Before Shaq and Kobe, there was Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.
And boy, were they something to see.
Shaquille O’Neal is regarded as one of the best big men in NBA history, if not the best. He finished his career a 4-time NBA champion, 3-time NBA Finals MVP, 8-time All-NBA First Team selection, 15-time All-Star and 3-time All-Star MVP. He once won the NBA MVP, which many would agree is one of the great travesties in league history.
He was, by all accounts, the most dominant player in NBA history.
But what many tend to forget is before he won three straight titles alongside the late Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, and before he won his fourth ring next to Dwyane Wade in Miami, Shaq was contending for league titles as a member of the Orlando Magic, the franchise that selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA Draft.
And just a year later, in the 1993 NBA Draft, Orlando landed the No. 1 pick once again, selecting Michigan superstar Chris Webber.
However, the Magic shocked the NBA world by trading Webber for a lanky guard out of Memphis State University, a young dynamo who would quickly become Shaq’s original perimeter running mate.
His name was Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
Penny Hardaway was posterizing fools 📸pic.twitter.com/ewL0SqY5AU
— sportsthread (@sportsthread) May 12, 2020
And with that, one of the most exciting 1-2 punches in NBA history was created.
However, it only existed for a short time.
In Shaq’s rookie season, he averaged 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. He was named Rookie of the Year, and during his first four seasons in Orlando, he averaged 27.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
His average of 29.3 points in both his second and third year would prove to be the second-most of his career, and the 13.9 rebounds he averaged his rookie season would ultimately turn out to be his career-high.
Penny was no slouch either.
He put up 16.0 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals during his rookie year, before averaging over 20 points per game for the next three seasons.
In fact, Hardaway was named to the All-NBA First Team in 1995 and 1996, years before O’Neal made his first appearance on the First Team in 1998.
Despite the laundry list of accolades early in their careers, the pinnacle of the ‘Shaq and Penny’ era in Orlando came during the 1995 playoffs.
Orlando finished the 1994-95 regular season with a record of 57-25, the best in franchise history at the time, and the Magic were by no means entirely a 2-man show. Their core lineup was composed of Shaq and Penny, sharpshooters Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, and former Chicago Bulls power forward and 3-time champion Horace Grant.
The Magic entered the 1995 NBA Playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and after defeating the Boston Celtics in four games in the First Round, Orlando faced off with Chicago in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for the first time after the 1993 NBA Finals, but made his return to the Chicago at the end of the 1994-95 season, playing in 17 regular season games before the 1995 playoffs.
That was that year he wore No. 45, remember?
MJ came out of retirement wearing number 45.
— ESPN (@espn) May 8, 2020
The series went like this:
- Orlando won Game 1 at home, 94-91, behind 26 points from Shaq.
- Chicago won Game 2 in Orlando, 104-94, behind 38 points from Jordan.
- Orlando won Game 3 in Chicago, 110-101, behind 28 points from O’Neal and 22 points from Anderson
- Chicago won Game 4 at home, 106-95, behind 26 points from Jordan and 24 points from Scottie Pippen
- Orlando won Game 5 at home, 103-95, behind 24 points from Grant, and 19 points and 11 assists from Penny
- Orlando won Game 6 in Chicago, 108-102, behind 27 points from O’Neal and 21 from Hardaway
Orlando defeated Jordan and the Bulls in six games, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, in only its second playoff appearance in franchise history.
The series was highlighted by this play – and quote – from Anderson.
Michael Jordan returned to 23 after Nick Anderson said: “No. 45 doesn’t explode like No. 23 used to. No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn’t have done that to No. 23.” #TheLastDance pic.twitter.com/fOxUt76ksX
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 8, 2020
Some might say that Jordan wasn’t able to get his legs under him in time that season to actually make a run at a title, but in the Orlando series, he averaged 31.0 points on 47 percent shooting in 42.3 minutes. He coupled that with 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.8 blocks.
Seems like a very Jordan-esque stat-line.
At the end of Game 6, it seemed the torch had been passed. Remember this scene?
25 years ago today Shaq & Penny eliminate Michael Jordan’s Bulls
Orlando (+7.5) was +165 to win the series against Chicago 💰 pic.twitter.com/FmIBt5SJu9
— SportsLine (@SportsLine) May 18, 2020
As you can see, Grant seemed to think the torch has been passed as well.
The Magic would go on to beat the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the East Finals, advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in only the franchise’s sixth year in existence.
Goes to show what two top picks in back-to-back drafts can do.
Even though the Magic were swept in the NBA Finals by Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, the table was set for Orlando to dominate the East for years to come, on the backs of O’Neal and Hardaway.
The following season, the Magic would improve their regular season record by three games, finishing the season 60-22 and becoming one of only three teams that year to win at least 60 games.
One of the other 60-win teams was the Seattle Supersonics, which finished 64-18 atop the Western Conference.
The other team that won 60+?
You guessed it: the 72-10 Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls and Magic would once again face-off in the 1996 NBA playoffs and turns out, that 1995 defeat at the hands of Orlando would be Jordan’s last playoff series loss.
The Bulls swept the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, even though O’Neal and Hardaway averaged more combined points (52.5) than Jordan and Pippen (48).
Orlando – similar to Utah, Seattle, Phoenix, Indiana and others – became one of many organizations that never got to realize its full potential with its best rosters because of Jordan’s dominance, as outlined in this ESPN Bulldozed segment with Bomani Jones.
“When the Magic won the 1992 Draft lottery, it meant a great draft pick was all but assured. Shaquille O’Neal came out of LSU billed as the next great big man in the NBA and he was great the second he got to the league … Then, another stroke of luck gave them the top pick in the 1993 draft … The Magic drafted Chris Webber, then traded him to the Warriors for Anfernee Hardaway … Just like that, Orlando had the next great big man and a player people thought was the next Magic Johnson.”
After that defeat at the hands of the Bulls, things went awry in Orlando.
At age 24, Shaq signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent after spending only four seasons in Orlando and making it to the NBA Finals with Hardaway and the Magic just a season ago.
Injuries then began to derail Penny’s career. In his final three seasons in Orlando, Hardaway played 128 of 246 games, suffering a knee injury at the beginning of the 1997-98 season.
After the 1998-99 season, Hardaway was traded to Phoenix and the rebuild began in Orlando.
The Magic made it to the playoffs four times over the course of the next eight seasons, but failed to make it out of the first round until 2007-08, Dwight Howard‘s fourth season in the league.
Shaq would go on to have a Hall of Fame career, but there are few “what if” scenarios more talked about than, “What if Penny Hardaway never got hurt?”
Penny Hardaway’s court vision was special 🔥 pic.twitter.com/ZYWcaKQbTp
— ESPN (@espn) May 5, 2020
Better yet, “What if Shaq and Penny stayed together in Orlando?”
Penny elaborated on Shaq’s departure on Showtime’s All The Smoke podcast.
“I wanted to get to Orlando because I was thinking about the Magic and Kareem type of situation … I felt like I would be better with Shaq … I wanted to play with Shaq … When Shaq left, I knew the magnitude of that instantly. I knew we were done.”
Shaq’s move to Los Angeles has kept Lakers fans living in perpetual joy.
But the NBA world will always be left to wonder if basketball royalty never came to fruition.