By John Denton
May 17, 2017
ORLANDO – To this day, exactly 25 years after the Orlando Magic won the NBA Draft Lottery that would deliver them larger-than-life center Shaquille O’Neal and change the franchise forever, Pat Williams still remembers the sounds of crunching paper bags and the frustration on the faces.
The lasting images of May 17, 1992 are that of Williams – the co-founder and Senior Vice President of the Magic – vigorously shaking hands with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern and flashing that child-like smile from ear-to-ear. But the thing that has stuck with Williams all these years later is the smashing and thrashing of those old-school, brown paper bags.
“Everybody there has a Shaq jersey made up, and most of them were in paper bags tucked under the table,’’ recalled Williams, re-telling the story as if it was just yesterday when he was up on that podium in Secaucus, N.J. “We had (a Shaq jersey) and the other teams did too because if they won they were going to break out that jersey. That doesn’t happen anymore because nobody knows for sure who that (No. 1) player will be. But, in this case, everybody knew who that pick would be.
“What I still remember is the rustling of those 10 other jerseys being stuffed back in those paper bags and never to see the light of day again.’’
They didn’t see the light of day because it was a delighted Williams – then Orlando’s GM – who was the one hoisting the pinstriped Magic O’Neal jersey high into the air like a scene out of the “Lion King’’ movie. Even though the 1992 NBA Draft offered one of the most talent-rich college classes ever, there was no mistaking whom the Magic wanted with that No. 1 pick that Williams secured for an Orlando franchise still in its infant stages.
Williams – and the rest of the basketball world, for that matter – knew that O’Neal was about to make a 7-foot, 325-pound difference on the Magic with his jaw-dropping combination of size, strength and agility. Off the floor, Shaq had the super-sized personality to rival Mickey Mouse as Central Florida’s biggest celebrity and he used it to put the Magic on the map nationally and around the globe.
“A Shaq comes along, what, every 20 years?’’ Williams asked. “So everybody in basketball knew what winning that lottery meant for us. Everybody knew that Shaq was going to impact the league in a big way and be a huge deal.’’
Williams, one of the storied players in the history of the NBA’s annual Draft Lottery, was in New York on Tuesday night and hoping to pull off another coup for the Magic. Williams helped the Magic secure No. 1 picks in 1992, ’93 and again in 2004 – selections that begat O’Neal, Penny Hardaway (via a trade) and Dwight Howard and formed the foundations of NBA Finals teams in 1995 and 2009.
Stuck in the worst rut in franchise history and out of the playoffs since 2012, Orlando came into Tuesday hoping to ride Williams’ history of past success for a much-needed pick-me-up. Instead, the Boston Celtics – a team already in the East Finals – won the top overall selection thanks to a prior trade with the woeful Brooklyn Nets.
Even though the Magic were armed with the fifth-best odds at winning the No. 1 pick and a solid shot at staying in the top five, they dropped to the No. 6 pick in the June 22nd NBA Draft. To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Lakers – the team that would steal O’Neal away from the Magic two decades earlier – jumped up to the No. 2 pick. That rise kept the Magic from getting L.A.’s unprotected first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and they will instead get this year’s No. 33 pick and next season’s second-round selection.
Tuesday’s disappointment was the latest in a four-year run of tough luck at the Draft Lottery for the Magic. They fell one spot in both 2013 and ’14 and failed to move up from Nos. 5 and 11 in ‘15 and ’16. Williams, who was backstage in a sequestered room for the actual lottery process on Tuesday, was left to wonder if the Magic might have used up their luck at the NBA Draft Lottery.
“Maybe, just maybe, the basketball gods don’t want to be too generous for us in Orlando,’’ Williams said jokingly. “It may be another 10 years until it’s our turn (to win the lottery) again.’’
Rarely does a day go by that Williams isn’t asked by a Magic fan about striking lottery gold in 1992 and ’93. The first one was completely transformational for the Magic because it landed them O’Neal, who wrecked the rest of the NBA during his four-year stint in Orlando.
A year later, Williams pulled off a stunner nearly as big because of its statistical improbability. With O’Neal winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award and the Magic at 41-41, Orlando entered the ’93 lottery with just one of the 66 ping-pong balls in the hopper. Incredibly, it was victorious again despite having just a 1.5 percent of a chance at the top slot – still the most unlikely win in the 34-year history of the lottery. As excited as Commissioner Stern was to greet a smiling Williams in 1992, he was irate in doing so in ‘93 and the Magic’s consecutive wins resulted in a dramatic change in how the lottery is weighted and conducted today.
The Magic used that ’93 pick to draft Chris Webber, who they traded for Hardaway and three future first-round picks. They reached the NBA Finals two years later with O’Neal and Hardaway dominating the rest of the league.
“People still remember (the 1992 lottery), and they remember the next year too when we had one out of 66 balls,’’ Williams recalled. “That was a miracle and the basketball gods smiled on us intensely in that period.’’
Everyone associated with the Magic was smiling in 1992 after they jumped over the Minnesota Timberwolves to land O’Neal, a member of the team’s Hall of Fame for his play in blue and black pinstripes. Orlando had just a 15.1 percent chance of getting the top slot, so no one could be assured that the Magic would emerge victorious from that transformational night 25 years ago.
Williams, however, got a bit of a sneak peek that Orlando would capture the top pick that would become O’Neal and forever change the course of the Magic franchise.
“It got down to the last two and I had a little bit of an angle. They did it differently back then when they would turn over the logo on a bulletin board. If you got the right angle, you could see a little of the logo as it was turned,’’ Williams recalled. “I saw a little piece of a wing of a Charlotte Hornet and I knew then that it was great news for Orlando. Charlotte, of course, got a good piece with Alonzo Mourning, but we got the right one.’’
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