There is a scene in This Magic Moment, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the early ’90s Orlando Magic, that is sure to make waves. The team’s titan of a star, Shaquille O’Neal, is reflecting on what could have been with the squad he led past Jordan to the 1995 NBA Finals, as well as the one-two punch of himself and swing guard Penny Hardaway.“Penny Hardaway was the man,” utters Shaq in the doc, his gloomy demeanor oozing regret. He later pauses, and adds, “My first four years [in the NBA] were probably the best four years of my life.”
“We were the Shaq and Kobe before Shaq and Kobe,” Shaq tells The Daily Beast of him and Penny. “We were the first team to have two guys with signature shoes. And we never had problems. I don’t know about Magic and Kareem’s relationship or any other small-big guy’s relationship, but we never had problems. The only time we had problems was when I had to tell Penny he could be too unselfish at times and he had to shoot.”
But does Shaq regret leaving the Orlando Magic, the team (and city) he helped build, for The Lake Show? After all, toward the end of the doc, teammate Horace Grant claims that had the Magic stayed intact, they’d have won “at least three to four championships.”“Regret is the wrong word,” replies Shaq, shaking his head. “I’ve always had people around me and been a good enough thinker to think about my situation. When I went to L.A., I knew I had to go to another level. I could go in Orlando, make it to the Finals, and people would say, ‘Hey, good job.’ But when I went to L.A., it was, hey, Magic’s won five, Kareem’s won five, what are you gonna do? And then there were all the opportunities for me to shake hands with people and do certain things in [the entertainment industry]. I have no regrets. I went out there, won 3 out of 4, and then left and got another title. I’m happy.”As far as the comparison between Penny-as-teammate and Kobe, well, it was a different time. “Penny was on the end of the era when guards knew that you had to get it to the big man first,” he says with a smile. “Penny knew that. Now, because of AND1 and all that bullshit, everybody’s going for their own. But in order to win, especially when you got a big guy like me, you gotta get it to ’em and keep his motor running. I’m famous for saying, ‘If you don’t feed the big dog, the yard won’t get guarded.’ So, if you don’t feed me, I’ll let everybody come in this motherfucker and rob us.”
This Magic Moment, which made its premiere Thursday evening at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival—and aired on ESPN the same night—comes along at a fascinating time. Shaq’s longtime Lakers’ first lieutenant, Kobe Bryant, just played his final basketball game, going out in storybook fashion with 60 points. And amid luminaries like Jay Z, Kanye West, and Jack Nicholson, none other than Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal, now 44, was there courtside in L.A. to give Kobe a Diesel bear hug as he walked off the court.
But things weren’t always so peachy between Shaq and Kobe. Their on- and off-court struggles are the stuff of NBA lore. Things hit a low point in 2003, when Kobe decided to break locker room code and rat on his teammate, for no apparent reason, while being questioned by police in his rape case.
According to Kobe’s police file, while he was being questioned by officers about the alleged sexual assault, Kobe said, “I should have done what Shaq does,” adding, “Shaq gives [mistresses] money or buys them cars, he has already spent one million dollars.” The report added, “Kobe stated that Shaq does this to keep the girls quiet.”
Years later, in 2008, Shaq freestyle-rapped about the incident at a club in New York. “I’m a horse / Kobe ratted me out, that’s why I’m gettin’ divorced / He said Shaq gave a bitch a mil / I don’t do that, because my name’s Shaquille,” ending the rhyme by repeating the refrain, “Kobe, how my ass taste?”
I ask Shaq how he really felt about getting “ratted out by Kobe,” and if they ever really buried the hatchet. After all, less than a year after Kobe’s betrayal, Shaq had orchestrated a trade to the Miami Heat, where he won a championship opposite Dwyane Wade.
“There never was a hatchet. I’m not worried about that,” responds Shaq. “That’s something that happened and I didn’t think it would’ve gone on, but there was never a hatchet. As a leader, sometimes you gotta do certain things, like, if I owned The Daily Beast and you came back with a bad article and I know your potential, I’d be like, ‘That’s some bullshit,’ and you’d either punk up and quit, or say, ‘Oh, it’s bullshit?’ and write a better piece. It was my job to get everyone to play at a high level. People want things to go perfectly, and if you really look at it, three out of four championships is pretty perfect. I’m glad and honored to be the most enigmatic, controversial, and dynamic one-two punch in Lakers and NBA history.”
He pauses again to ponder the question. “There never was a hatchet,” he adds of Kobe. “It was two guys competing. But one thing you can say about Shaquille O’Neal is he always played the right way. That’s all I wanted to ever do, is play the right way. So I never took anything personally.”
In addition to Kobe’s retirement, the other big story around the league is that the Golden State Warriors, at 73-9, just eclipsed the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls for the best regular season record in NBA history. And they’re led by Steph Curry, perhaps the most dynamic shooter in NBA history.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Shaq says of Steph. “There’s an old saying of what’s really hot will eventually go cold, so my hope is that Steph doesn’t go into a one- or two-game slump. That’s all it really takes. But I ain’t never seen anybody in my life shoot like this. Do you think he’s gonna shoot like that forever, or will his luck change?”
And, while Shaq admits “it definitely would’ve been crazy” if he’d had the chance to play with Steph—spreading defenses about as wide as they could possibly go—I ask Shaq if, given the opportunity to play GM early on in his career, would he draft a young Kobe or a young Steph as his teammate.
Shaq, ever the diplomat—and despite their well-documented problems—chose Kobe. “Well, they both came in as similar players. Kobe was a high schooler with a lot of potential, and with Steph Curry, his dad went to his college and said, ‘Take my son,’ and they said no. I’d probably take Kobe because he’s a bigger guard, but there’s no way to tell what these guys become,” he says.
In addition to his on-court career, This Magic Moment also briefly touches on the early days of Shaq Inc., when the towering, eminently likable basketball star had endorsements up the wazoo, including a hilarious Sega Genesis video game which this writer used to own, Shaq Fu, as well as his oft-derided 1997 superhero movie Steel, featuring Shaq as DC Comics’ hero Steel/John Henry Irons. The movie was panned by critics and earned just $1.7 million against a $16 million budget.
According to Shaq, the timing was everything. “With my superhero movie and my video game, it was the same thing: we had the old special effects,” he says. “Let’s put it this way: if you had Steel come out now with the Iron Man special effects, it would’ve been a big, big hit.”