Look out, Wilt, this Baby Goliath's first steps already have opponents crawling

November 19, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- On the first play last night, Baby Goliath accepted the ball down on the blocks, left side of the basket.

Dribble once. Dribble twice.

Fake left, fake right, turn left, go up.

And 7 feet, 300 pounds elevates effortlessly, a jumbo jet with size 20 tires.

The jump shot is sweet as baby's breath, soft as a sunbeam.

Baby Goliath has touch.

Shaquille Rashan Harrison O'Neal made his first appearance at the Spectrum last night, in the town where the most dominant basketball player of all time was born, and where he nurtured and perfected the 100-point NBA game.

Comes now, we are told, Wilt II.

"Maybe," says Matty Guokas, who played with Wilt Chamberlain and now coaches Baby Goliath and the other Orlando Magic. "But remember, when I played with Wilt he was 28 and in his prime. Shaq is 20 . . . ."

And? Guokas rolls his eyes.

"Yes. He will be special. When he has learned . . . ."

He rolls his eyes again. To the heavens.

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are gone. Michael Jordan talks of the day he will be. And comes now, to continue the cycle and perpetuate the line, Shaquille O'Neal.

Air Jordan on vitamins.

A generation ago, big men in basketball clanked up and down the floor in plodding, cumbersome lumberings. They looked like products of Transylvania U. Bolts in their foreheads.

Now the prototype of the new big man is here, and it is prodigious.

Seven-footers are supposed to be limited to tippy-toe dunks or sky hooks. This one does ball fakes, head feints, drop steps and footwork so nimble you suspect he has watched Gene Kelly dancin' in the rain.

Or maybe Michael Jackson moon-walking. Or some aerobicist break-dancing.

Baby Goliath laid 29 points on the Philadelphia 76ers last night. fTC Plus 19 rebounds. And didn't even try to dominate.

He not only let the game come to him, he didn't even meet it halfway.

Think what his numbers will be once he has learned the game. Learned to pace himself. Learned to be just the teeniest bit nasty.

Until then, fresh as dawn, raw and unschooled and fighting fatigue and fighting his free throws and fighting the foolish foul, he will stumble along and have to be content collecting 25 to 30 a night, leading the league in rebounding and very close to leading it in blocked shots.

If he never improves a lick, he will be awesome.

"He's like a spoonge," says Guokas. "He absorbs everything you throw at him. His attitude is terrific. And he handles all the outside stuff, you guys, wonderfully."

So he does.

His smile runs up one side of his face and down the other. He obliges every recorder, every minicam.

He is 20, but, of course, is not allowed to be.

His life forever after will be on public display. He will be a prisoner of room service, and a million temptations will come tapping seductively at his door.

In time he will have to wear sleeves on both his knees, which will have gone arthritic from all that running, all that jumping, from bearing all that size, and he will live with ice packs strapped to him.

In time he will have soured from all the unreasonable expectations, will have been embittered by all the accusations if his team has not won the championship. Several times.

It will not be enough for him to grow into Adult Goliath. He will be required to make all those who play with him Goliaths as well, or he will be judged to have -- you'll pardon the expression -- come up short.

Ah, but all that is yet to come.

For now he is still Baby Goliath, who played in just his sixth professional game last night.

Played in an arena with a sound system that could wake the dead. Played before a shamefully small crowd of 13,711.

Played a team that couldn't guard him -- a malady that will soon afflict the entire league -- so tried to run him into exhaustion.

Played with early foul trouble and with late foul trouble but never lost his composure.

Played almost daintily, really, as incongruous as that may sound.

He is built like a sledgehammer, but he bludgeons you to death with feathers.

He looks like a redwood, but his game is as elegant as moss.

He is quick off the floor, and unlike most big men he does not have to gather himself before he goes up.

He was visibly tired at the end and contributed little in the fourth quarter and still came up with monster numbers.

And, oh yes, Baby Goliath's team won, 120-110.

The best thing about babies is that they grow up. And that is truly a frightening thought.

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