on the advice of O’Neal, who a year earlier stood in front of the camera with Penny for the film “Blue Chips”.
Hardaway made an impression not only on the Big Diesel, but also on several pre-draft workouts at the Magic. “I really wanted to go to Orlando,” said the 48-year-old on the podcast years later All the Smoke. “I really wanted to play with Shaq. I was thinking of a Magic-and-Kareem-like situation.”
In fact, one or the other expert in the 2.01 meter tall point guard feels reminded of Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Not just because of the size, but also because of Penny’s Court Vision and his skills as a passer. In addition, Hardaway has impressive athleticism and a flair on the floor that makes him one of the most spectacular players in the league.
In connection with the dominance of Shaq, one of the best duos in the league is emerging in Orlando, the Magic do not regret their draft decision. After Michael Jordan resigned in the fall of 1993, the path to a title seemed more open than it has been for a long time. The Magic are ready to fill this power vacuum.