Shaquille O'Neal was undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA in the 90s and in the early 2000s. Most well-known for his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal was a force to be reckoned with in the Lakers uniform. Winning an MVP trophy, 3 NBA championships, and 3 Finals MVP trophies, Shaq undoubtedly had the time of his life with the Purple and Gold.
But things could have been very different. While the Lakers was where Shaq won most of his laurels, it was the Orlando Magic who had honed the center into becoming one of the most dominant centers in the league. Making his debut in the 1992-93 season, it was the Magic who gave Shaq his big break. Not only that, but the Magic also got the desired player alongside O'Neal, Penny Hardaway, in the 1993 NBA draft.
The Hardway-O'Neal partnership certainly was one of the most entertaining duos in the league back then. With the swift guard capable of setting up Shaq, Orlando was one of the scariest teams to play against. This was apparent in the 1995 playoffs, as the Magic made it all the way to the NBA Finals, even defeating a Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls on their road to the Finals.
While they did follow the 1995 Finals with a Conference Finals appearance in 1996, the offseason was probably the most crucial time for the team. With their best player entering the free agency, the Magic should have offered Shaq a max contract, but the team lowballed the big man, offering him a 4-year contract worth $54 million. Not only that, the Magic front office even criticized Shaq's rebounding and defense.
The insult to injury, though, was a billboard in front of Shaq's mother's office, showing how Orlando did not want the Magic to offer a max contract to Shaq. NBA insider Jackie McMullan recently revealed the story in her Icons Club podcast.
"The Orlando Sentinel newspaper set up a poll in which callers weighed in on a single question. Is Shaquille O’Neal worth $150 million? More than 5,000 people called in, and over 91% said no. Shaq, who was training with Team USA at the time, was mercilessly teased by his teammates over the results. Back in Orlando, his mother, Lucille, was subjected to a bird’s-eye view of the results plastered on a billboard, which she could see from her office."
While the Magic were unwilling to give Shaq a massive contract, the Lakers saw it as the perfect opportunity to add a superstar to their roster. Signing a 7-year contract worth $120 million, it is fair to say that the signing worked for both parties.