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Sugar Shaq

Life is sweet indeed for Shaquille O'Neal, the Orlando Magic's man-child in the promised land

The man-child was not happy. He couldn't sleep, and he couldn't stop his mind from racing. It was heading toward dawn, a night in February. And there he was, sitting alone in his $5.5 million mansion on the whispery shore of Lake Butler, outside Orlando. He was contemplating his unique place in the world, feeling restless clear through to his heart.

One question he kept asking was this: "Do I swerve?"

He tried to be square with himself, to come clean with the truth. If he did swerve, he was fully prepared to deal with that reality. But the answer he kept hearing was: "No, bro, you don't. You don't swerve at all."

It was an off night for the Orlando Magic, and Shaquille O'Neal had gone with friends to a club outside of town. Since O'Neal doesn't drink ("Can't even tolerate the smell of table wine," one of his teammates, Dennis Scott, likes to say), he mostly sat around, listening to music and absorbing the bright, energetic scene. As he was starting for home sometime after midnight, he glanced in his rearview mirror and spotted a police car coming fast on his tail. O'Neal slowed for the car to pass, but then its lights came on, coloring everything.

O'Neal pulled over and fished around for his wallet, although giving the man a driver's license or any other I.D. hardly seemed necessary. Mickey Mouse notwithstanding, Shaquille O'Neal is the biggest name that this central Florida city of 1.4 million has ever known. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year for 1992-93, and this winter he was named a starter in the league's All-Star Game for the second straight season. O'Neal's 22nd birthday was still a month away, but everybody was saying that he was a cinch to claim Michael Jordan's place as the most popular sports personality in all America.

Basketball, however, wasn't the only pursuit in which O'Neal had distinguished himself. His debut album, a rap collection called Shaq Diesel, was on the verge of going platinum, with sales of a million copies. He was also an aspiring movie actor, and in his first major role, in Blue Chips, he shared the screen with Nick Nolte and won a modicum of praise from film critics. If all that wasn't enough, huge companies such as Pepsi and Reebok had already invested millions of dollars in pitching O'Neal's bigger-than-life persona to the world.

There were a couple of numbers people tended to quote when O'Neal's name came up: his scoring average of 28.9 points per game, second in the league after David Robinson's 29.2, and the $100 million O'Neal was expected to earn by his 25th birthday.

Everybody knew him. Or so it seemed until this night.

"Do you drink?" the policeman asked, first thing.

O'Neal looked closely and seemed to recognize the man. Sure enough, it was the same fellow who'd stopped him here once before. "No, officer," O'Neal replied after a time, "I don't."

"Because you were swerving."

"I was...swerving?"

"I thought you were drunk."

"Come on now, bro, you know I don't drink."

"I don't know you don't drink," the man said, raising his voice. "I don't know you!"

The man also had clocked O'Neal driving below the speed limit—another reason to write him up.

O'Neal had few options in the way of protest, but he did squeak and moan a little. He was reminded of times when he was a kid and bullies called him Shaqueer and Sasquatch just to get a rise out of him. And he recalled something that had happened to him not long before. He had pulled up alongside a motorcyclist at a red light in Orlando and made the mistake of asking the man about his bike. O'Neal knew it was a Harley-Davidson, but he meant to be friendly and idle the time away until the light turned green. The man was of a different mind, however. He unleashed a low, spooky growl, then muttered, "Why you want to know, punk?"

Shaquille O'Neal is an inch taller than seven feet. He weighs 305 pounds. And he has a Superman tattoo, not to mention a moody side. For a second the child in him considered pulling the biker over to the side of the road and breaking him in half like half a twig. "What did you call me?" the child considered asking. But then something happened in that slender moment in time. A voice filled his head, and it was his dear mother, Lucille, saying, "Be the man who walks away."

And so, being exactly that, O'Neal flashed the biker the best smile he could muster before pressing hard on the accelerator and speeding down the road.

A similar confrontation seemed to be in the works on this night. O'Neal was angry and upset. And the child in him wanted to wail and beat his chest. The child wanted to do some other things, too. But, no, O'Neal listened to a familiar voice in his head. Finally he stuck his hand out and said, "Just give me the ticket." Then he gave the cop a smile and drove off without another word.

Some might argue otherwise, but in the year 1994 it is no easy thing being a "worldwide icon," a "multimedia entertainment asset" and a "cross between the Terminator and Bambi," as O'Neal's agent, Leonard Armato, is so fond of calling him. O'Neal has become something of a target; people seem determined to whittle him down to size. And they don't always come riding up on motorcycles and in squad cars.

Sportswriters a few months ago labeled O'Neal a whiner for barking too often at officials about missed calls, and they questioned his work habits, citing an off-season schedule that devoted more time to self-promotion than to improving his game. The criticism didn't end there, either. Marquee players on other teams, perhaps sensing that the NBA was fast becoming O'Neal's league, just as it had been Jordan's only a year before, seemed to resent him for commanding so much attention. Some picked his game apart, pointing to his poor free throw shooting and limited offensive repertoire, and wondered whether he could do anything but dunk. The rarely loquacious Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks said one day after outscoring O'Neal by 10 points: "He feels he's the Man now, and I feel he's not the Man yet."

Perhaps the biggest shot came from the San Antonio Spurs' Robinson. "Who is Shaq...and why should I lose any sleep over what he thinks?" Robinson remarked a few days after the two had met head-to-head in the Alamodome, where the crowd had regaled Robinson with cries of "MVP! MVP!"—cries that must have been arrows to the heart of the man-child, who had been a beloved high school star in San Antonio not all that many years before. "He talks about people being jealous of him," Robinson went on, "but he has nothing we want."

"You tell David Robinson the next time he plays me, I'll be on his ass," O'Neal said after learning about Robinson's comments. "If there is ever a day David dominates me, it's because he has help. He would never play me one-on-one.... He needs to stick to churchgoing, and not trash talking."

Anyone will tell you that rivalries are great for the game, especially when they involve the big men. This season the Magic will have appeared in 17 nationally televised games, the maximum number the NBA allows any one team before the playoffs. And it's O'Neal whom people want to see. O'Neal versus Robinson. O'Neal versus Ewing. O'Neal versus Anyone Else in the General Vicinity of Seven Feet and 300 Pounds. O'Neal's game might have only one dimension, but it is a dimension that no one person seems equipped to stop. On top of that O'Neal has been known to rip goals down, and who else on the planet can do that?

"He's the best right now," said Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets one night this season after a game with the Magic. "What he's doing is unbelievable. I wonder what he'll be doing in a couple of years.... When he gets the ball under the basket, I pray he misses, because he's so big and he can't be stopped."

This is the kind of talk that O'Neal loves to hear, even if it does come from a player with whom he has built a friendship over the years. He and Olajuwon are represented by the same agency, Management Plus, and they've worked out together during the off-season. O'Neal is just as quick to heap praise on Olajuwon. But talking up somebody like Charlotte Hornet center Alonzo Mourning is another matter entirely.

"I was mad last year when they put him on the cover of SI," O'Neal says, "the one that said he was the new legend or something like that and compared him to Bill Russell. Oh, I was insulted."

While this might have upset him, O'Neal does seem to understand why he has become an American pop icon and other sturdy personalities such as Mourning and Ewing must contend with simply being basketball stars. "Maybe people like me because of my style of play or because I'm nice," he says, thinking hard on the subject. "Maybe it's because I smile. Mourning doesn't smile that much, bro. I have nice teeth, and I'm very handsome."

To prove his point, the man-child gives a smile. And, yes, it's true: He is quite the picture.

O'Neal is safe at home now, less than 24 hours after being ticketed for swerving and driving too slow. And he has managed to catch up on his sleep, having collapsed for a couple of hours in his bedroom upstairs. O'Neal is generally good to go if he can scrape together six hours of sleep a day. He'll take a short nap late in the afternoon. Then, if there's no business to tend to, he'll watch action movies, play video games, goof off with his Rottweilers, Shazam and Thor, and talk on the phone until he decides it's time to lie down for the day's balance.

It is a mighty fine place to sleep, this house. Or to do most anything else, for that matter. Neoclassical in design, it bellies up to a cul-de-sac in the back acres of an exclusive residential area called Isleworth. To reach it you pass two gatehouses with uniformed guards who love nothing more than to say, "Beg your pardon, sir. But was Mr. Shaquille expecting you?" O'Neal's house has a pool, a pool house, a music studio, eight or nine bathrooms (O'Neal says he has never actually counted), garages on either end and a tennis court that is being converted into a basketball court. Inside the house there are 23,000 square feet of living area, which makes the place about as cozy as an airline terminal. In the den statues of Mandingo warriors stand on green marble pedestals, and leather furniture crowds a slick granite floor dressed with Oriental rugs. The game room, off the kitchen, holds assorted portraits of the man-child himself, all of them hung at the eye level of a 7-footer. It also holds a giant soft-drink machine and a number of arcade video games, none of which requires change.

O'Neal shares the house with his publicist and personal assistant, Dennis Tracey, a former teammate at LSU. Tracey helps bring order to the riot of activity that swirls around O'Neal. They moved here from another Isleworth mansion around Thanksgiving, but already O'Neal has set his sights on a 50,000-square-foot palace just around the bend in the lake. "Big people," he says, "need a lot of space, bro."

Presently he enters the kitchen and plops down on a chair at the counter. The incident with the cop is still on his mind, but O'Neal has decided to keep it in perspective. The cop, he has convinced himself, wanted to be a ballplayer but didn't make it, so now he takes his frustrations out on professional athletes. O'Neal is determined not to brood, and already he has placed the ticket on Tracey's desk with instructions to pay it off immediately. "The last thing I need," he says, "is a warrant out for me for not paying some stupid ticket. And then this guy getting headlines around the world. And his picture in all the papers. Like he's really some....

"I can't worry about it," O'Neal says, suddenly catching himself. And he hits on a familiar theme, the one he calls "my rule for myself: Just keep things simple, bro."

Entertainment Tonight is on the TV above the stove, and the volume is turned way up.

"How many this time, Joe?" O'Neal says, having to shout.

Joe Cavallero enters the room dragging a big cardboard box full of Orlando Magic game jerseys, all of them bearing O'Neal's number, 32. "Two-fifty," Cavallero says.

"Two-fifty," O'Neal answers wearily.

Cavallero and O'Neal have been friends since they were teammates at San Antonio's Cole High. These days Cavallero handles all the merchandise that O'Neal is contracted to autograph for a sports-memorabilia company. The two of them usually get together at around midnight and work until as late as 2:30 in the morning. Once, at Cavallero's house, O'Neal autographed 2,500 different articles, all of them stacked against the living-room walls. Music blared as O'Neal moved from floor to ceiling like a machine, stopping only when his hand cramped.

"I want to do Terminator 3," O'Neal says. The declaration comes out of the blue, but then again, he always seems to bring this subject up when there's a reporter around. It might be his way of promoting a deal with Hollywood or getting the place to at least sit up and take note.

"It sounds good," O'Neal continues. "Arnold against Shaq. We'd make $200 million the first night. I met him, too. Arnold. He's real short." O'Neal gives an estimate with the flat of his hand, but it's only about five feet off the ground.

"He's six-four," Cavallero corrects him.

"Nah," says O'Neal. "About six foot. But he looked real good. I didn't mention my movie idea to him. I think I'd be a terminator, though. I'd come in the door and say, 'Where is he? Where is he?' And then just start breaking——up."

"I'd go see it," Cavallero says.

"Everybody would," O'Neal replies.

Half an hour later Dennis Scott comes into the kitchen wearing granny sunglasses and a dreadlock wig. He has a television program called The Dennis Scott Show, which analyzes the week in basketball and lets Magic fans phone in and ask questions. Tonight O'Neal is scheduled to be Scott's guest. Scott wants to shake things up and appear as a Rastafarian, and he has persuaded O'Neal to do the same. They've decided to pretend to be their own Jamaican cousins, here in America on vacation. O'Neal is delighted by the opportunity to work on his acting skills. "Rasta mon," he says, donning sunglasses and a curly wig.

The two men leave for the television studio in separate vehicles—Scott in a souped-up black thing, O'Neal in his Chevy Suburban with the SHAQ-FU vanity plate on the front bumper. As he is clearing the second gatehouse, O'Neal mutters, "Gotta call the wife." He picks up the car phone and dials his girlfriend in Houston. "Yeah," he says, "it's me.... Uh-huh, O.K., right...."

"I have a little test I put women through," O'Neal said only a few days before. "Anytime I meet someone and she starts asking for things right off the bat, she's not the one for me. And I always take her to meet my mother. If my mother doesn't like her, I say, 'Can't go with you, I'm sorry. You're beautiful and you're pretty and you're sweet, but I'm sorry—my mother doesn't like you.' Well, maybe I don't really say that, but I do put them through things to make them break up with me. By the time I'm done, I have them thinking I'm crazy."

He also said, "I just hope I can find a woman who can put up with my mood changes, because I go through these mood changes sometimes and I don't want to talk to anybody."

His plan is to marry young and have a bunch of kids. And he promises to raise them with a firm hand, in the same fashion as his father, a former Army supply sergeant. "We've got kids divorcing their parents in this country," O'Neal said. "I was sick the first time I saw that, bro. I was sick when America let that little kid divorce his parents. That's horrible."

O'Neal puts the car phone down and accelerates to catch up with Scott. There's a red light up ahead, and Scott slows down, then drives right through it. O'Neal, his head aswivel, does the same. At the next light they're both forced to stop, hemmed in by traffic. O'Neal lowers the passenger-side window and leans far enough over to show himself to the woman waiting in the next lane. The woman is lighting a cigarette and fiddling with radio knobs; she pays no attention to him.

"You should see when there's little kids in a car," he says. "They go crazy when they see me—jumping around, screaming." At the next light O'Neal shows himself to another motorist. The man looks at him and seems somewhat alarmed, anxious for the light to change. He doesn't seem to recognize O'Neal.

" 'Mama, Mama, it's Shaq!' " O'Neal says. "That's what they say...the little kids...when they see me."

The road opens up, traffic lightens, and O'Neal tugs at the steering wheel, drifting across the center line. His face is grim. He seems to be practicing something.

"Do I swerve, mon?" he says. But you can tell he doesn't expect an answer.

"We tease him," Dennis Scott was saying one day. "We tease him a lot. He has a bird chest, have you noticed? But he's solid. You know what else he is? He's sensitive, real sensitive. He doesn't want to admit it, but he is. Every now and then he'll call me and say, 'D, I'm down, bro, because of my free throws.' Or, 'D, the refs, man, they're——me.' He'll come over to my house and we'll talk about it, or we might go riding around. He likes to ride around. He's happiest when he's in his car and the weather's nice."

"I'd really love it if he would speak up a little," said Alex Martins, the Magic's publicity director. "He speaks in a very soft voice, and sometimes it's hard to hear. Last season, for the most part, he used one-line answers and the same phrases, constantly. 'I'll be all right,' he'd say. Or, 'We'll be O.K.' He and I spoke over the summertime, and I asked him to try to paint pictures, to try and tell stories. He didn't want to get himself in trouble by elongating an answer and saying something he shouldn't have said."

"When it comes to Shaq," said John Gabriel, the Magic's vice president of basketball operations and player personnel, "the main thing I worry about is that he's being tugged at from too many different directions. And the best I can do is pull him over and say, 'Shaquille, I'm here. We care. We're proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself. And we're here if you need us.' And Shaquille will nod his head. He might say, 'Thanks.' But usually he just nods his head."

"I don't know if anybody really knows him," said Pat Williams, the Magic's general manager. "He's just a big overgrown kid who's maxing out on life, but in a wholesome way. He's feasting on life, he's just sucking the marrow out of the bones of life. People say, 'Hey, Shaq's doing too much.' I say, 'Hey, he can handle it. Let him do whatever he wants.'

"And, listen, wouldn't you and I love to be this incredible athlete and so well known and without a worry? I'd love to be Shaq. Come on, now. Wouldn't you?"

"When they take shots at him," Tracey says, "it's like people have built up this huge deal, this huge Roman Empire, and now they want to take it apart. I really don't understand it. Does it get to him, the negative stuff? Yes, it gets to him. Of course it gets to him."

O'Neal has slipped into a moody spell, a dark one. It might be because of last night. The cop, the ticket. He drives by a police car and gives it a look: two men driving along. O'Neal slows and leans back in his seat. He doesn't run any more red lights. Who cares if The Dennis Scott Show is telecast live and he and Scott are already 20 minutes late?

He starts talking about something that happened once at the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando. He was just sitting there, trying to enjoy a meal, when a woman came up and demanded his autograph. She didn't ask for it, she demanded it. O'Neal happened to have his mouth full, and he was tired, and, well, a rule is a rule, and one of his is: Don't bother me for autographs while I'm eating.

He politely informed the woman that he wouldn't sign right then, and her personal thermostat seemed to go on the blink. She began to complain, and her noise brought stares from everybody around: Ah, you think because you make $40 million playing basketball you're too good to sign autographs! We made you, Shaquille O'Neal. We made you!

O'Neal happens to know different. If anybody made him, it was his parents, Lucille and Philip Harrison. They weren't married until after he was born, which explains, in part, why Shaquille took his mother's family name. A Current Affair, the tabloid TV show, ran a story once about a fellow named Joe Toney who claimed to be O'Neal's biological father. Toney said all he wanted was to meet O'Neal and to introduce him to his half-brother, a little kid who was seen on the show shooting baskets at a toy goal. Soon after the story aired, O'Neal told reporters, "It's true that [Toney] is my biological father, but just because you bring a child into the world doesn't make you a father. I haven't seen him in 21 years, and I don't expect to see him in the next 21." He also said, "When my mother needed someone 21 years ago, Phil Harrison was the man. He is my dad. He's the one who raised me and made me what I am today."

It was another intrusive peek into O'Neal's fishbowl. It seemed people couldn't know enough about him. Last fall, for example, just after the basketball season started, every other O'Neal story you ran across seemed to focus on how he had spent his summer. It wasn't enough that he was playing better than ever, his scoring average tops in the league, his rebounds near the top of the leaders' list, his overall game expanded and improved. There was the suggestion that he hadn't trained hard enough and that his priorities weren't in line. "I'm a basketball-player-slash-entertainer," O'Neal said. "I play basketball first, and I entertain second. It's really not that complicated."

From May to August he and Tracey had bivouacked at Armato's house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., a short drive from Los Angeles. Because of O'Neal's busy schedule (movies! commercials! music videos!) they figured they needed a base on the West Coast, and Armato volunteered his fabulous digs.

One of the places O'Neal and Tracey visited was Honolulu, home of Pete Newell's Big Man's Camp, an elite basketball school that over the years has attracted the likes of Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson, Sam Perkins, Danny Manning and Olajuwon. It was O'Neal's second straight year at the camp, and he relished the opportunity to hone his skills. While on the island, though, he encountered a couple of problems. First, he fell off a moped one day and damned near killed himself. Second, he saw a TV report from the mainland saying his car had been stolen. Rumors were circulating that Shaquille O'Neal, the NBA's best young player, had been held up at gunpoint, his car stripped and burned.

That wasn't the end to O'Neal's Hawaiian adventure. After dinner one night he and Tracey drifted into a tattoo parlor called Skin Deep. O'Neal was on a mission. The tattoo took about an hour, and he had to chew on a tongue depressor to beat the pain. He had the Superman logo needled into his left arm, right over some muscled knots. One concern was what his mother would think, and he was home for two weeks before he found the courage to show her the tattoo. She seemed to like it. And he confessed that he was considering another, this one with her name on it. She told him to forget that, but months later he was still thinking about it.

"You ever watch I Love Lucy?" he said one day. "You know her emblem with two hearts and I LOVE LUCY across them? I was thinking about getting that because my mother's name is Lucille. I'd have I LOVE LUCILLE. Two hearts, and then that. Whaddya think?"

For years O'Neal has been intrigued by the Superman logo, and he feels lucky to have a name that starts with S. However, when somebody wanted him to actually perform in a television commercial as a character called Supershaq, complete with a flowing cape and form-fitting tights, he refused. When the advertiser insisted on knowing why, O'Neal answered, "Because I can't fly." O'Neal offered a similar response to Pepsi when its marketing group proposed a Shaqasaurus commercial to capitalize on the dinosaur craze. Pepsi wanted to have him walk up to an arena, reach in through the roof, grab the rim and break it off. "No, that's wack, guys," he said. "It's corny.... I'll only do what's real, like tear down rims and play with kids."

Last summer O'Neal also made two brief tours abroad, both of them sponsored by Reebok. In August he went to Japan, Singapore and Australia, and in September he visited Spain, Italy and France. Both trips were publicity junkets designed to win him international exposure and to tighten his link with the Boston-based shoe company, which has guaranteed to pay him between $12 million and $15 million over five years. O'Neal was mobbed almost everywhere he went. One day at a shopping mall in Tokyo he put on a basketball demonstration for a crowd of about 15,000, some of whom stormed the stage after he was finished. O'Neal had a couple of American bodyguards to protect him, but "the place still had to bring riot police in," recalls Tom Carmody, a Reebok executive who helped organize the event. "I thought Shaquille was going to get crushed—it was very scary. He has this rock-star persona, and he was treated like one. He just did everything right over there, and he did it instinctively—from holding up a little kid for the cameras to bending the rim on his first dunk."

Those days abroad generally began at 7 a.m., when O'Neal and his entourage went to a gym and worked out. O'Neal spent an hour stretching and exercising with his personal trainer, a former kick-boxing champion. Then he devoted an hour to basketball. Just an hour, though, since there was so much else to do.

"After his workout he'd go through a whole business day, with interviews and clinics and autograph signings and retail business and dinners, and then he'd do a rap concert at night," says Robert Hamilton, a former high school basketball coach who now works for Reebok. "Sometimes after these concerts he was so exhausted he couldn't do anything but sit there."

While in Japan, O'Neal had dinner with a sumo wrestler who gave him a ninja uniform, a mask and a gold samurai sword, which customs officials at the airport refused to let him take on the plane. O'Neal gave them his address in Orlando, but they never did send it to him. When the ninja outfit arrived he put it in a big cardboard box by the front door.

"We'll have to get a dummy to wear this stuff," he told Tracey. "That would look good in the house."

Another thing O'Neal wanted was a stuffed animal, preferably one that he had shot and killed himself. He had the perfect place for it, too—over in the main living room, by the windows looking out on the lake. O'Neal stopped by an Orlando store one day and inquired about a polar bear on display. When the man said it cost $5,000, O'Neal said, "——that," then turned on his heels and walked right out. With prices that high, he figured he would have to go after an animal himself. And he decided that what he really wanted was a lion. "I'll go on a safari like rich people do," he said, momentarily seeming to forget how rich he was himself.

He wouldn't use a rifle, he said, but a handgun "like the one in RoboCop." He'd sneak up close, pull the sidearm from its holster and nail the beast at close range.

Whenever Tracey heard O'Neal talk like that—like a kid without much sense—he just laughed and shook his head. And he was reminded of the one time he and O'Neal actually hunted together. They had gone with a few Magic players to a place in the swamps of Florida. Tracey was marksman enough to bring down a 260-pound wild pig with a single shot, but the closest O'Neal came was when he spotted a family of about 50 piglets. The man-child jumped from the truck and chased after them, squealing almost as loudly as the little demons, running as fast as his long legs would let him.

O'Neal is at the television studio, sitting on a leather couch under a storm of lights, cameras focused on his face. His wig and glasses and phony reggae accent fool no one, and even he seems bored by the spiel. The show's host is Magic radio broadcaster David Steele, who somehow keeps a straight face while pitching questions to Scott and O'Neal.

"Let me ask you," Steele says, "are law-enforcement officials pursuing either one of you at the moment?"

The show is a bust, too short on laughs, too long on silliness. But when it ends, people rush onstage for autographs. One silver-haired fellow wants his picture taken with O'Neal, who happily complies, picking the man up off the floor and holding him to his chest like a surfboard.

O'Neal takes the back roads on the drive home. And his mood seems to have lightened. He says he bought his mother and father a real nice house here in Orlando, just across town, and that he likes to go there a few times a week and lie around, "be normal." He has a chef who comes to his house and cooks for him every day, but sometimes his body just aches for Lucille's cooking. She knows what he likes, too: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and corn bread. You want to know what else he likes? "I like to run," he says. "I like the way it makes my body feel. Most big men don't like to run, but I do."

But he really doesn't like to do very much, he says. He has never played golf, for instance, and he has never been to a pro baseball or football game. He doesn't like to shop. When he goes to the mall, people follow him around. He does like rap music. He likes TV. And he likes to surprise people every now and then. If you fall asleep beside him on an airplane, look out—he just might paint your fingernails. Or if you pick up the phone late one night, it might be Shaq, pretending to be someone else, ragging you about some invented slight. He likes helping people out. He has slipped $100 bills to homeless people. He has bought houses for his grandparents on both sides of his family, and he set up a fund for his mother and father, to fix them financially for life. Lately he has been thinking about sending roses to the women of AT&T. It's just something that popped into his head one day. The women of AT&T! He imagined a skyscraper with ladies on every floor working their hearts out. So what if it costs a fortune? He'll send every one of them a rose.

He's passing a church now, its steeple lifting high into the black Florida night. The church is new and modern, easily the biggest thing around. O'Neal slows almost to a stop and leans forward to get a better look. "Wouldn't that make a great house?" he says, sounding just like a kid. "I'd love for that to be my house."

Would he want the steeple on or off?

"You can leave it on," he says.

A little later he spots a wave of searchlights cutting the sky, coming from Universal Studios. "I rode the Back to the Future ride out there 12 times in one day," he says. "It's a record. They told me that Michael Jackson's record was five, so what I did, I doubled it and then I did it twice more. You know how long it took? Not long. About an hour. Then I went and rode the King Kong ride."

He seems mightily impressed with himself, but suddenly he brakes and focuses on something up ahead. He sits up tall to get a better look, and presently it comes into view: a police car with its lights on, and some poor soul standing by the roadside with a defeated look on his face.

O'Neal is quiet as he drives by the scene, but then, once past it, he begins to swerve. It's as if the child in him has refused to give in to the man, and he just can't help himself. He's smiling as the car crosses the centerline, comes back, crosses again. "Now, that's swerving," he says.

He reaches Isleworth, and a security guard signals for him to lower his window. O'Neal lets the glass down only about a third of the way. "Saw you on the TV," the man says, pointing to a small set in the gatehouse. "You didn't fool me, though. I knew you weren't any Jamaican."

O'Neal doesn't say anything.

"Listen here, Shaquille, I was wondering if you might do me a favor. I've got this poster of you, it's life-size, it's huge, you know. And I was wondering if you might autograph it. And then there's this card, this playing card. Somebody in my family found it at a yard sale, paid 50 cents for it, can you believe. I mean, 50 cents! Whaddya think that thing might be worth now?" The man leans into the crack in the window, waiting for an answer. But O'Neal doesn't speak. "Well, you think you could sign that, too?"

O'Neal waits a long moment before speaking. He seems to be contemplating the biggest decision of his life. Everybody wants something, that much is certain. "O.K.," he says at last, then quickly drives the Suburban through the gate.

When he gets home he stands in the busy light of the portico and waits for his guest to leave. To his left is a big plant that has been sculpted to look like a giraffe, and to his right are two others that look like reindeer. He has a remote control in his hand, and he points it at the gate and gives it a click. The gate is contrary, though; it doesn't even budge. O'Neal aims the remote and clicks it again and again, but what is wrong with the damned gate? He looks at the small black object in his hand, and he mumbles something, and the worst kind of disappointment registers on his face.

The world is out there, and he is in here, and this one little thing—this doohickey!—is all that's keeping them apart.

He really points with the remote this time, his arm held way out, a determined look in his eyes. And this time the gate does the most amazing thing. It actually opens. And Shaquille O'Neal, the man-child to end all, is finally free to go inside and recommence the great, big, wondrous journey that is his life.



Everyt'ing be cool for Shaq, mon, on de dock of his lakeside pleasure dome. His own dome is hidden under fake dreadlocks.



The righteous stuff: O'Neal may not be a threat from the perimeter, but as Ewing can attest, under the basket he's virtually unstoppable.



O'Neal is a big fish even in a pond as large as Pete Newell's Big Man's Camp in Hawaii, where last summer he made a splash on and off court.



The child in the man-child is a big-time player, too—on the lake by his house and in his game room with (from left) Tracey, Cavallero and cousin Kenny Bailey.



Hairless for a sneaker ad or hirsute for a sports-drink spot, O'Neal is as much of a force in the endorsement game as he is on the court.



O'Neal got decent reviews in his first feature film, "Blue Chips," in which even an actor as accomplished as Nolte looked up to him.



The rap on O'Neal isn't that he's a poor performer; on the contrary, his first album has already gone platinum.



[See caption above.]



The bad news for NBA teams trying to figure out how to stop O'Neal is that nothing seems to sap his strength, not even kryptonite.