By the time O’Neal left the Orlando Magic for the Lakers in the summer of 1996, he had already made it to the NBA Finals and captured a scoring title. Shaq continued to assert his will with the Purple and Gold through the remainder of the century, though he had to wait until 2000 for his first championship ring.
Alas, when Grant Hill used the term “emerging” to describe Superman in a discussion about the 1990s, O’Neal interjected.
Shaquille O’Neal dominated from the first time he stepped on an NBA floor
The Orlando Magic were still a pretty fresh expansion team when they found themselves with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft. Fortunately, that draft boasted one of the most can’t-miss prospects ever.
Shaquille O’Neal’s incredible size, power, and athleticism made him a star with the LSU Tigers. Those same attributes made him one of the best players in the Association as soon as he stepped on the floor with the Magic.
Shaq captured Rookie of the Year honors in 1992-93, averaging 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks. He made a leap in his sophomore campaign, averaging 29.3 points and shooting a league-best 59.9% from the field. That same season, a rookie Penny Hardaway emerged as O’Neal’s co-star.
Together, Shaq and Penny transformed the franchise. The Magic reached the NBA Finals in 1995. Though they were swept by Houston Rockets and suffered a playoff loss at the hands of the Chicago Bulls the following season, it appeared Orlando would be contenders for some time.
That is, until the Magic refused to pay up.
O’Neal bolted Orlando for LA, in part because a newspaper poll suggested he wasn’t worth the seven-year, $115 million deal the Magic initially offered. Lakers general manager Jerry West decided The Diesel was worth that money, clearing nearly his entire roster to bring him on board.
Shaq and the Lakers suffered playoff disappointments until Kobe Bryant came of age and helped power LA to a title in 2000. Still, the Big Aristotle did more than enough to merit consideration as the best big man of the decade.
O’Neal corrected Grant Hill in a discussion about the 90s
Grant Hill probably should have chosen his words more carefully.
The “Decades” episode of NBA TV’s Open Court series (h/t YouTube) asked panel members to name their five best players for different decades. When the topic of the 1990s arose, G-Hill tried to add context.
“The legends of the 80s who kind of played a little bit into the 90s were retiring as well. Isiah [Thomas] had just left in Detroit, Magic [Johnson] a few years earlier, [Larry] Bird. So, the league was sort of maybe in a bit of a transition as Shaquille was emerging…”–Grant Hill, Open Court “Decades”
“Emerging.” Yeah, O’Neal didn’t like that word. He interrupted with a one-liner most befitting Shaq’s stature and excellence.
“Emerging? I was emerged already.”–Shaquille O’Neal in response to Grant Hill
The panel appropriately burst out laughing, but Shaq made his point. Plus, Hill was sort of an interesting figure to speak on the subject.
Shaq had already made two All-Star teams when the former Duke standout entered the NBA in 1994. In fact, it was more Hill himself who was “emerging” as the potential new face of the NBA in the post-Michael Jordan era, as Isiah Thomas stated.
Regardless, Shaq didn’t need any sort of background as to the kind of player he was in the 1990s. Members of the media already decided that in 1997.
Shaq was named to the “50 Greatest Players” team at All-Star Weekend in 1997
The 1997 “50 Greatest Players in NBA History” team included heralded legends of basketball past as well as numerous superstars at or approaching the end of their careers. Then there was Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq’s inclusion, at the time, probably felt premature. However, it also spoke to his impact on the sport in just four-plus seasons. Nobody had ever seen a center with his blend of athleticism, power, and charisma. He dominated as few players had before, and few ever will again. Plus, as the rest of The Diesel’s career indicates, the media clearly got it right by adding him to the roster.
So yes, Shaq had already emerged in the 90s. More accurately, he blasted through a brick wall like the Kool-Aid man as soon as he put on that Orlando Magic uniform.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.