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The date, July 1, has been circled on NBA calendars for months
and anticipated with a giddiness usually restricted to
four-year-olds unleashed in a room full of toys. It is the day
the most talented crop of players in league history will become
free agents.

There are 140 in all, running the alphabetical gamut from
Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard Jerome Allen to Dallas
Mavericks journeyman forward David Wood. Teams will have their
pick of Jordans (Michael and Reggie) and Millers (Anthony and
Reggie). They will even get to choose between Ervin Johnson and
Earvin Johnson (a tip: the latter says he's retired).

In addition 26 players can opt out of their current contracts,
including such worthies as Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal
and forward Horace Grant, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning,
Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard, Indiana Pacers forward
Dale Davis and Detroit Pistons guard Allan Houston. Recently,
however, July 1 has also taken on an ominous cast: Barring major
developments, it could be the start of an NBA lockout, which
would freeze player movement. Differing interpretations of the
tentative agreement reached last Aug. 8 by NBA owners and the
National Basketball Players Association have threatened to throw
the league into its third consecutive summer of labor unrest.

That would be bad news for Jordan (Michael, that is) and O'Neal,
who have said they want their status resolved quickly. Jordan,
who has set a salary minimum of $18 million per season for his
negotiations with the Chicago Bulls, is not expected to change
teams, especially now that Bulls coach Phil Jackson has
re-signed for $2.5 million next season. But O'Neal may be
packing his bags. He could dramatically alter the balance of
power in the NBA if he leaves Orlando and signs with the Los
Angeles Lakers. The All-Star center's agent, Leonard Armato,
acknowledged last week that such a shift is possible. (The
Lakers, like all teams, cannot publicly express their interest
in a player on another club before July 1 without risking
penalties for tampering.)

Shockingly, some Orlando fans are ready to wish the big fella
good riddance. The city is still smarting from the Bulls'
humiliating four-game sweep of the Magic in the Eastern
Conference finals, and the finger has been pointed squarely at
Shaq and his errant free throw shooting (36.4%) during the
series. On June 2, a week after Chicago's triumph, The Orlando
Sentinel published the results of a survey conducted in Magic
country by America's Research Group. It asked whether the Magic
should fire coach Brian Hill if that were one of O'Neal's
conditions for returning. An overwhelming 82% answered no. The
survey also inquired if O'Neal was worth his current seven-year,
$41 million contract. Only 49% answered yes.

Sources say the results rankled Shaq, who had been stung by
earlier assertions in the Orlando media that he was not a good
role model because he was having a child with his longtime
girlfriend but did not announce immediate plans to marry. That
lifestyle choice would barely register on the seismograph in Los
Angeles, where O'Neal could blend in as another high-profile
celebrity, albeit one who dunks and raps in addition to flashing
his mug across the silver screen. (He'll exhibit those last two
skills as a rapping genie in Kazaam, scheduled for release on
July 17.) "Appealing?" Armato asks aloud after pondering how
O'Neal would find the L.A. scene. "Why wouldn't it be?"

Orlando officials counter that they've treated O'Neal royally.
Moreover, O'Neal's family has settled in Florida. But his
mother, Lucille, a major influence in his life, may not object
to relocating to Shaq's newest digs, which happen to be in
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Financially, however, the Magic has an advantage over the
Lakers. According to NBA rules, a team can spend any amount it
wishes to re-sign its own free agents. Despite published reports
of a four-year, $54.7 million Magic offer to O'Neal, Orlando
general manager John Gabriel insists, "We have not put down a
number. We haven't even implied a number."

Observers of the league believe Orlando will tabulate how much
the Lakers can clear under their cap, then submit a number that
is slightly higher. "There's no blank check being drawn up,"
insists one Orlando official. Meanwhile, there's little doubt
L.A. is angling to open up cap room for O'Neal. Last week the
Lakers were shopping center Vlade Divac to the Bucks. Divac's
departure would clear $8.3 million over two years.

So which way is Shaq leaning? "Shaquille likes Orlando," says
Armato. "He feels a degree of loyalty toward the DeVos family
[the Magic's owners]. He likes his teammates. Having said that,
it's important for him to be in an environment where he can
flourish as a basketball player and a person." In other words,
the bidding for Shaq remains wide open.

While losing O'Neal would be catastrophic on the court for
Orlando, apparently the public outrage would be moderate. When
the America's Research survey asked Magic fans if Orlando should
match a contract offer for O'Neal, 69% said no, and that was
without a dollar figure attached.

Fans aren't the only ones saying no to big-money demands. The
Charlotte Hornets already have told free-agent point guard Kenny
Anderson that he should move on if he expects to get the $6
million a season he is reportedly seeking. General managers who
like Anderson at a lower price are already complaining that
agent David Falk, who represents Anderson and the coveted
Howard, is hinting he'll package the two players.

In Miami there's talk that two other free agents handled by
Falk--Mourning and Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo--could
join forces on the Heat. Mutombo would play center and Mourning
would be at power forward, the positions they played when they
were Georgetown teammates from 1988 to '91. League sources say
Denver is willing to shell out an average of about $9 million a
season for Mutombo but will consider re-signing and then trading

Asked to comment, Nuggets coach and general manager Bernie
Bickerstaff says, "Sorry. I'm keeping my mouth shut." Yet it
wasn't hard to perceive Bickerstaff's frustration last April
when he was asked to address the anticipated demands of the 1996
class of free agents. "These players want all these huge
dollars," said Bickerstaff, whose team, even with the All-Star
Mutombo, missed the playoffs. "But for all that money, shouldn't
you be able to jump on their backs and have them carry you?"

Detroit's Houston does not carry the Pistons; that is forward
Grant Hill's job. But sources say the team is aware that if it
uses Hill's contract (an average of $7.3 million a year over the
next seven years) as a ceiling for Houston, it could lose its
shooting guard, particularly if the New York Knicks, as
expected, come calling. The Pistons are braced to pay Houston
more than Hill--but only if the market dictates it. Houston made
almost $1.2 million in 1995-96 while averaging 19.7 points per
game, up from 14.5 the season before.

Washington backup center Jim McIlvaine earned a relatively
paltry $525,000 last season and averaged only 14.9 minutes, 2.3
points and 2.9 rebounds, but he was 10th in the league in
blocked shots (2.1 per game) and has become a hot "second tier"
commodity. Says Ron Grinker, who represents McIlvaine, "Teams
will have to ante up $3 million a year, and we'll go from there.
Look around. Look at how many teams need centers."

Point guards, too. New Jersey Nets guard Chris Childs, who last
season averaged 12.8 points and 7.0 assists but made $350,000,
is banking on the same kind of supply and demand as McIlvaine
is. New Jersey's new coach and executive vice president of
basketball, John Calipari, also took on the position of
telecommunicator by taping a message to be phoned to fans in
Jersey. In the recording Calipari asks the fans to answer
multiple-choice questions on everything from whom the Nets
should draft to which free agents the team should sign. If
Calipari has paid attention to the demands of Childs's agent,
Steve Kauffman, perhaps the message should include, "If you
think Chris Childs is worth $4 million a season, please press

On the other hand, that's the kind of question Calipari is
getting paid $3 million a year to answer himself.

COLOR PHOTO: BONNIE SCHIFFMAN [Shaquille O'Neal in genie costume]

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO After playing a genie in "Kazaam," Shaq might take a central role on Hollywood's home team. [See caption above--Shaquille O'Neal in game]

COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN EINSTEIN Having elevated his game, sharpshooter Houston (20) will see his price go way up. [Allan Houston in game]