Shaquille O’Neal‘s decision to leave the Orlando Magic and sign with the Los Angeles Lakers is one of the all-time what-if moments in basketball history. Shaq and Penny Hardaway led Orlando to the 1995 NBA Finals, and the Magic were a franchise on the rise. Two years later, O’Neal was the most prized free agent in the league.
His decision to leave for the Lakers paired him with Kobe Bryant and eventually Phil Jackson, brought the franchise three more championships, and created one of the most entertaining dynasties in NBA lore.
The Diesel’s trip from Orlando to LA was filled with drama, and not much in the way of drama in the 1990s happened without Charles Barkley. In fact, Chuck played at least a bit part in O’Neal’s decision to head west.
Shaquille O’Neal was one of the most prized free agents in NBA history
Shaq was the No. 1 overall pick in 1992. He joined a Magic franchise that had just debuted in 1989 and had yet to find its footing in the NBA. Orlando had started to compile young assets like Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, but the organization’s future changed completely when it won the lottery in ’92 and selected the LSU big man.
Superman averaged 23.4 points and 13.9 rebounds his rookie season. The Magic made the playoffs for the first time as a franchise his second year in the league.
Shaq, along with Hardaway, had brought a rudderless franchise to the brink of an NBA title and it appeared the Magic were only going to get better as the team’s young duo progressed.
But after the team lost to the Bulls, The Big Aristotle’s free agency drama began.
Barkley gave Shaq some amusing advice during the summer of ’96
As O’Neal entered free agency, it seemed inevitable the Magic would offer him bags of cash and he would stay in Orlando. But that’s not how things played out. At all.
The franchise low-balled Shaq with its first offer and things only escalated from there. Jerry West and the Lakers entered the bidding and things started to lean LA’s way. The Magic panicked and made a counter offer, but it appeared it might be too little too late for the franchise to keep its cornerstone.
Then came the infamous poll in the Orlando Sentinel.
The July 16, 1996 issue of the Sentinel ran a poll on the front page that read, “Is Shaquille O’Neal Worth $115 million over 7 seasons?”
According to Jeff Pearlman’s book Three Ring Circus, at the end of polling, 91.3% of readers voted “no.” That was basically the last straw in Shaq’s decision to leave the Magic.
Charles Barkley was a member of the 1996 US Olympic Team alongside O’Neal, which just happened to be holding practices in Orlando. When he got wind of the poll, Barkley didn’t mince words when telling Shaq what the future four-time champion needed to do, according to Pearlman:
“Are you f****** kidding me? You bring glory to this redneck, one-horse town, and this is what they think of you? Get out as soon as you can. F*** these people.”Charles Barkley’s advice to Shaquille O’Neal in 1996
According to an article that ran in the Sentinel later that summer, Barkley also said:
“I heard the newspaper ran a poll on whether Shaq was worth all the millions they will have to pay him, and 85 percent said no. That just proved that 85 percent of the people in Orlando are morons.”Barkley’s comment to the Orlando Sentinel on O’Neal’s free agency
Shaq signed with LA later that summer and the rest is history.
O’Neal joined the Lakers and created an enduring dynasty
That same offseason, West drafted an 18-year-old Bryant out of Lower Merion High School. In Shaq and Kobe’s fourth season together, the Lakers won their first of three straight championships.
O’Neal was named the league’s MVP and also the Finals MVP that year.
The 15-time all-star’s move from Orlando to LA is one of the most important sliding doors moments in league history. If Shaq had remained with the Magic, the next 20 years of NBA history likely play out in a dramatically different fashion.
Maybe Chuck’s advice to the Diesel wasn’t the nail in the coffin of Shaq Fu’s decision. It was definitely harsh to the city of Orlando, but perhaps it was true after the one-sided response to the local paper’s poll.
Either way, it may have been the first time Barkley offered some profane advice to Shaq, but after watching the pair on The NBA on TNT, it sure wasn’t the last.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.