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Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic has fielded so many
questions about his maturity this season that he must be
wondering if he's a center or a savings bond. Last week in
Orlando, on the occasion of the gazillionth inquiry concerning
the M-word, O'Neal made his gazillionth attempt to explain his
position. "I don't believe in that stuff about how youth can't
win NBA championships," said the 7'1" O'Neal, who is in his
fourth NBA season but only turned 24 in March. "If you got game,
you got game. That's why Tiger Woods is out there playing golf
with Greg Norman. Once and for all, I am mature enough." That
said, Shaq goosed a bystander and then sprayed another with a
fake sneeze.

O'Neal is Eddie Haskell in a land full of Beaver Cleavers. There
was, for instance, the scene on Sunday at the Omni before Game 3
of the second-seeded Magic's Eastern Conference semifinal series
against the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, which Orlando led 3-1
going into Wednesday night's Game 5 at the Orlando Arena.
Forward Dennis Scott stood up from his chair in the Magic's
locker room. When he sat back down, he was seated on a cheese
Danish. Shaq could hardly contain his glee.

Throughout O'Neal's mercurial NBA career, Orlando management has
afforded Shaq something the Magic's brass calls "customized
treatment," which basically means that he can do whatever he
pleases. Thus, at the end of a road trip O'Neal isn't always
aboard the Orlando team plane. He might be off cutting another
rap CD or negotiating another film role. "You have to realize
that this is the way of the NBA in the 1990s," says Orlando
general manager John Gabriel. "I compare it to parenting. You
don't know if your kids will choose Cheerios or Froot Loops, but
at some point you have to trust them to make their own
decisions. Shaq is a superstar who has earned some freedom, and
he hasn't done anything to erode our trust."

Despite his propensity for adolescent behavior off the court,
O'Neal has recently displayed numerous symptoms of maturity in
the workplace. His attitude adjustment began moments after the
final game of last season. The Magic had just been swept--read
humiliated--by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, and Orlando
coach Brian Hill asked O'Neal and his teammates to linger at
courtside in the Summit for a few minutes to take in the
Rockets' celebration. Shaq still winces at the memory of his
foes' revels. "After the Finals were over, my father told me
that I wasn't playing hard enough, and he was right," says
O'Neal, even though he averaged 28.0 points and 12.5 rebounds.
"After looking back at it, I realized I sort of laid down and
took a vacation. I was chillin'."

This painful revelation transformed what should have been a
short off-season into an endless summer for O'Neal. Before and
after shooting his soon-to-be-released movie, Kazaam, in which
he plays a rapping genie, the 320-pound Shaq went on a
weightlifting regimen for the first time. He took out his
frustrations on some unsuspecting Nautilus machines, raising his
bench press by 150 pounds, to 375, in two months. O'Neal wanted
that extra strength so he might more easily attain the immense
goals that he had set for the 1995-96 season. He had decided he
would be satisfied with nothing less than an NBA title.

But O'Neal suffered a broken right thumb during an exhibition
game and missed the Magic's first 22 regular-season contests.
When he returned to action, he discovered that Orlando's main
Eastern Conference rival, the Chicago Bulls, on their way to a
record-setting 72 regular-season wins, had stolen the spotlight.
O'Neal didn't get it pointed back on him until early April, when
his grandmother, Odessa Chambliss, passed away and he left the
team to attend her funeral in New Jersey. During his weeklong
sabbatical O'Neal missed two games, signed another movie deal
and turned up in an Atlanta nightclub on the eve of a loss to
Chicago he would join in progress, thus proving once again that
we all grieve in our own way.

As the playoffs approached, however, O'Neal, who would finish
the regular season with a 26.6 point average, began to exhibit a
stronger sense of purpose. For instance, after Orlando crushed
the New York Knicks 98-79 on March 31 to clinch its second
straight Atlantic Division title, O'Neal was given a celebratory
T-shirt. He tossed it aside. "We don't want no stinking shirt,"
he declared.

He was similarly dyspeptic during the Magic's first practice of
the postseason. "Shaq came in and shifted into another gear, a
gear we haven't seen before," Hill says. "He was pushing people
around, treating practice as if it was the first playoff game.
When one of your leaders does that, then everybody gets caught
up in it."

Indeed, all of the Magic's starters broke briskly out of the
gate in Orlando's opening-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons.
Each of the five--O'Neal, Scott, power forward Horace Grant and
guards Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway and Nick Anderson--scored in
double figures in all three games. Then the Magic turned its
arsenal on the Hawks in a series in which Shaq and Penny would
have a chance to rehearse for their Dream Team III coach,
Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, in the Olympic city. But Shaq found
himself motivated more by an old wound. He is still miffed about
being left off the original Dream Team of 1992 when, having just
departed LSU, he was passed over for the last spot on the team
in favor of current Hawks center Christian Laettner, who had
just completed his college career at Duke. "I should have been
on that team," Shaq said before the Atlanta series. "I'm a
better player than Laettner." O'Neal proved it in the opener at
the O-rena, using his bulk one-on-one against the overmatched
245-pound Laettner to outscore him 41-7. Shaq also had nine
offensive rebounds as the Magic defeated Atlanta 117-105. The
Hawks gave Laettner some double-team help in Game 2, but O'Neal
still scored 28 points (Laettner had 20) as Orlando blew out
Atlanta again, 120-94.

However, the Magic's litmus test figured to come at the Omni,
where Orlando had lost twice this season and had collected only
three wins in 13 games before these playoffs. Game 3 was close
throughout, a struggle that a less seasoned Magic team might
have lost. But despite characteristically shooting 4 of 13 from
the line, Shaq had 24 points to go along with 12 rebounds.
Hardaway and Scott each scored crucial baskets in the final
minutes, and the Orlando defense held the Hawks to only 14
points during the final period of a 103-96 win. On Monday night,
however, in Atlanta's 104-99 win, a frustrated O'Neal had his
first subpar game of the playoffs, going 7 for 17 and an abysmal
5 for 17 from the line as the Magic wasted a stirring comeback
from a 22-point deficit. Still, Shaq's performance in crucial
Game 3 was, well, a mature one that left the Hawks impressed.
"The scary thing is that Shaq's not only bigger than everybody
else, but he's getting smarter all the time," said Atlanta
backup center Sean Rooks, taking note of O'Neal's four assists
and two blocks. "Every time we took something away from him, he
just found another way to beat us."

In Orlando's three wins over Atlanta, all five Magic starters
averaged in double figures, with O'Neal leading the way with
31.0 points per game. "We had a little taste last year, and that
makes you hungry," Hardaway says. "This year we're playing like
we're starving."

Magic vice president Pat Williams credits the steamroller
success in the early rounds to experience. "I equate it to a
long run," he says. "In January I entered my first marathon, and
when I ran beyond 10 miles, into uncharted territory, I
wondered, When will I hit the wall? Then a month ago I ran the
Boston Marathon, and I never once doubted I was going to finish
it. I had a new confidence because of the natural growth
process. Our team has been there. Done that."

But Orlando could soon be facing the NBA equivalent of
Heartbreak Hill. If the Bulls could get by the Knicks, whom they
led 3-1 going into Tuesday's Game 5 of their Eastern Conference
semifinal series, and the Magic could finish off the Hawks,
Chicago and Orlando would meet in the conference finals. A year
ago, in the conference semis, Orlando won in six games over
Chicago. This season the Bulls won three of the four meetings,
but O'Neal missed the first two games with his thumb injury.
"There's no easy answer to stopping Shaq," says Bulls assistant
coach John Paxson, who witnessed O'Neal's domination while
scouting last week. "You need a big body. A huge body. Maybe
three huge bodies...." The Bulls have them, in centers Luc
Longley, Bill Wennington and James Edwards, all of whom are
available to give fouls and, not incidentally, expose O'Neal's
weakness at the line (through Monday his average in the playoffs
was a woeful .419).

The Magic is a young team, yet there is a sense of urgency in
Orlando to win a title this season. O'Neal becomes a free agent
on July 1, and the Los Angeles Lakers' desire to acquire him is
the latest worst-kept secret in Hollywood. "I know he wants to
stay in Orlando, but it can get crazy here," says Scott,
O'Neal's closest friend on the team. "When you're the only act
in town, then everything you do gets blown out of proportion.
But if I had to bet my last five dollars, I'd bet he's staying."

"I believe I'll be in Orlando in the future," O'Neal says.

The decision may well hinge on whether O'Neal wins an NBA title
this spring and, if not, where he believes he can win one in the
near future. In a TV commercial shown repeatedly during the
season, he frets over his humongous unadorned digits: "I've got
10 fingers--and no rings."

"All I'm worried about these days is winning a title, because I
want respect and I love jewelry," O'Neal says. "People don't
care about stats. They are always saying, 'Shaq's a great
player, but....'"

What if he doesn't win it this year? "I'll get one before too
long, and then we'll see," O'Neal says. "I've got a lot of
options. I've done a lot of deals. I've got my own record
company, my own clothing line. Maybe I'll win a title and then
just retire."

With that, he pauses to digest what he has said. Is this another

"Really, I am more mature," says Shaq, unable to suppress a
grin, "but I'm still a kid now and then."

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS It was sweet revenge for Shaq, who outscored Laettner 112-70 over the series' first four games. [Shaquille O'Neal shooting basketball against Christian Laettner and other Atlanta Hawks]COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS In Game 3 outside shooter Laettner scored 26, but Grant and O'Neal kept him disarmed near the hoop. [Christian Laettner being guarded by Horace Grant and Shaquille O'Neal]

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBA PHOTOS Irresistible force met movable object when massive O'Neal took on slender Laettner in the low post. [Shaquille O'Neal being guarded by Christian Laettner]