I was fly on the wall when Shaquille O’Neal left the Magic

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We’ve all wondered what it could be like to be a fly on the wall when something big breaks. I was that fly in July of 1996.

I saw the negotiations between the agent for Shaquille O’Neal, the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. I saw the agent, Leonard Armato, hug Lakers General Manager Jerry West and they both walked away.

At that moment, it was clear Shaq was no longer going to play in Orlando. He was headed to Los Angeles.

And I was there when it happened.

The story requires a setup. I was covering the Atlanta Summer Games. I reported on beach volleyball in Jonesboro and boxing at Georgia Tech. On a volleyball off-day, I learned the women’s teams from the United States and Brazil would be practicing at a private court built in the backyard of a man who lived on Lake Spivey. If you looked hard enough, you could see the volleyball complex – called Atlanta Beach – across the lake.

I was standing next to the net when I noticed West walking down the fence line to a boathouse. A man who could afford to build a beach volleyball court in his backyard could afford a boathouse with a full bar, television and ceiling fans.

West got to the boathouse where he was met by Armato. I knew him since I covered every game Shaquille played in Orlando. It made sense Armato would be at the practice since his girlfriend, Holly McPeak, was on the U.S. roster.

What I didn’t expect was to watch them talk for 10 minutes. They shook hands and West walked back along the fence line.

A few minutes later, John Gabriel, the general manager for the Orlando Magic, walked down the same fence line. They talked for about 10 minutes and Gabriel left.

Gabriel and I became good friends while I covered the Magic. I was both quiet and honest. But I could see on his face, that he appeared concerned after his brief meeting with Armato.

Almost immediately, West re-appeared. He didn’t have time to go anywhere. He must have been waiting down the street in his car, waiting for Gabriel to make his final sales pitch and leave.

West returned and walked down to the boathouse. The meeting was short. The men hugged and they left together.

Neither Armato, West nor Gabriel noticed me standing beside the volleyball court. Maybe there’s truth in hiding in plain sight.

I was tempted to break the story, but in fairness, I don’t know exactly what was said. But it was clear, that Shaquille was going Hollywood. And I saw it happen.

There have been many stories reported about how O’Neal wound up going to the Lakers. He officially signed on July 18. ESPN said Shau wanted to stay in Orlando. Since the Magic drafted him, they were in a position to offer him more money than Los Angeles.

However, Orlando lowballed him. The offer was $54 million for either three or four years. Many speculated the Magic were trying to save money so they could re-sign future Hall of Famer Penny Hardaway.

The Lakers offered $126 million for seven years.

The decision was a slam dunk for O’Neal and Armato. Not only did Shaq get paid, he also was moving to Southern California where Armato lived.

Atlanta Beach is now known as Clayton County International Park. I’m not sure what happened to the court built in Richard Anderson’s backyard.

But I know Shaq went on to have a dominating career. And except for a brief spark of prominence led by Dwight Howard, Orlando has never really recovered. Like Shaquille O’Neal, Howard eventually left the Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The downfall, however, started in a backyard with women playing volleyball as a backdrop. For once, I was the fly on the wall to see it all unfold.

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