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The First Game: Shaquille O’Neal

Posted on December 29 2020

After starring at Louisiana State University for three seasons, Shaquille O’Neal made it official and entered the 1992 NBA Draft on April 3.

With his unique blend of size (7-1, 300 lbs), skill, and agility, O’Neal was arguably the most coveted draft prospect of the 1990s, perhaps only rivaled by Tim Duncan of Wake Forest in 1997. In fact, when the Magic won the draft lottery on May 17, 1992, Magic GM Pat Williams responded by hoisting a O’Neal Magic jersey high into the air.

“Everybody knew who that pick would be,” Williams later recalled.

Of the no-brainer decision to select O’Neal with the top pick, Houston Rockets executive John Killilea said: “He’ll be the first pick unless you want to be tarred and feathered.”

The Magic then made it official on June 24, gleefully traveling more than 3,000 miles to Portland, Oregon, to select O’Neal with the #1 pick in the first draft held outside of New York City.

With a personality as glowing as his on-court skill, O’Neal arrived in Orlando wearing Mickey Mouse ears. He professed a love for movies such as The Attack of the Ninja Brothers and Revenge of the Nine Dragon Monsters. He played Sonic the Hedgehog with his four-year-old nephew and promoted a rap album set to drop before Christmas. He boasted $15 million in endorsement deals in hand, including a shoe commercial with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, not to mention a $40 million NBA contract. And he, like Tiny, Kareem, and Magic before him, was identified by a single moniker: Shaq. No last name necessary.

Joining a Magic team that sputtered to a 21-61 record in the 1991-1992 NBA season, O’Neal faced high expectations to turn around the fortunes of the upstart Magic, a young franchise only three seasons into its existence. Magic leadership and teammates tried to temper the lofty expectations pushed upon their young center’s broad shoulders.

“'There are going to be some real peaks and valleys during this first season,” Magic coach Matt Guokas cautioned. “He is incredibly talented, but he’s also about to begin a pretty rough road.”

Magic point guard Scott Skiles added: “[O'Neal's] going to be a great, great player in this league. It could take three weeks. Or it could take three years.”

O’Neal, meanwhile, offered his own grounded perspective.

“I know there are a lot of expectations for me to become great,” he told reporters as his NBA debut neared. “If I do become a great center like Chamberlain or Russell or Kareem, that’s good. If I don’t, I’ll still live a happy life.”

His journey to an anticipated Hall of Fame career began on November 6, 1992, in front of 15,151 fans at Orlando Arena, a roaring, optimistic crowd that included signs that read “Shaq Attack” and “Shaq-nificent.”

In the opening frame against the Miami Heat, O’Neal showcased his immense promise with post moves that resulted in dunks, coast-to-coast finishes, and defensive disruption. He closed the first half of his professional career with eight points and 10 rebounds.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” O’Neal said of his first NBA game.  

Before fouling out with 1:32 remaining, O’Neal scored 12 points to go along with 18 rebounds and 3 blocks in 32 minutes of game action as the Magic topped the Heat 110-100. In a sign of the learning curve he faced, though, he also had 8 turnovers. He took his solid, though somewhat spotty debut in stride.

“I’m going to go out and play hard and if I have a spectacular performance that’s good. But if I don’t, I’m not going to get down on myself,” he said following the game. “The good thing about America is you can always come back tomorrow.”

O’Neal, of course, had plenty of spectacular performances during his rookie season. He finished the campaign averaging 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds per contest en route to earning Rookie of the Year honors. His presence also pushed the Magic to a 41-41 record, a 20-game improvement in the win column.

In O’Neal’s sophomore campaign, reinforcements would arrive, as the Magic won the top pick in the 1993 draft, traded it to Golden State for the third pick, and a collection of future firsts, and selected Memphis State point guard Penny Hardaway. Shaq and Penny would form one of the game’s most dynamic young tandems, leading the Magic to their first playoff appearance in 1994 and an NBA Finals in 1995, a run that included thwarting Michael Jordan’s comeback attempt.

Unfortunately for Magic fans, O’Neal left Orlando in 1996 following four seasons. He joined the Lakers, where he won three NBA Titles over eight seasons, captured three Finals MVP awards, and received the NBA MVP Award in 2000. He won a fourth title with Miami in 2005 before closing out his career in Phoenix, Cleveland, and Boston.

A 14-time All-NBA honoree, O’Neal retired in 2011 with career averages of 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. His 181.7 Win Shares are currently 11th in NBA history.

Viewed as a Hall of Fame prospect coming out of LSU, O’Neal delivered on that promise. In 2016, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Allen Iverson and Yao Ming.

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