LOS ANGELES – As the Los Angeles Lakers furiously unloaded contracts to clear salary-cap space, the executives of the Orlando Magic hustled a private plane to California to hand-deliver a $115 million contract offer to Shaquille O'Neal(notes). They met his agent, Leonard Armato, on a beach volleyball court, where he was shagging balls for his wife, Holly McPeak. Looking back, this was some strange setting to try and close the biggest deal in NBA history.
Armato walked to the edge of the sand, where the Magic officials had to make a final, fleeting pitch to hold on to the biggest free agent in sports history.
"This is wonderful," Magic GM John Gabriel remembers the agent telling them. Armato was admiring the figures, and maybe now he had something else to bring back to the Lakers.
"This is just what we're looking for," he told them.
This was the way Shaq always believed he could break the bank, the bidding they needed to take back to the Lakers. Shaq's agent seemed so pleasant, so hopeful.
And, yet, as they walked away, Gabriel had that sinking feeling in his stomach. Shaq was gone. He knew it. He was gone, and maybe they had been dreaming to ever think he would stay while the Lakers pursued him.
Gabriel turned to team president Bob Vander Weide and said with a sigh: "I think this is over."
The Magic never did believe in Shaq's sincerity about wanting to stay, nor the Los Angeles-based agent who always had bigger plans, bigger ideas than Orlando could hold.
Shaquille O'Neal looms over these NBA Finals, bigger than ever. The Orlando Magic never won a title with him, and Kobe Bryant(notes) hasn't won one without him. The course of two franchises, an NBA neophyte and a forever champion, were transformed when O'Neal left for the Lakers an unlucky 13 years ago for the Magic.
Shaq kept saying the Magic were his first choice, but Gabriel confesses now: "I didn't take him at his word."
No one ever did believe him, and they had good reason to doubt: He wanted to be a movie star, a rapper and part of the Lakers legacy of Wilt and Kareem.
Yes, there was drama on Shaq's way out of town, but it's hard to know what mattered and what didn't. Near the start of free agency in the summer of 1996, there was that poll in the Orlando Sentinel where more than 90 percent of the respondents insisted Shaq wasn't worth $100 million. The poll appeared as Shaq and the Olympic basketball team trained in town.
"I heard they rode Shaq pretty hard on it," Gabriel said.
The Team USA players teased Shaq that he wasn't wanted in Orlando, and Gabriel remembers those closest to the center telling him later: "That was the last straw."
Shaq has a long history of taking slights – real and imagined – as reasons for justifying so many decisions and hurt feelings.
Gabriel had sent his wife and kids to the Jersey Shore, just to spare them the frenzied finish and backlash in the city. Shaq and his agent never did call to tell the Magic they had chosen the Lakers and a $120 million contract until the story had been out for more than a full day. On the July night that the news leaked, his family back at the Jersey Shore, Gabriel found himself alone in a big, new house he had just bought in Winter Park, Fla.
There was no furniture in the house, just Gabriel sitting on a hardwood floor, with a telephone at his side.
"The phone rang all night," he said. "Everyone wanted reaction to the fact that the Lakers were calling a press conference the next day. The house was so empty. It was an eerie, eerie feeling.
"When we drafted him, we had hope every night, every game, and now a big piece of that just disappeared."
As an NBA expansion franchise in 1989, the Magic had a rapid rise. They won the biggest draft lottery in history in 1992, secured Shaq, and beat the Michael Jordan Bulls on the way to the NBA Finals in 1995. Orlando had Penny Hardaway and Nick Anderson, Horace Grant and Dennis Scott. They were constructed for championships, for the long run, and yet, ultimately, were delivered the cruelest free-agent blow in sports history.
Four years later, Gabriel hatched an innovative plan to clear cap space for two full stars. He plotted to pair San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan(notes) and Detroit Pistons swingman Grant Hill(notes).
It never happened. Duncan came so close, but turned back in the final hour. The Magic signed Hill and Tracy McGrady(notes), but they barely ever played together. No one could've foreseen the extent of Hill's foot problems and, eventually, they left without ever winning a playoff series.
So it goes. Gabriel made a good professional reputation for himself for launching franchises. He did it in Orlando and, later, as a scout for the Portland Trail Blazers. Now he finds himself back in Orlando, where he works for the New York Knicks as part of their basketball operations staff.
He sure spent a lot of nights this spring scouting at Magic playoff games. The city is alive again, believing in Dwight Howard(notes), the way it once did Shaquille O'Neal. There's a sparkling, new arena being built next door for the 2010 season; Howard is signed for five years; and the Magic are on a sweetheart run in these playoffs.
"It does feel a little like old times there," Gabriel said. "Both of our teams were grounded in marquee centers, and I don't think since the NBA has seen two come into the league like Dwight and Shaq and made such an impact on the game since Hakeem [Olajuwon] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]."
Through the years, the sting of losing Shaq dissipated, and Magic fans still stop at these playoff games and thank Gabriel for getting everything started there. Truth be told, it's easier to be back in Amway Arena with the Magic contending again, with a gregarious and gifted young 7-footer protecting the rim. It's easier to remember those good times 14 years ago, back when a baby franchise chased a championship into the NBA Finals.
"We had fun, didn't we?" Gabriel finds himself telling those old fans now.
Yes, the Orlando had Shaq, had some fun, but forever only lasted four seasons in Florida.
Now, the Magic return to the NBA Finals with O'Neal looming over everything. Between the Magic and Kobe, between captivity and freedom, the ghost of Shaquille O'Neal will finally disappear for the victor at this series' end.
For the loser, it lingers on. Even once he left the gym, Shaq always did have staying power.