Mike Bianchi: It’s bittersweet, but Magic did right thing by retiring Shaq’s jersey

ORLANDO, Fla. — It isn’t what it could have been or what it should have been, but it was time.

Time for the Orlando Magic to put nearly three decades of bitterness and heartbreak aside and retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey.

The Magic, in what can only be described as a historically humbling, classy and pride-swallowing move, did exactly that Thursday night when they announced that Shaq’s No. 32 will be the first jersey number in team history to hang in the rafters of the Amway, er, Kia Center.

“When someone asks who was the first player to officially put the Orlando Magic on the map, the answer is simple — Shaquille O’Neal,” Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a press release sent out by the team Thursday night. “He took this franchise to new heights, both on and off the court.”

He also took the franchise, the fans and the city to new lows, but none of that is mentioned in the press release for obvious reasons. You see, the Facebook relationship status between the Magic and Shaq can only be described in two words: “It’s complicated.”

Immense pride.

Intense resentment.

Unbelievable joy.

Inconceivable regret.

Yes, he put the franchise on the map.

And then he put it in the toilet.

But as Robert Frost once said, “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

In other words, anybody who’s still bitter about Shaq leaving Orlando needs to get over it. I’ve gone back and forth on Shaq bailing out on the Magic all those years ago, but what’s the point of quibbling over retiring his jersey? He’s already in the Magic Hall of Fame and if the team is going to start retiring jerseys then there’s no question you have to start with the Big Fella. As the Magic celebrate their 35th anniversary this season, Shaq is undoubtedly the team’s first great player and the city’s first sports superstar.

His impact on the Magic and the sports scene in Orlando is undeniable. He almost single-handedly (sorry, Penny) transformed a stumbling expansion franchise into an instant playoff contender and, in the process, made the Magic into the youngest, hottest, hippest team in the NBA.

He wasn’t just a basketball player; he was literally and figuratively a larger-than-life cultural icon who infused Central Florida with happiness and hope, exultation and excitement, sold-out arenas and visions of NBA championships. He was the Walt Disney of the sports in Orlando. Before him, there was nothing and then he came to town and built a Magic kingdom.

Except Disney World is still here.

Shaq World vaporized in a poof of pixie dust when he bolted Orlando for the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and the L.A. Lakers.

And just like that — amid the consternation and controversy of a manipulative agent, a lowball contract offer, an ill-fated Orlando Sentinel poll and Shaq’s own desire to make bad movies and and become a fringe rap star — he was gone.

Former Magic player and current team ambassador Nick Anderson once told me the story about the day Shaq signed with the Lakers in 1996.

“I was sitting at my home in Chicago watching the Olympics when a special bulletin came on and I happened to see the Big Fella 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.”

Brian Schmitz, a former Orlando Sentinel sports columnist who covered the team during the Shaq era, thinks the Magic are making a big mistake by retiring Shaq’s jersey. And Schmitz is adamant that, at the very least, Anderson — the team’s inaugural draft pick who played a decade in a Magic uniform — should have had his jersey retired first.

“It really surprises me that they are retiring Shaq’s jersey at all,” Schmitz says. “And why are they retiring it first? Nick was in Orlando before Shaq. And Shaq was only here for four years. He was a one-term president like Jimmy Carter. And then he gave them the finger on his way out of town.”

All of that hope and hype when Shaq arrived turned into depression and disappointment when he left. For more than a decade — until Dwight Howard was drafted — this was a franchise mired in mediocrity.

That’s why the announcement of the jersey retirement on Thursday was a bittersweet moment. It was the Orlando Magic paying homage to the good times and celebrating the greatness Shaq once brought to our city. It also was their cathartic acknowledgment that, despite his acrimonious departure, he is the most dominant, dynamic player in team history.

He is not, however, the greatest player in Magic history. He was only in Orlando for four years and is remembered mostly for the three championships he won with Kobe in L.A. I believe Dwight, who was in Orlando twice as long as Shaq and holds franchise records for scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, is the greatest player in Magic history.

Dwight, like Shaq, left the franchise amid acrimony and animosity, and in a few years, he, too, will come back to Orlando and have his jersey rightfully retired. Isn’t it funny that Dwight and Shaq have both expressed regret over the years about leaving Orlando?

“Knowing what I know now, I would have stayed in Orlando,” Shaq said upon his retirement from the NBA. “I regret leaving Orlando. Orlando is where I started and where I should’ve stayed. I regret it because of the DeVos family. They deserve a couple of NBA titles.”

In an ideal world, Shaq would have led the Magic to multiple championships and not only have his jersey retired but have a statue in front of the arena of him dunking the basketball and ripping down the backboard in the process.

No, this isn’t the storybook ending it could have been or it should have been. It’s a jersey retirement that hearkens us back to both a happier and a sadder era in Magic history.

But in sports, as in life, celebrating the good times while forgiving past mistakes is always the wisest way to move forward.