Shaquille O’Neal quickly became a dominating force in the league with the Orlando Magic. However, his tenure in Orlando ended after only four seasons following joining the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. Before O’Neal reached that career-altering decision, one aspect of his situation with the Magic bothered him greatly.
Shaquille O’Neal experiences successful brief stint with the Magic
After being selected with the first overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft by the Magic, O’Neal quickly became one of the league’s biggest stars.
In his four seasons in Orlando, he transformed the franchise into a powerhouse with three straight playoff appearances, including a pair of Atlantic division titles and a trip to the 1995 NBA Finals. He earned three All-Star Game selections and the 1993 Rookie of the Year award and received three All-NBA team nominations.
O’Neal’s final campaign featured the Magic winning 60 regular-season games but fell short to the eventual NBA champion Chicago Bulls in a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals. In July 1996, he chose to ink a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Lakers.
Before leaving the Magic, one phrase stuck with him throughout the decision-making process.
Shaquille O’Neal admitted he felt he was a ‘Big fish in a small, dried-up pond’ when he bolted the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers
O’Neal‘s four-year tenure with the Magic featured the franchise becoming one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
However, the star big man’s aspirations only grew with his rise as one of the league’s best young talents. Meanwhile, the Magic wanted O’Neal to return to lead the franchise next to star point guard Penny Hardaway.
The process became quite complex and layered as the LSU product wanted to get paid handsomely and desired a bigger market to maximize his off-the-court opportunities. It led O’Neal to voice a particular repeated phrase that circled back to him having outgrown the city of Orlando.
“When I was in Orlando, I really felt like a big fish in a small, dried-up pond,” O’Neal wrote in his book Shaq Talks Back. “No matter what I did, it got talked about, until I couldn’t live my life. But out in L.A., for everything you do, there’s always some other star acting crazier.”
O’Neal clearly didn’t like the limelight of attention on every decision he made off the court. His brief tenure with the Magic featured tremendous success, but his departure became ugly and fractured. His relationship with Hardaway splintered as his communication with the fellow star throughout the process wavered.
All that led to quite a memorable return to Orlando in February 1998 as a member of the Lakers. The fans created customized signs referencing his dried-up pond comments, such as “Welcome Back to the Dried-Up Pond You Big Blowfish,” “Shaq is a Pond Scum,” “Benedict O’Neal” and “Big Pond or Little Pond, A Big Fish Really Stinks.”
O’Neal recorded a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but the Lakers fell to the Magic 96-94. Although things have since drastically improved, his remarks certainly caused much hatred to be directed toward him.
Holds regrets leaving the Magic
O’Neal‘s decision to leave the Magic changed the entire course of his NBA career.
Nearly two decades after he departed from Orlando, he voiced at His Orlando Hall of Fame induction that he sometimes regrets leaving the franchise.
“It was all business. Do I regret it? I never fully answered. I regret it sometimes,” O’Neal said via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel. “This is where I started, where I should’ve stayed. I actually wish that they [had] made it a law that whoever drafted you, you’ve got to stay there your whole career. No trades. No nothing. No free agency. No anything like that. Do I regret it? I regret it only because the DeVos family, they deserve a couple [of NBA titles].
He added that he would have stayed and fulfilled his sevens seasons in Orlando before deciding his NBA future. His comments crystalize that the franchise and the city still hold a special in his heart, leaving a considerable internal void.
Ultimately, his departure part of his NBA story in his Hall of Fame career.