Skip to main content

15 Shaquille O'Neal

EVEN AS a star athlete at Cole High School in San Antonio,
Shaquille O'Neal was a Bunyonesque presence, a larger-than-life
caricature who did not conform to normal dimensions and was therefore
held to abnormal standards. So by the time he reached the NBA as the
No. 1 draft pick of 1992 -- a 7 ft. 1 in., 303- pound 20-year-old
out of LSU with the speed and agility of a man three quarters his
size -- he was everyone's center of attention, but he was also
Gulliver, primed to be rounded up and hog-tied by the Lilliputians.
In some respects, of course, the wonder and curiosity about
Orlando's newest fantasy attraction worked in O'Neal's favor. ''A
cross between Bambi and the Terminator'' is the way O'Neal's agent,
Leonard Armato, described him, and that combination proved to be an
irresistible lure to the American consumer. Then, too, Shaq came
ambling along at a time when both the NBA and Madison Avenue were in
desperate need of a commercial icon to replace the league's
superstars: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah
Thomas -- each of whom has now retired from the game.
But that cartoon image -- note that Armato's description of O'Neal
was canny but also stereotypically superficial -- hurt O'Neal too.
His meteoric rise as a commercial entity was compared, generally
unfavorably, to that of Jordan nearly a decade earlier. Whereas
Jordan had earned his megastardom with his feats on the court,
O'Neal, it was said, was a packaged product, a creation spawned in
the minds of some savvy admen, all hype, no substance.
Then, too, Shaq's pure power game, while a staple of the nightly
highlight shows, was anathema to basketball purists. Remember that
there was once -- and still is, in fact -- much resistance to
recognizing Wilt Chamberlain as a truly great player, and there is
most certainly a lot of Wilt's game in Shaq's. That was reinforced
first by Shaq's heavy-handedness at the foul line, and again when his
vicious dunks tore down baskets and delayed games in Phoenix and New
Okay, Shaq, you can sell soda pop and sneakers and basketballs and
toys and rap videos, and you can act like Godzilla in sneakers, but
can you play?
Well, here's news: He can. Though it took him longer than Jordan
to adjust to pro ball -- heck, it took everyone longer than Jordan --
O'Neal has become the No. 1 force in the NBA. He has a body that will
not let him down, it seems; he is only 23, and he has never been
seriously injured. Like most young players, he needs to pay more
attention to nutrition and conditioning (his innate strength belies
his distaste for weightlifting), but that will come.
How did performance finally live up to hype? Time, for one thing;
team, for another. The phenomenon of the off-the-court Shaquille died
away somewhat, thus bringing it more into line with the phenomenon
of the on-the-court Shaquille. O'Neal gradually became a basketball
player who also sold products, not vice versa. America loves winners,
and the Magic has become one of the best teams in the NBA's Eastern
Conference, one of only a handful in the league with a real chance to
win the title. No one can do it alone -- not even the Terminator --
but the combination of O'Neal with the young brilliance of Anfernee
Hardaway and the veteran leadership of ex-Chicago Bull Horace Grant
has brought Orlando into the elite.
The fact that O'Neal now seems ready to succeed on his merits as a
player and live up to his immense hype does not surprise those close
to him. For underneath the rappin', smiling, engaging,
larger-than-life salesman is a young man of substance and
determination. The values taught to him by his stepfather, a retired
Army drill sergeant named Phillip Harrison, have always served him
well. And unless he decides (a la Jordan) to do something else with
his life, Shaquille O'Neal will be with us for years to come as a
dominant athletic force.