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The Grand Prize

One lucky NBA team will win the rights to Shaquille O'Neal in the draft lottery, but signing him could be another matter
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It was a dare, and Shaquille O'Neal had never been the type to back down from a dare. He was 11 years old, and there was this fire alarm at school, and there were these other kids around him, and, well, it was a dare. Bet you won't pull it, Shaquille. He did, of course, and he was caught, of course. This was a school for children of Army personnel at the Military Ocean Terminal, the New Jersey base where his father was stationed, so instead of receiving a stern lecture in the principal's office, Shaquille was picked up by the military police and taken to the station house.

The MPs called his father, Sgt. Philip Harrison, who arrived at the station house clutching a Ping-Pong paddle and was prepared to practice his forehand as soon as he got within swinging distance of his son's backside. But the MPs reminded Harrison that corporal punishment was against Army regulations. If he struck Shaquille in front of them, he would be put on report. This was no small consideration for the sergeant, a career Army man for whom respect for authority was a treasured value. He had to decide whether to follow the rules or his instincts.

"I told them they had better go ahead and write me up," Harrison says. "Then I went ahead and paddled Shaquille's butt right then and there. I believe there are times when a man has to listen to himself instead of other people, no matter who the other people are."

O'Neal, who is now a 7'1", 295-pound 20-year-old, certainly subscribes to that doctrine, as he demonstrated in early April when he decided to skip his senior year of basketball at LSU and make himself eligible for the 1992 NBA draft—against the wishes of his parents.

With the announcements last week that All-Americas Jim Jackson of Ohio State and Harold Miner of USC, along with Tracy Murray of UCLA, will also forgo their senior seasons, the June 24 draft looms as one of the deepest in history. But it is O'Neal's decision that gives the draft lottery, to be held on May 17, its biggest jackpot since Patrick Ewing fell into the laps of the New York Knicks in 1985. O'Neal, in turn, has a jackpot of his own to ponder. Last season's top pick, former UNLV forward Larry Johnson, signed a six-year, $19.8 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. It will take a lot more than that to sign O'Neal.

There is little if any argument in NBA circles that O'Neal will be worth every cent he ultimately receives. "I can't imagine there's anybody in the league who doesn't think he'll be an absolutely great player," says Jerry Reynolds, director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings, who will be making their annual lottery appearance. "There hasn't been anybody coming into the league who has caused this kind of stir in a long time, maybe since [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar. Even when [David] Robinson came in, not everybody was completely sold on him. With O'Neal, people are sold."

O'Neal is clearly sold on himself. His voice is remarkably soft for a man of his size, but there is steel in it when he says, "I will be a force in the pros. There are only a few players who can dominate games, and I intend to be one of those players. I will be a force."

O'Neal could wind up not only the richest rookie in NBA history, but also the highest-paid player in the league, an honor that currently belongs to Cleveland Cavalier forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, whose 1992-93 salary will be $4 million. Most conservative estimates of O'Neal's asking price are in the five-year, $30 million range. "Let's just say there is the likelihood that he'll wind up among the highest-paid individuals in sports," says O'Neal's agent, Los Angeles attorney Leonard Armato.

With all those figures floating around, it would seem that Harrison and his wife, Lucille, would also be floating. But while they support their oldest son's decision, it broke a small piece of their hearts, because the Harrisons have always dreamed more of graduation day than payday. Had O'Neal—he uses his mother's maiden name because he was born before his parents were married—remained at LSU and earned his degree, he would have been the first person on either side of the family to graduate from college. When Lucille sat down in the dining room of the family's house at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio a few nights before O'Neal announced his decision to leave school, she spoke of diplomas, not paychecks.

"You have to understand how important that is for us," she said. "You want your children to go a little farther than you did. If Shaquille woke up tomorrow and said he'd changed his mind and was going back to LSU, Phil and I would be very happy. Shaquille says he will get his degree later, and what he says he'll do, he usually does, but I know that later has never come for me. When I got out of high school, I told myself I would go to college, but I got married young and I chose to stay home with the children. I enjoyed that, but I've always regretted not getting that college degree. I know there's all that money out there, but I want him to have that diploma so he'll have something real to depend on."

But if O'Neal's parents have mixed feelings about his decision, they are proud of the maturity he showed in making it. "He didn't do it because he wanted to be rich," Phil Harrison says. "The money was there last year, and it would have been there next year. He weighed all the factors and decided that the best thing for his happiness and his career was to move on. You try to raise your children to be independent enough to make their own choices, and that's what Shaquille did."

O'Neal has never had a problem making his own choices. When he was a high school senior, North Carolina coach Dean Smith came by on a recruiting visit. Smith pulled out a list of his former players who had reached the NBA. O'Neal was unimpressed. "He said, 'I don't want to be another name on somebody's list.' " says Harrison, who didn't tell O'Neal that North Carolina was the school he hoped his son would pick. "He makes his own choices."

The choices are just beginning. The consensus is that the team whose Ping-Pong ball pops through the chute for the No. 1 pick in the lottery will choose O'Neal. But there is the distinct possibility that O'Neal might ultimately choose the team for which he will play—not the other way around. Neither he nor Armato has done anything to end rampant speculation that O'Neal is so determined to play in Los Angeles that he and Armato will try to force the team that wins the lottery to trade him to either the Lakers or the Clippers.

It's no secret that O'Neal and Armato are thinking big. In an age when superstar athletes often earn more from endorsements and other off-court activities than they do in salary, the goal is to make O'Neal a multimedia phenomenon on the order of Air Jordan or Bo. That would be far easier to accomplish in Los Angeles than in, say, Orlando or Sacramento. "With Magic Johnson's retirement and Larry Bird nearing the end of his career, there's a little bit of a void in the NBA right now for someone to step in and maybe take the game to an even higher level of popularity," Armato says. "Shaquille could be that person. Certainly the advantages of playing in a major media center like Los Angeles aren't lost on him."

Why would O'Neal be in a position to force a trade? Because he has something almost as important as his prodigious talents—leverage. If a drafted player sits out an entire NBA season, he goes back into the hopper for the following year's draft. If he sits out two seasons, he becomes an unrestricted free agent, eligible to sign with the highest bidder. Why would O'Neal forgo millions for a little sunshine? Because various hefty endorsement deals will already have made him a wealthy man by the time some lucky lottery team wins the chance to make him even wealthier. He already has a deal, believed to be for more than $1 million, with a trading-card company. That's just for the right to print the card proclaiming him the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, which will go into circulation shortly after the draft. And by draft day he will probably also have settled on which lucrative sneaker-company endorsement contract to sign (Nike, Converse, Asics Tiger and Reebok are among those in the running). All of which means that O'Neal could survive quite nicely for a year or even two without an NBA paycheck.

Imagine, then, the Minnesota Timber-wolves' winning the lottery. It's not at all far-fetched to envision Armato marching into their offices in Minneapolis and informing the 15-67 team that they would be wise to work out a deal with the Lakers or Clippers so that they would at least receive something of value in return for O'Neal. Otherwise he lives off his endorsement money for a year, reenters the draft, and Minnesota gets absolutely nothing for its trouble. (Note to Timber-wolves: Does the name Eric Lindros mean anything to you?)

But wouldn't those endorsement deals fall through if O'Neal weren't in the NBA? Not at all, according to Armato. Any company would love to have O'Neal in a huge market like Los Angeles, so much so that it would be worthwhile to pay him well even before he played in a single NBA game if that's what it would take to help the young man go West.

Then there's the circumstantial evidence. O'Neal hired Armato, who represents ex-Laker center Abdul-Jabbar and Ronnie Lott of the Los Angeles Raiders. When O'Neal visited Los Angeles in April, he spent the better part of two days playing and talking with Magic, who rented out UCLA's Pauley Pavilion for a few pickup games with O'Neal and some friends. (Word came back that Johnson proclaimed O'Neal "a monster.") It's safe to assume that during breaks in the action, O'Neal and Johnson didn't just talk about the weather.

O'Neal has also dropped the hint that he would be willing to play basketball in Europe. "Basketball is a global game these days," he says. The bottom line is that the team that wins the lottery may be in for some big headaches.

O'Neal began to arrive at the decision that made him the lottery's grand prize almost immediately after Indiana eliminated LSU in the second round of the NCAA tournament in April. He went home, and about a week later Armato and LSU coach Dale Brown dropped by the Harrisons' single-story brick house, nearly identical to the other Army-issue houses on the block—except for the purple-and-gold LSU flag that flies out front. Harrison started the coals in the Buffalo Pit, the big black grill out front, and everyone went inside to talk.

Brown did most of the talking. He laid out what he believed were the advantages and disadvantages of entering the draft. There were no surprises: O'Neal and his family had sorted through the options countless times. Among the obvious reasons for staying were having the chance to graduate on time, having one more shot at a national championship and having another year of college life.

But none of these reasons was enough to match the one overriding consideration pushing O'Neal toward the NBA—the physical pounding he has taken over the past two seasons. "I saw guys knee him in the crotch, elbow him, shove him, and what he heard from the refs was usually 'You're big and strong. You can take it,' " says Harrison. "Well, he doesn't have to take it."

Then there was the lure of competition. O'Neal had already found himself watching more NBA games and growing more and more anxious to post up against the likes of Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon rather than be smothered by three guys from Mississippi State. "I haven't had the chance to show all of my talents," O'Neal says. "The NBA is more my game—banging and pushing, but man against man. I always said that when it wasn't fun anymore, it would be time to move on. And what I went through this year, took a lot of the fun out of the game."

Although Brown had said publicly that he would encourage O'Neal to enter the draft, the meeting in San Antonio was largely one last opportunity for the coach to try to persuade O'Neal to stay in school. It was obvious that there was no chance of that happening as soon as Brown left the house and Armato, who had originally been introduced to O'Neal by Brown, stayed.

"I asked Coach Brown what he expected when he came here," says Lucille. "I don't think he was shocked, but he was hoping he'd find a miracle."

What he found instead was a man with his mind pretty well made up. "Last year I went to my father and told him I wanted to turn pro," O'Neal says. "He asked me why. I told him I wanted to buy the family a new house and get some nice things for everybody. He said, 'Those are material things. You just want the money. Come back when you have better reasons.' Now I have better reasons."

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JOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA LIAISON

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DAVID E. KLUTHO

Dominant at LSU, O'Neal says he will be "a force" in the pros.

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JOHN CHIASSON/GAMMA LIAISON

O'Neal decided to announce he would turn pro despite parental misgivings.