In Focus: Coach Richie Adubato and the Shaq Era

In a new book, "Havin’ a Ball: My Improbable Basketball Journey," former Magic radio personality Richie Adubato recalls a coaching career that included glory days­­—and the departure of Shaquille O’Neal.
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Shaquille O’Neal celebrates a playoff victory. “He played hard. He played physical. He did it all,’’ Richie Adubato says. (COURTESY ORLANDO MAGIC)

 

Richie Adubato spent 15 seasons as radio commentator for the Orlando Magic Radio Network and, before that, was a coach for 17 years in the NBA, including a stint as the Magic’s assistant coach from 1994-97 and for 33 games as head coach in 1997. Adubato’s other head coaching jobs included the Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons and the WNBA’s New York Liberty and Washington Mystics. His new book, published by University of Nebraska Press, is a personal chronicle of his coaching career, from high school to the pros. The following selection is from Chapter 10, “Shaq, We Hardly Knew You.’’ Adapted from Havin’ a Ball: My Improbable Basketball Journey by Richie Adubato with Peter Kerasotis.© 2020 by Richie Adubato and Peter Kerasotis.

There is nothing like a basketball gym. To me, it’s like church. The head coach is the pastor, the assistant coaches the deacons, the players the parishioners, the rhythmic sound of bouncing basketballs the hymns, and the first day of practice is like a religious holiday. I could not wait for that holiday to arrive in the fall of 1995.

We had our starting five back—Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Horace Grant, Dennis “3-D” Scott, and Nick Anderson. They were still so young, yet now they were armed with the experience of going to the NBA Finals. Shaq was just twenty-three, Penny twenty-four, Horace thirty, 3-D twenty-seven, and Nick twenty-eight. That’s a starting five with an average age of twenty-six. We were all eager for the season to begin and to get back to the NBA Finals—and win it.

Sure enough, we roared out of the gate to a 25-6 record and never looked back. It was a historic season, the best regular season the Magic have ever had, and the second-best record in the NBA that season. We won sixty games, lost only twenty-two, and promptly steamrolled the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, sweeping them in three games. Then we handled the Atlanta Hawks, beating them four games to one to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s when we encountered the team that actually had the NBA’s best record that season, with an even more historic record than our 60-22 mark—the Chicago Bulls, who had gone 72-10 behind a maniacally inspired Michael Jordan.

Evidently, losing to us in the conference semifinals the season before did not sit well with Jordan. Not only did he lead the Bulls to an almost perfect regular-season record, they—like us—had gotten to the Eastern Conference Finals by sweeping their first-round opponent, the Miami Heat, in three games, before beating the New York Knicks four games to one.

The Bulls blew us out in Game One, 121–83, even though Penny poured in 38 points to lead all scorers. In Game Two, Shaq was the leading scorer with 36 points, while Jordan had 35. It was a closer game, but we still lost, 93–88. Because Jordan was such an offensive force, people tended to overlook just how world-class he was defensively. It showed in Game Three. Jordan led a suffocating Bulls attack against us. We could never get any momentum going offensively, which showed in the fact that Penny was our leading scorer with only 18 points. We lost that game, 86–67.

On the surface, Game Four should have been a foregone conclusion, but I was so proud of our guys. We outscored the Bulls 31–23 in the first quarter and led 56–47 at halftime. But as you would expect, Jordan took over. We lost, 106–101, completing a sweep for the Bulls, who went on to beat the Seattle SuperSonics four games to two, for the first of three more NBA Championships that Chicago would win with Michael Jordan.

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Richie Adubato and Shaqulle O’Neal in the 1990s. Adubato was a Magic assistant coach for four years and head coach for a short time in 1997. (COURTESY OF THE ADUBATO FAMILY)

That’s right, the first of three more NBA Championships. That promising young team that we had, which was led by Shaquille O’Neal, was about to unravel in a historically catastrophic way.

There were already fissures developing between Shaq and Penny. Stupid stuff, but so typical in sports. Whose team was it? Who got the most publicity? Who got the most endorsements? Who got the most credit? Who drove the fancier cars? From a coach’s standpoint—who cares?

I love them both, but Shaq, to me, was the greatest. In addition to being a rare talent, he was so fun loving. He would joke around, fool around, but once that ball went up in the air he was all business. Shaq was a tiger on the court. An animal on the glass. He played hard. He played physical. He did it all.

And he wanted to be recognized for it.

Alonzo Mourning had just left the Charlotte Hornets for the Miami Heat, signing a seven-year, $105 million contract. Now it was Shaq’s turn, because now he was a free agent. Shaq made it known that he wanted the same contract as Mourning—plus one dollar. He wanted to be recognized as the best center in the NBA, which was the general consensus.

1991 Nba Draft Orlando Magic First Round Draft Choice Shaquille O'neal

Shaq at the 1992 draft (COURTESY ORLANDO MAGIC)

Though Shaq and Penny were both great players, they were vastly different in one way—Shaq was engaging with his teammates, while Penny tended to be quiet and a bit distant. An NBA season is long, and you need a guy like Shaq who can take control of a locker room as a leader and also keep things loose, cutting through the stress and tension. He was the ultimate motivator. Before games he would have the entire team jumping up and down like pogo sticks, literally bouncing off the walls. If you were anywhere near them it was frightening, like being a mouse trying to avoid stampeding elephants. For the guys, though, it shook loose any pregame jitters and bonded them for battle. That was Shaq, and you never knew what he was going to do next.

Once, when we boarded our team plane, Shaq grabbed the microphone and addressed the team as if they were his troops. Being an army brat growing up, Shaq had spent some time in Germany and knew a little of the language. Slipping into a German accent, he said: “Achtung! Achtung! Everybody vill shut up and listen! Ven you practice I expect 110 percent! Vee vill outhustle every team vee play! And make sure you throw me zee ball in zee low post!” It was hysterical.

Our team plane was a private jet for the Magic, and it had a unique layout. The players sat in the front, the coaches in the middle, and the media in the back. And then way in the back was what we called “Shaq’s apartment,” with a curtain separating it from the rest of the plane. In that apartment were two seven-foot beds—one for Shaq and the other for his best buddy, Dennis Scott. One night, we were flying from Milwaukee to Chicago and I had a really bad cold. When we boarded the plane, Shaq picked me up, like you would pick up a child, carried me to the back of the plane, and gently laid me in his bed. He pulled the covers up to my neck and tucked me in.

Leaning over my head he said, “You sleep here and get better, because we’re gonna need your brains tomorrow night.”

Dennis Scott, who was standing next to him, said, “That was a nice thing to do, Shaq.”

“Oh Dennis, I forgot to tell you,” Shaq said. “You’re gonna be sleeping in Richie’s seat. I’m taking the other bed—your bed.”

As sick as I was, I couldn’t help but chuckle.

But that was Shaq. He was a leader, and he took control of situations. Off the basketball court he was still a leader, but at the same time he was funny and engaging, with a heart as big as he was.

I never thought we would lose him. I thought he would be with the Magic forever. I knew we were in trouble, though, when Magic owner Rich DeVos, who was still relatively new in the big-time world of sports team ownership—he had bought the Magic in 1991—lowballed Shaq with his first contract offer. Not that anybody should sneeze at a $54 million offer spread over four years—the figure which was reported by the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets. It was actually only $1 million less annually than what Alonzo Mourning was getting. But it still did not have the length or added security that Mourning’s contract had, which was a huge mistake. It created an opening for other teams—an opening that was exacerbated by an infamous Orlando Sentinel poll.

Clipping From The Orlando Sentinel Newspapers.com

I was at the Magic offices that day. I wasn’t involved in the negotiations, obviously, but I knew Shaq and his team were in a room trying to iron out a contract. At some point, I saw Shaq and his entourage walking down the hallway, looking upset. Shaq’s buddy, Dennis Scott, was with him. I briefly stopped Dennis. “3-D, what’s wrong?” I asked. Dennis slowed down long enough to tell me, “Oh man, they just screwed up. Shaq is really pissed at the offer.”

That summer, the summer of 1996, Shaq had made the U.S. Olympic team. Around that same time, Rich DeVos and the Magic finally saw the light and upped the ante for Shaq. It was reported that they offered $115 million over seven years, which was, at the time, the richest contract ever offered to an NBA player. It was even more than what Michael Jordan was making. That’s when the Orlando Sentinel did its poll—on the front page of the newspaper!—asking readers: “Is Shaquille O’Neal worth $115 million over 7 seasons?” Keep in mind, not only was Rich DeVos a relatively new owner to big-time sports, the Magic were Orlando’s first—and still only—team from one of the four major sports leagues: the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Safe to say there was a healthy dose of naiveté all the way around as to what it takes to be a major league city.

Some 5,111 people responded to the poll, and a staggering 91.3 percent of them said no, that Shaq was not worth the money, which also meant that only 8.7 percent said yes.  The Sentinel headline blared: “Shaq Attack: Callers Just Say No.” In fact, only 49 percent of those polled said that Shaq was even worth his current seven-year, $41 million contract. The responses quoted in the article were typical. A guy named Bill Baker said, “I think the Magic should give the money to the homeless.” Yeah right, I thought; as if that is going to happen. Another person, someone who sounded like an actual fan, said that only when Shaq played like Michael Jordan should the Magic pay him like Michael Jordan. And on and on it went. Overall, it was bad. Real bad.

Making matters worse was that the Olympic team, Team USA, happened to be training in Orlando. Had it been in any other city, his teammates likely would never have known about the poll, since this was back when the internet was still in its infant stages and well before things like social media apps and newspapers were available online. Well, when Shaq’s teammates saw the Sentinel poll, they mercilessly teased him—especially Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen. At the same time, Barkley ripped Magic fans, “They’re going to be sorry . . . because they’re going to be idiots. They’re going to miss him.”

There was also a power struggle between Shaq and [Head Coach] Brian Hill, which had spilled into the open, especially because Shaq told the media that the team did not respect Brian. There was a second question in the poll that asked whether the Magic should fire Hill if that were one of O’Neal’s conditions for returning.

Overwhelmingly, 82 percent of the respondents said no.

Adding to all of that was the fact that Shaq was having a child with his girlfriend and—hard to believe nowadays that this would be the case—he was getting hammered in the media and the community for a lack of morals. And finally, there was Shaq’s agent, Leonard Armato, who we all knew wanted his client in the Los Angeles market. Armato got his wish. And so did a lot of misguided people in the Central Florida community. After calling Orlando a “dried-up little pond,” Shaq left that pond and headed for a big lake on the Left Coast—the Los Angeles Lakers.

When the news was announced, a local radio station played a remake of the song “Hit the Road Jack,” calling it “Hit the Road Shaq.”

They were clueless. They had no idea. No idea at all.

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