HANG TIME WEST – In typical Shaquille O’Neal larger-than-life style, the Big Redundancy had two first returns to Orlando as Lakers center, as Dwight Howard does tonight an NBA generation later, only nothing like Dwight Howard does tonight.
While Howard will have to face the fans of Central Florida but will mostly avoid the wrath of the Magic players because of the roster turnover from last season and this one, O’Neal got hit on both fronts. Twice. With musical accompaniment.
In the other true Shaq style, he brought a lot of it on himself. Bolting from the Magic to the Lakers in the summer of 1996 would have been cause enough for boiling emotions in Orlando, but he made matters worse. O’Neal mocked Orlando as a “dried-up little pond” (to be compounded years later when his coach, Phil Jackson, called the city “plastic”), did little to hide his disdain for top management and coach Brian Hill, and tweaked some players there. So of course they were ready when the Lakers made their lone visit of 1996-97.
It barely mattered that O’Neal was long sidelined by a knee injury. He stopped off at the arena to drop off Lakers security man Jerome Crawford, did a little small talk, and drove off to, he said, watch the game on TV. Then he got roasted in abstention as the Magic won 110-84.
“I knew Shaq wasn’t going to show up,” Orlando forward Horace Grant said that day. “He talks a lot, but I knew he wasn’t going to show up.”
“Say what you have to say,” Nick Anderson, one of the former teammates O’Neal had singled out for criticism, “but if you’re so much of a man and you’re in town, why not come here?”
One of the signs by a fan:
“WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE IN COMMON?
That was March 23, 1997. Eleven months later – on Feb. 22, 1998 – the Lakers and a healthy O’Neal were back in Orlando for the actual homecoming.
In the minutes before tipoff, the Magic blasted a portion of “I’m a Loser” by the Beatles over the loud speaker, followed by a bit of Carly Simon with “You’re so Vain,” then the Steve Miller Band and “Take the Money and Run” and “Would I Lie to You?” by The Eurythmics. Fans booed loudly, although not at great length, when O’Neal was brought out for pregame introductions and then every time he touched the ball.
We’re the two
that saw your
O’Neal finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but the Magic won 96-94 on Anderson’s 3-pointer with 7.1 seconds remaining.
“Am I going to go home and drink a whole bottle of Pine Sol?” O’Neal asked, probably rhetorically. “No. We’ve just got to move on. They did what they were supposed to do, win a home game.
“Every arena I go to, I get booed.”
Except, a reporter noted, this is the arena where you used to get cheered.
“Used to,” Shaq responded. “Used to. I used to drive a Porsche, but I don’t anymore. I’ve moved on.”
At some point, his former team and city did as well. Only to have to go through it again in 2013.