There are plenty of folks who can still rightly point fingers at the retiring Shaquille O’Neal for taking a handful of potential championship banners with him when he left Orlando back in 1996.
But Nick Anderson isn’t one of them. Not as long as the 0-for-4 memory of Nick the Brick in 1995 lives on.
Anderson joined the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi on his radio show to lament the day that Shaq flew the coop:
“I was sitting at my home in Chicago watching the Olympics (in 1996) when a special bulletin came on and I happened to see the Big Fella (Shaq) holding a (Lakers) jersey standing next to Jerry West,” Anderson remembers. “I fell off the couch. Two minutes later, my phone rang and it was my dad calling to say, ‘You know, your championships just went to L.A.’ And how right he was. They (those championships) left and went to L.A.”
Of course, what Anderson did not re-live and lament was his own classic gaffe in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals that might well have altered the course of NBA history.
- Anderson and Shaq’s Magic entered The Finals matchup against the Rockets which was considered a toss-up by oddsmakers.
- The Magic built a 20-point lead in the second quarter, then squandered virtually all of that lead coming down the stretch.
- With Orlando up by three, Anderson went to the foul line twice in the final 10.5 seconds of regulation and proceeded to miss four straight free throws when any one of them would have iced the game.
- Kenny Smith then hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer, tying it up and the Rockets won in overtime on a Hakeem Olajuwon tip-in.
- The Magic were demoralized, depressed and never able to bounce back, getting swept 4-0 by Houston.
Clink! Clank! Clunk! Crash!
Though it rarely makes the lists of infamy, it can be argued that Nick the Brick’s four pas was the biggest choke job in sports history.
The ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series was moving off the bat of Mookie Wilson and may have hit a patch of bad grass on the Shea Stadium infield. When Scott Norwood pushed his field goal wide right in Super Bowl XXV, there were huge, angry New York Giants charging in his direction.
Nick the Brick tossed up four cinder blocks without a defender’s hand in his face. On his home court, before a supportive crowd.
What should have been – probably would have been – a long, hard-fought war, turned into the closest thing to surrender. Anderson’s confidence was shattered. The Magic vanished. The young team that had swaggered through the playoffs barely put up a fight the rest of the way.
“That game took something out of us,” Magic forward Horace Grant said 1 ½ years later. “We never got it back.”
Four shots that changed a series. Four bricks that turned the Orlando franchise on its head and maybe shifted the balance of power in the NBA.
If the Magic had won that series and the 1995 championship, would Shaq have fled Orlando for the free-agent dollars and the Lakers’ Hollywood lure barely a year later?
With a championship under their belts, is it as likely the rift between O’Neal and coach Brian Hill would have grown so wide just one year later when the Magic were swept in the Eastern Conference finals by Chicago? Before Penny Hardaway’s body began to break down, wouldn’t Shaq, with a ring already on his finger, have been inclined to stay?
If Shaq doesn’t bolt so quickly to the West Coast, that means he’s not on hand for the arrival that same season of the 18-year-old Kobe Bryant, and the world misses out on their Hollywood histrionics that produced three championships and many soap opera twists in their relationship. If he doesn’t flee Orlando, then Shaq never stomps off to Miami to win a championship with Dwyane Wade. If Wade doesn’t win a title and form a bond with Pat Riley, maybe he’s not still there to lure his buddies LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach.
See how it works, Nick?
When you start pointing fingers, you eventually come to a mirror.