Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway are talking poolside in the opening scene of the ESPN 30 For 30 film, This Magic Moment.
"A lot of what-ifs," Shaq says to his former Magic sidekick as the two reminisce about a relationship that began beautifully but would slowly unravel, destroyed by immaturity, money and ego.
The film, which debuts Thursday night, peels back the layers, sometimes painfully so. Shaq and Penny may as well be sitting on a therapist's couch, looking back at unanswerable questions that will sting for a long, long time.
What if Shaq had stayed in Orlando?
What if Penny had stayed healthy?
What if everyone had held their egos in check for the greater good of the team?
Those answers linger almost two decades later, a freeze-frame of time that takes us back to a press conference at a place called "Planet Reebok" at the '96 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. That's where Shaq rocked the Magic's universe by joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
The film pokes a few fingers at all the usual suspects leading to Shaq's summer of discontent: an initial lowball offer from naïve Magic management; a poorly worded Orlando Sentinel poll asking whether Shaq was worth $100 million; the sway of Shaq's former L.A.-centric agent, Leonard Armato; and the ability of the Lakers to clear enough cap space to make the Magic disappear from the NBA's power grid.
But the finger-pointing and "what-ifs," like the Big Fella says, are intertwined with the collateral damage of broken dreams and broken people.
It crushed Nick Anderson, who had missed four consecutive free throws in the first game of the 1995 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, then botched an out-of-bounds play that allowed Kenny Smith to drill a game-tying 3-pointer and send the Rockets to an overtime victory and eventual four-game sweep. Stripped of confidence and reluctant to drive to the basket, Anderson was never the same.
It took down a good coach and a good man in Brian Hill, who slowly lost control of the team the season after Shaq left, ending with an infamous players-only meeting in Penny's hotel suite leading to Hill's dismissal.
It broke Penny, too. Emotionally, then physically. As if his knees could not bear the strain of carrying the franchise by himself.
It shook us, too. Orlando. All of Central Florida. All those Magic fans who rocked the old Orlando Arena, led by a cheerleader named Hulk Hogan. Orlando pinned its hopes on the magic of Shaq and Penny and sidekicks Anderson, Dennis Scott and Horace Grant. We loved Horace's blue goggles, the firepower of "3D" from the outside, and Shaq's dunks.
We celebrated at Pinkie Lee's, a nightclub just outside the arena, after all those victories. Players joined the fun regularly.
We were happening, Orlando!
And then we weren't.
Shaq has since said that he would have stayed had he been given a do-over. It doesn't matter beans anyway. Those days are dead, and the ESPN team, under the direction of Gentry Kirby and Erin Leyden, does a fabulous job of picking over the corpse and delivering an entertaining and informative autopsy.
It's not a nostalgic jaunt down memory lane. It's a sad, painful and sobering reminder of what happened when this "dried-up little pond," as Shaq once described Orlando, wasn't big enough for him and the teammate they called Lil' Penny.
A young Chris Rock comically portrayed Penny's alter ego for a doll made famous during that run. He was brash, arrogant and funny, the perfect foil for Penny, quiet and often aloof. Shaq was always big and bodacious.
Opposites would attract, but not forevermore.
All we know is that the Magic enjoyed one heck of a ride into the elite tier of the NBA before it all crashed and burned badly.
"There are short stories, and there are long stories," Anderson says in the film. "This is a short one."
Short, bittersweet and compelling.
Broken dreams. Broken people, too.
— Orlando Sentinel (TNS)