Drafting Shaq: How the Magic feared they'd lost him

Shaq in his own words (3:28)

Take a look back at the Hall of Fame career of Shaquille O'Neal through the words of the four-time NBA champion. (3:28)

LONG BEFORE SHAQUILLE O'NEAL was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, he was a lanky 20-year-old from LSU whose impact on the NBA game was so highly anticipated that each of the 11 teams at the 1992 draft lottery had a jersey printed with its logo -- and O'Neal's name -- stashed under the seat.

"It was,'' says Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams, "the Shaq draft.''

Then-Charlotte Hornets coach Allan Bristow's team had won the lottery the season before (and selected Larry Johnson), so he laid out the same suit and tie and checked into the same hotel in advance of the 1992 lottery. He also brought along his trusty turkey caller.

Then-Dallas Mavericks owner Donald Carter, for his part, opted for a 10-gallon hat with a brim dotted with coyote teeth. He obsessively caressed his "lucky" stone in advance of the lottery results, prompting Williams, who had not brought along any good-luck charms, to inquire about it.

Williams rubbed the stone and noticed it was speckled with raised bumps. Carter explained they spelled out "Shaquille" in braille.

Carter's stone didn't bring him the good fortune he was seeking: The Mavericks wound up with the fourth pick (Jimmy Jackson). After the Timberwolves won the third pick, the final two selections came down to Charlotte and Orlando.

"As the lottery unfolded, and each team fell into their slotted place, you could hear the rustle of those (Shaq) jerseys going back into the paper bag,'' Williams says. "It was the sound of, 'It's not going to happen for us.'''

The Magic had just one chance in 11 of winning, but that was enough as they brought home the No. 1 pick. It should have been cause for wild celebration in Orlando, but Williams knew there was a problem.

O'Neal's then-agent, Leonard Armato, while acknowledging it was nice that the Magic won the rights to No. 1, was noncommittal about his client's willingness to play for Orlando.

"He was very standoffish,'' Williams says of Armato. "We couldn't get a visit with Shaq.''

Armato liked the idea of O'Neal playing for the Lakers, but Williams made it clear he wasn't trading his potential franchise player.

Two days before the draft, O'Neal finally agreed to visit Orlando. The Magic hastily arranged for a private plane to fly O'Neal, his father Philip Harrison and O'Neal's younger brother Jamal into town.

"Jamal is about 12 or 13 at the time,'' Williams says. "We have a lot of activities planned for Shaq, so we take Jamal to my house. My children are there and we've got a swimming pool and a basketball court.

"Everything is going well until we get word Jamal isn't happy with his lunch. He insisted he needed some pickles. So we had to make an emergency run to the grocery store.''

Later that evening, the Magic arranged an elegant, exclusive dinner with members of the DeVos family, who still own the team, along with some key sponsors and then-coach Matt Guokas, who plopped down at the end of the table where Williams, Shaq and Jamal were seated.

"Here we are having this very important dinner, and Shaq and Jamal start stealing food off each other's plate,'' Williams says. "They're stabbing each other with their forks. Then they're shooting pieces of rolls at each other. Safe to say it was a food fight.

"I asked Matty about it later. He said, 'I didn't know what to do. I felt like sending them to their room.'''

Sophomoric table manners hardly deterred the Magic. On the night of the 1992 NBA draft, which was held in Portland because USA Basketball was wrapping up the Tournament of Americas there, more than 10,000 Magic fans crammed into Orlando Arena to witness live on the video screen the selection of Shaquille O'Neal as their savior.

Longtime commissioner David Stern kicked off the proceedings by taking the mic to declare, "The Orlando Magic is on the clock. You have five minutes to make your pick.''

All Williams needed to do was call the Magic representative in Portland, who would relay the team's selection to the commissioner. It should have been a matter of seconds.

Yet a technical malfunction prevented the call from going through. One minute, then two, then three minutes went by. Engineers on site frantically tried to identify the problem, but the Magic had virtually no way to convey their Shaq selection to league officials in Portland.

"Now there's a minute left to go and I'm thinking, 'This is going to be the biggest faux pas in the history of our sport,''' Williams says. "What if we can't make our pick?"

Alex Martins, who is now the CEO of the Magic but back then was an industrious young public relations director, stepped outside Orlando's arena into the corridor and dialed up his oversize, boxy mobile Nokia phone, a novelty in those days. He called directly to the NBA's New York office and relayed the choice of Shaquille O'Neal. The selection was recorded with just seconds to spare.

"It was getting close,'' Martins recalls. "I think it was down to about 20 seconds. I don't know what they would have done if we didn't get the pick in on time.''

Stern, reached by ESPN on Tuesday, says he has no recollection of the near snafu.

"Of course, we would have made sure nothing untoward happened, and we would have made every effort to make sure we were in contact with them one way or another,'' Stern says, "but I don't remember it. That was (former deputy commissioner) Russ Granik's problem. It was a great division of responsibility on my part.''

Granik is also fuzzy on the details of that night, but holding the event in Portland created some unusual obstacles, he says. So what would have happened if the Magic hadn't been able to call Shaq's name in time?

"We would have allotted for it somehow,'' Granik says. "We're not crazy.''

While those five minutes were harried and nerve-wracking for the Magic, they were excruciating for O'Neal, a superstitious young man who, even though the Magic had made it clear they would take him, fretted over a possible last-second change of heart.

"I wasn't going to believe it 'til I heard it myself,'' Shaq says. "They could have changed their mind and gone for (Alonzo) Mourning or (Christian) Laettner.''

Shaq's mother, Lucille Harrison, says the family was unaware of the technical difficulties surrounding his selection, in part because they were so nervous.

"We weren't familiar with the business of it all,'' Lucille explains now. "We were excited he was picked at all.

"What I remember most is the fact this dream Shaquille had was now happening. He was walking into the reality of it.''

While Stern remains hazy on Shaq's initial introduction to the league, he quickly became familiar with the big man because of incessant correspondences from Armato.

"Leonard became a regular at my desk,'' Stern says. "He'd call me, send me letters, and come in and tell me how our refs weren't used to calling fouls against players guarding someone as large as Shaq. He said they weren't calling fouls that they would call if Shaq were a normal human being, because after all, Shaq was superhuman.

"We listened and we told Leonard, 'We feel your pain. Period. End of sentence.' We understood what he was saying.''

Shaquille O'Neal went on to play 20 seasons in the NBA -- though only four of them with the Magic. He led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 1995 (and fell short) but won championships with Los Angeles and Miami while maintaining his home in Orlando. Nineteen years after he bolted in a rancorous exit from the Magic to play for the Lakers, he returned in 2015 to be inducted into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame. That evening, he admitted, "I regret (leaving) sometimes. Is this where I started and should have stayed? I actually wish they'd make it a law that whoever drafts you, you've got to stay there your whole career.''

Granik says that about a month and a half before Shaquille O'Neal embarked on his dominant NBA journey, he and his father -- nicknamed "Sarge" because of his stern visage -- requested an audience with the commissioner and his deputy.

"It was pretty rare when that happened, but the few times (players did that) we accommodated them,'' Granik says. "It's mostly, 'What should I know about the league? What do I need to do?'

"I made a joke to Shaq in our meeting about how much publicity he was getting. I told him, 'We've been hearing a lot about you. I sure hope you can play.' The look from his dad was unforgettable. I had to tell him, 'I'm kidding, I'm kidding!'"

There was one other draft prospect who requested a similar audience before the draft in 1992: Christian Laettner, the star from Duke.

"Laettner told us, 'I know I'm better than Mourning, but that guy Shaq is better than all of us,''' Granik says.

He was right.