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Mike Bianchi: Shaq’s Magic jersey retirement most complicated in sports history

ORLANDO, Fla. — This wasn’t just any jersey retirement.

This may have been the most surreal, complicated jersey retirement in the history of sports.

When Shaquille O’Neal became the first player to ever have his jersey retired by the Orlando Magic during Tuesday night’s nationally televised game with the Oklahoma City Thunder, it wasn’t just a franchise celebration; it was a franchise catharsis. On the surface, it was a celebration of the most memorable time in Magic history (Shaq’s arrival), but below the surface it was a cleansing of the franchise’s most forgettable moment:

Shaq’s departure.

“There’s an old saying, ‘Never forget where you came from,’ ” Shaq told reporters before his No. 32 was retired. “This is where it all started. All the good and the bad and the trials and tribulations — everything I endured, everything I learned — it all started here.”

The problem, of course, is that it ended elsewhere after Shaq bolted Orlando at the very first opportunity. And that’s why this felt like the weirdest jersey retirement in history. This was not the traditional feel-good story of the conquering hero coming back home to have his jersey retired. This was not like earlier this season when the Miami Heat retired the jerseys of Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem — two longtime, legendary Heat players who embodied the team’s culture and helped lead Miami to NBA championships.

In fact, it should be noted that Shaq, too, has already had his jersey retired by the Heat, whom he helped win an NBA championship in 2006. He’s also had his jersey retired by the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he helped win three NBA titles.

And that’s usually how these jersey retirements go. A team traditionally retires the jersey of a longtime player who spent the majority of his career with a single franchise or a short-term player who helped the team win a championship. Shaq did neither in Orlando, but, then again, Shaq is not a normal player.

Shaq was in Orlando for only four seasons, but they were the most exhilarating four seasons in the history of the franchise. And that’s why the Magic, on the 35th anniversary of the team, decided the time was finally right to retire his jersey. During the ceremony, the organization obviously chose to focus on him putting the Magic on the map when he arrived and glossed over that he tore up the map when he bolted for the glitz and glamour of L.A.

As that late, great NBA analyst Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it ended, smile because it happened.”

And that’s exactly what the Magic did Tuesday night. They celebrated Shaq like you wouldn’t believe; they rejoiced and regaled that the Shaq rocket ship blasted off from Orlando. They even moved the jersey retirement ceremony until after the game so they would have more time and wouldn’t have to cram all of the festivities into a tightly regulated halftime of a national telecast.

The itinerary included scheduled speeches from his former Magic teammates (Penny Hardaway and Dennis Scott) and his former Magic coach Brian Hill and the presentation of an Orlando Magic jacket from the famous designer Jeff Hamilton. Team chairman Dan DeVos, in honor of Shaq’s retired No. 32 jersey, donated $32,000 to the Shaq Foundation.

Adding to the weirdness of the evening, O’Neal actually was part of the on-site TNT broadcast crew along with — wait for it — former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who was unpopularly fired by the organization in 2012 and had his own run-ins with Shaq in the past.

Yet another reason why this was not just a jersey retirement that evoked the happy memories of what was; it also conjured up the nostalgic pang of what if.

What if Shaq had never left Orlando?

How would the history of the franchise have changed?

With Shaq dominating the league, how many championships would the Magic have won?

Would the Magic have replaced the San Antonio Spurs as the model franchise of the NBA?

And without Shaq in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant likely would not have won as many championships early in his career, altering his legacy and impact on the NBA.

It should be noted that the Lakers just erected a gigantic 19-foot statue of Kobe in front of their arena. If Shaq had stayed in Orlando, he’d certainly have a statue (to go along with his retired) jersey in front of Kia Center.

Shaq says he refrains from playing the what-if game because it brings back too many painful memories such as when he was on a business trip in L.A. on the day his sister unexpectedly passed away. “What if I had called her one last time to hear her voice and say ‘I love you,' ” Shaq said somberly. “What if I had called Kobe Bryant [before he died] and said, ‘Hey, man, I love you. Hey, man, I miss you. Hey, man, let’s make it better.’ The what-if game takes you to a negative state.

“I wish there was no business of basketball,” Shaq added about his decision to leave the Magic. “I wish the team that drafted you, you had to stay with. But when you’re young, we all want to take care of our families and maximize our potential.”

Shaq certainly did that. He left Orlando and became one of the planet’s most recognized athletes, broadcasters, rappers, celebrity endorsers, deejays, etc., etc. Meanwhile, the Magic have never regained the popularity they had before he left three decades ago.

Those who were around during those days will tell you that the franchise never had more excitement, more exhilaration, more buzz than when Shaq was tearing down backboards, making rap records and becoming a pop-culture icon.

“He was so fun-loving, so charismatic,” remembers longtime Magic broadcaster David Steele. “Shaq was larger than life. Traveling with the Magic in those days was like traveling with a rock and roll band.”

And Shaq was Mick Jagger.

And as Mick himself once sang in the song Waiting for a Friend:

“A smile relieves a heart that grieves.”

Magic fans no longer have to grieve Shaq’s departure.

He finally returned with a smile on Tuesday night.

And he’ll never leave again.

If you don’t believe it, just look up in the rafters at No. 32.

Weird.

Strange.

Surreal.

Complicated.

But right.

Welcome home, old friend.