Just a few thousand people voting against Shaquille O’Neal extending his stay in Orlando Magic led him to leave for the Lakers for free.
With just a total of 3-years of history behind them as a basketball franchise and nowhere close to a winning record in any of those seasons, Magic had hit a jackpot which could have made them one of the biggest franchises in the league in years to come.
But man! Did they not fumble it in the worst possible way? They have zero championships and only two Finals appearances in their 33 years of existence mostly because they let the game’s most dominant force go to another team, that too for free.
And it would not be that way if the Orlando Sentinel publication did not interfere in what the Magic had going on within their organisation with Shaq at the end of the final year of his rookie contract in 1996.
A mere 4200 Orlando fans’ opinion made an upset Shaquille O’Neal go to the Lakers
The Big Aristotle had averages of 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game over four seasons in Orlando, leading them to their first post-season. He led them to Playoffs in all but his first season with the club—the last two being Finals and Conference Finals losses.
By that time, there were rumours of turmoil in the club. Head coach Brian Hill and O’Neal did not have the correct equation, which became public once The Big Diesel was named to the United States Olympic basketball team. Shaq was facing power struggles while playing under Hill and said that the group “just didn’t respect [Hill]”.
While the USA team later won a gold medal-winning at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Orlando Sentinel, with no business in spoiling their own city’s basketball future, published a poll that asked whether the Magic should fire Hill if that were one of O’Neal’s conditions for returning.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 27, 2020
At least 82% answered “no”. Another question in the poll asked whether O’Neal was worth $115 million, which was Magic’s qualifying 7-year offer. Having seen him and their team getting swept in all their play-offs exit, 91.3% of the respondents said he was not worth it. His Olympic teammates teased him over the poll.
Also upset about Orlando media implying him not being a good role model for having a child with his girlfriend with no immediate plans to marry, O’Neal felt unwanted in the city and decided it was time to move on.
He signed a 7-year $121 million contract with the Lakers, who had also acquired that year’s 13th pick Kobe Bryant in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets. And the rest we know is history.