They were destined for greatness. Back in the mid-1990s, you couldn’t imagine a more promising basketball pairing than the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. O’Neal was powerful and agile, plus swift and skillful in a way that hadn’t been seen in a 7-footer since Wilt Chamberlain (and hasn’t been seen since O’Neal retired). Hardaway was seen as the rightful heir to Magic Johnson — a tall, transcendent point guard who would headline the new generation of NBA superstars. If you wanted to build an ideal basketball team, you would start with a center and a point guard. If you wanted to build the perfect team, you would start with O’Neal and Hardaway. The Magic, only a few years removed from their lowly expansion-team origins, skyrocketed to fame with their abundant talent and black-and-white pinstripes. O’Neal and Hardaway were surrounded by capable role players like Dennis Scott, Brian Shaw, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant. Together, they seemed poised to become the NBA’s next dynasty.
Perhaps no NBA team has ever featured two players more marketable than O’Neal and Hardaway. The two filmed Blue Chips together and became dueling campaign faces for Nike and Reebok. O’Neal had his wide smile and an outsize personality to match his towering physique. Hardaway was more reserved, but possessed that unforgettable nickname and a Chris Rock–voiced alter ego to talk trash for him. The possibilities seemed endless, as if the championship rings and parades would be a formality.
And then it ended. The Magic’s competitive window slammed shut faster than anyone imagined, thanks to O’Neal’s unexpected departure to Los Angeles, the firing of Magic coach Brian Hill, and the decline of Hardaway’s game thanks to knee injuries. It took years for the franchise to build another competitive team, and even though the Dwight Howard–led Magic reached the NBA Finals in 2009, the pride mixed with disappointment from 1995 and ’96 remained strong.
The Shaq and Penny Magic are in an unfortunate class similar to the ’70s Blazers,’80s Rockets, or 2000s Kings — a story of unfulfilled potential and a dynasty that never was. “We were just having so much fun playing the game,” Scott said. “We weren’t really thinking about making history or understanding how good we really could be. All that stuff was happening so fast.”
Penny and Shaq. Shaq and Penny. For a brief time — they played only three seasons together — most of the NBA believed no one could stop them.
I remember the Shaq and Penny-era Magic pretty fondly throughout college. They were the next coming of Jordan and Pippen Bulls or the Rodman and Thomas "Bad Boys" Pistons and then everything melted down. They were exciting and cool and awesome, and then they were gone.
Give the story a read, it's a good one, even by Grantland standards.