Slo-pitch softball games have been played with smaller spheres
than the pearl that adorned Los Angeles center Shaquille
O'Neal's left earlobe before Game 2 of the Lakers' Western
Conference semifinal series against the Seattle SuperSonics last
week, but that was no surprise. Nearly everything the 7'1",
315-pound O'Neal wears looks as though it has been enlarged to
several times its original size. The reason the earring drew
extra attention was that team observers familiar with O'Neal's
extensive jewelry collection had never seen that particular
It wasn't long before O'Neal was weaving a tale around the
pearl. He had been scuba diving off Manhattan Beach, he said,
when he came upon an oyster, which he pried open and discovered
the gem. He told the story with such sincerity that some of his
listeners were no doubt wondering what sort of trauma the sight
of O'Neal in a wet suit and flippers caused the marine
life--until he finally admitted that he was joking. The earring
was a gift from a friend.
It's no wonder that the scenario Shaq concocted seemed
believable, because that kind of adventure would fit right into
O'Neal's larger-than-life existence. "Stuff just happens to me,"
he says. Sometimes it's the other way around; sometimes O'Neal
happens to stuff.
He happened to the Sonics last week, when he put together a
string of nearly flawless performances that staked Los Angeles
to a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 scheduled
for Seattle on Tuesday. It wasn't just that O'Neal averaged 30.5
points (including a 39-point effort in Sunday's 112-100 Game 4
victory) and 9.8 rebounds in the four games; it was that he
seemed to make all the right decisions, deciphering the Sonics'
double teams with cool efficiency.
O'Neal is playing the best basketball of his six-year career,
exerting an influence on games that is, dare we say it,
Jordanesque. "Shaq is the best basketball player in the NBA
right now," says Seattle coach George Karl. "I think he's more
powerful and dominating than anyone who plays. Michael Jordan
might be prettier and more athletic, but from a coaching
standpoint, I think Shaq's probably the most difficult guy to
play against. In the paint he is the most powerful player on the
planet." It was O'Neal's precision, though, and not his power
that made his performance last week significant. Shaq had 16
assists in the four games against the Sonics, but that total
didn't accurately reflect the effectiveness of his passing.
Several times he made the pass that led to the assist.
His mind was as impressive as his mass, and the rest of the
Lakers played with similar intelligence. Guards Eddie Jones and
Nick Van Exel took advantage of Seattle's preoccupation with
O'Neal to slash to the basket, and forward Robert Horry was an
all-around marvel, drilling three-pointers on one end of the
floor and swatting away shots on the other. As O'Neal says
several times per interview, when the Lakers play smart, they
can beat anyone, so it was no coincidence that at week's end Los
Angeles was playing better than any other team in the playoffs,
including Chicago. "If they keep playing like they're playing,
they're going to be tough for anybody to beat," Sonics forward
Jerome Kersey said after Game 4. "We're throwing everything
we've got at Shaq, and he's handling it."
Although the perception lingers of O'Neal as a brute who excels
solely because of his strength, he has improved several areas of
his game, most notably his court vision and passing. He has
given himself a basketball education, and in facing Seattle's
complex, attacking defense he is pursuing his graduate degree.
The Sonics have presented quite a course load. Consider this
PSYCHOLOGY. Seattle's first order of business was to engage
O'Neal in mind games. Before the series even began, Karl made
his first move. "Remember the high elbow that Karl Malone hit
David Robinson with?" he said the day before Game 1, referring
to the regular-season incident in which the Utah Jazz forward
KO'd the San Antonio Spurs center. "Well, Shaq throws about 20
of them a game, and no one's got enough guts yet to stand in the
way. His elbows are high, and he swings them. That's like a
150-pound weight being swung. You shouldn't be allowed to do it.
We're going to tell our guys that one of them has to step up and
take one of those elbows."
Karl was really talking not to his players, but to the referees
and O'Neal. His intent was to get the officials to keep a close
eye on Shaq and perhaps frustrate him with a few early foul
calls. "You want to get Shaq thinking," says Sonics forward Sam
Perkins. "Get him thinking about the refs, get him thinking
about how he's getting hacked, just get him thinking about
anything other than what he needs to do on the floor. If you can
affect his concentration, you have a better chance against him."
Karl's strategy seemed to work, briefly. After Seattle's 106-92
series-opening win, in which O'Neal scored 27 points, the Sonics
coach's comments clearly were on O'Neal's mind, as Shaq
suggested that Karl was a bit too in touch with his feminine
side. "George was coaching like a woman," he said. "He's a
crybaby. A woman."
O'Neal's political incorrectness earned him a few reprimands and
probably doomed his chances of being invited to the next NOW
convention, but the brushfire was quickly extinguished, and it
became apparent that O'Neal wasn't going to be distracted by any
verbal jousting. After apologizing for his comments the next day
("Sorry, women"), he spent several days showing just how
carefree he is off the court. He replaced the nameplate above
his locker with one bearing the letters IDGAF, which stands for
I Don't Give a...well, you can probably guess the rest. He
even found humor in the slightly twisted left knee he suffered
in last Friday's Game 3, telling a television reporter that he
only winced because he knew it would get him a TV close-up.
"It's all about HBM," O'Neal said, tapping his temple. "Home Boy
"Shaq just lets the little boy inside him come out and play
sometimes," says L.A. coach Del Harris. "The stuff with George
was just Shaq playing with the media. He's having too much fun
to let something like that get under his skin or affect his play."
GEOGRAPHY. The Sonics in effect divided the floor into sectors
in defending against O'Neal. They tried to keep him from setting
up on the left block. That's where they considered O'Neal most
dangerous, capable of turning into the lane in a comfortable
move for a right-hander or using a drop step to spin toward the
baseline. They felt their chances were better if O'Neal got the
ball on the right block, where he was less likely to want to
turn to the middle, and they would try to force him to turn away
from the basket and shoot jumpers or jump hooks. "If you can
keep him out of the paint and make him shoot a little bit,
you're accomplishing what you want," Perkins says. "And if he
gets the ball in the paint around the rim, foul that sucker."
But O'Neal and his teammates had been working on some geography
lessons of their own. When O'Neal was double-teamed, the Lakers
made sure they had one of their perimeter players stationed near
the three-point line on each side of the top of the key. "Shaq
knows those are two places he can look when he gets doubled or
tripled," says L.A. point guard Derek Fisher. "If he kicks the
ball out to one of those spots, usually one more quick pass will
get us a shot or a drive to the hoop." The strategy worked
particularly well in the two games at The Forum. At one point in
Game 3, a 119-103 victory, O'Neal was doubled. Almost without
looking, he immediately passed the ball out to Jones, who was
set up at one of the predetermined spots and sank a wide-open
But O'Neal understood that he had more than just those two
passing options. "I know that if their four man [power forward]
is doubling me, then my four man is going to be open," he says.
"If they rotate to cover my four man, then Eddie or Rick [Fox]
on the other side is going to be open. So I just have to make
quick, smart decisions."
PHYSICAL EDUCATION. This will always be O'Neal's easiest course.
Seattle's objective was to grind him down by using a committee
of four--Kersey, Perkins, forward Vin Baker and center Jim
McIlvaine--to lean on him and try to push him away from the
basket. If all four players had pushed at once, they might have
budged O'Neal. "I think he moves a little," Perkins said after
Game 3, "but it's hard to tell. When you're pushing on something
that big, a half step is a lot."
The Sonics' big men, particularly Kersey and Baker, also wanted
to tire O'Neal by forcing him to run with them when Seattle went
on the attack. But rather than wearing down, O'Neal proved more
adept than his Sonics counterparts at getting up and down the
floor. When Los Angeles shifted to offense, he often established
position close to the basket by reaching his spot before the
Seattle defense set up. "When the big fella beats people to the
block, you can forget about it," says Horry. "All you can do is
foul him." Sometimes O'Neal even foiled that previously
fail-safe strategy. He made all six of his free throw attempts
in the Lakers' 92-68 win in Game 2 and hit 9 of 12 in the Game 4
HISTORY. For O'Neal, this was extra-credit work, done on his
own. He found his greatest incentive to modulate his game by
looking back at his five years of playoff frustration. Harris
compares him with Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman in the way
that failures have driven him to work harder. "They were guys
who failed enough times that success became a real value to
them," Harris says. "Shaq has had the experience of sitting home
and watching other people continue playing enough times that it
has given him motivation to do what it takes to win a
O'Neal would probably prefer to be compared with Puff Daddy than
Give 'Em Hell Harry, but he agrees with Harris's assessment.
"Michael Jordan told me once that you have to learn how to fail
before you can learn to succeed," O'Neal says. "This is my sixth
season. I think I've learned. I'm ready to succeed." He may be
ready to take his place at the head of the class.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Divus Interruptus Vin Baker of the Sonics has fallen and can't get up, mainly because Derek Fisher of the Lakers has a firm hold on Baker's arm as the two struggle for a loose ball in their playoff series (page 44). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Heavy equipment Baker (42) was among the fleet of Sonics unable to budge Shaq when the massive Laker set up down low. [Vin Baker guarding Shaquille O'Neal in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Pass master O'Neal deftly beat the double team by dishing the ball to teammates like Fisher, sometimes without looking. [Sam Perkins guarding Shaquille O'Neal, who passes ball to Derek Fisher in game]
"Shaq is the best player in the NBA right now," says Karl. "He's
more dominating than anyone."