In the NBA more than any other professional league, dynasties represent the highest form of team and individual recognition. Magic’s Lakers. Bird’s Celtics. Jordan’s Bulls. ShaKobe’s Lakers. What “could” happen in Miami. What many “want” to happen in Oklahoma City. And, to the chagrin of long-time Magic fans, what never happened for Penny and Shaq’s Magic.
1996 was a surreal year for the Orlando Magic, much like the summer of 2012. Before being tarred and feathered at the hands of a vindictive and title-hungry 72-10 Chicago Bulls squad in the Eastern Conference Finals, Orlando was expected to supplant itself as the league’s youngest, most-talented and soon-to-be most accomplished squad. There were snipers in Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson and other role players to pick and pop. Horace Grant had three rings of his own, courtesy of being the third cog on those aforementioned Bulls. Ultimately, however, the Magic were led by Penny Hardaway – a do-it-all combo guard harboring the talent to drop 25, grab 10 rebounds or dish 10 assists – and Shaquille O’Neal – a 7-foot wrecking ball with agility, a mean streak and the potential to average 30 and 15 for years to come.
Then, as it so often does, reality introduced herself to fantasy. Shaq and Penny were becoming bigger and bigger stars in their own right. O’Neal had video games, movies and rap albums to his name. Penny became arguably the most popular basketball player in a Jordan-less league with shoes, Little Penny and the cult-classic motion picture he shared alongside Shaq, Blue Chips. With their superstar billings, however, came playoff sweeps in 1994 at the hands of Reggie Miller and the Pacers and a 1995 Finals demolition from the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon’s all-world post moves, Clyde Drexler and the Houston Rockets.
Orlando’s signature moment came by beating Chicago in the 1995 semifinals, giving Mike, Scottie and Phil their second and last series defeat as a trio in the entire decade. In all fairness, it was the year Jordan ended his baseball foray, returning to basketball more than halfway through the season.* A year later, Orlando’s “team of the future” label had all but eroded and a blitzing four-game sweep at the hands of those same Bulls (plus Dennis Rodman) put everything on front street. The Worm poked fun at Shaq, questioning his desire to become a champion saying, “He’ll be a great player…someday. He can talk all the trash he wants to, but if he wants to go home with a trophy, he better learn how to win and how to get his game together. Right now his game is totally off.”
Meanwhile, the crippling sweep set off a chain of fires that, we now know, burned a promising future to the ground. Scott and Anderson played so awful that Rodman proved to be a better offensive option than them in that ’96 Bulls series.** The rift between O’Neal and head coach Brian Hill was no secret and talk of bringing Rick Pitino in began to bubble on the outskirts of the organization. Shaq was a free agent. And even though the glass-half-full rumor circulating around the town Mickey Mouse built was The Diesel would stay put, the Lakers provided amenities Orlando could never match. And then there was the (un)popular urban legend Shaq and Penny were growing tired of one another.
How the fairy tale ended seemed like something etched in NBA history books. Shaq bolted for L.A. while Penny remained in Orlando for two more injury-plagued seasons. He lost every ounce of goodwill he built up during his first three seasons. What seemed so fruitful just 18 months earlier had gone to hell.
“You thought that you were the team (You were gassed)
And now your opponent he wears your gloves (Damn)
A nightmare just ate up your dreams…”
Time and hindsight are one thing. Seeing what was intended to be your destiny is a totally different beast. Imagine being forced to witness the best girlfriend you ever had walk down the aisle and marry someone else. They lead the life you and her had mapped out during the good times. It’s a tough pill to swallow and one you’re never going to totally shake regardless of what your tombstone reads.
Such was the case for Penny some four summers after that Bulls sweep, which effectively tore apart his and Shaq’s partnership, as well as any title hopes Orlando had for nearly 13 years following. At this point Hardaway finds himself in Phoenix, filling the role of Jason Kidd who is still working his way into playing shape after a broken ankle. Penny, still only 28, is finally showing flashes of the player that made him a household name not even five years prior, averaging 18-7-7-2 during the stretch. The Suns dismantle the Spurs in the first round, only to have his past intercept with his present in what would become the future NBA dynasty – Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“The way they work together looks a lot like what Shaq and I used to do,” Penny said following Game 1 of the series; a loss. “Shaq takes so much pressure off you. He opens things up for Kobe.” The quote reflected two sentiments. It was honest because Shaq – especially in 2000 – could have made the game easier for just about anyone. He was evolving into the most unstoppable force anyone had ever seen. Under the tutelage of that same coach who led Chicago past Orlando in 1996, at that. More than anything, however, it was Penny speaking from the guy who was watching his ex-teammate graduate to greener pastures.
Penny played well the first three games, even posting a vintage 31 points and eight assists on 11-15 shooting in Game 3; a loss, too. Phoenix never posed a threat, though. But for Hardaway’s sake, at least it wasn’t a sweep. The Suns lost 4-1 in what would prove to be Penny’s last relevant playoff moment. Shaq would capture four titles over the next six years, becoming one of most physically imposing big men to ever live. In what was supposed to manifest some 3,000 miles east, came to fruition for the Lakers with outright sovereignty at times and nothing other than fate itself and flat-out controversy during others.
And possibly the metamorphosis of Kobe Bryant into the lightning to match Shaq’s thunder–not to mention one half of the most dysfunctional, but effective duos in NBA history (and later one of the 10 best players, period)–stings the truest. Looking back more than a decade removed, it’s one of those situations in which we can see how thin a line separates an NBA icon from someone infrequently remembered in casual conversation.
Potential’s a bitch. It’s basically another way of saying “we can belittle you if you don’t live up to these potentially unreal expectations we have of you.” But a spade is a spade at this point. Shaq’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Kobe, too. Penny, on the other hand, remains an archetypical case-study in “what ifs.” A hood legend, of sorts.
What should have been had his body never failed him. And what could have been had Orlando ever gotten over the hump in the mid-’90s. Pharrell, Chad and the ‘Tunes were right: sooner or later it does all come crashing down. Life’s all about what you can accomplish before it does.
* – Also known as David Stern shot him a kite saying it was cool to come back now and those gambling rumors had died down.
** – It may be revisionist history, but Nick Anderson never seemed to recover after nutting up at the free throw line in Game 1 of the ’95 Finals. All he had to do was make ONE free throw to win, instead he missed four straight. To this day, it remains one of the greatest choke jobs in sports history. File it somewhere in between Jackie Smith dropping Roger Staubach’s wide open touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII, Jean Van De Velde at the ’99 British Open, the Houston Oilers in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game versus Buffalo and – pending he loses in November – Mitt Romney’s campaign from the London Olympics on. The last one wasn’t sports, but definitely worth of being nominated.