Wondrous rookie O'Neal has power that comes from soul, says Walton

December 15, 1992|By Michael Arace | Michael Arace,The Hartford Courant

Shaquille O'Neal's right hand is 11 inches long and 9 inches wide, which means he can take the ruler one measures basketball players with, bend it a little, put his thumb on one end, his middle finger on the other end, and snap it in half.

Crack.

Shaq breaks all the rules.

This night in Orlando, Fla., he's matched up against Robert Parish of the Boston Celtics. Parish, 39, is the oldest player in the league. He is 7-foot, 250 pounds, and -- after some 1,450 National Basketball Association games -- has a decent idea of what he's doing.

O'Neal, 20, is the youngest center in the league. At 7-1, 303 pounds, he mans the pivot for the Orlando Magic. And -- in his 15th NBA game -- he also has a decent idea of what he's doing.

First play, Parish gets the ball in the low post, feints left, spins right and goes up for a jam. He meets O'Neal mid-flight. "Meets" is a bad word. "Confronts" is better. Parish winds up on his aging buttocks and sits there, wincing. O'Neal gets the foul, but he gets to walk away.

"I'll tell you what he's got -- a hard body," Parish said after the Celtics' 117-102 victory Dec. 8. "It was like colliding with somebody on the 10th floor of a building."

And falling off.

O'Neal is now 17 games into his NBA career, and Wilt Chamberlain is the only measuring stick. Wilt the Stilt. He, too, broke every rule when he checked into the league 33 years ago and averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds.

For instant impact, only the Shaq Attack can come close. O'Neal is averaging 22.4 points, 14.8 rebounds and nearly four blocked shots. And he is leaving a trail of bedazzled and befuddled veterans in his wake.

When Shaq, who wears a size 52 shirt, drove the length of the court and dunked in his debut, Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly said: "He palms the ball like a grapefruit. He's as big as [7-foot-4] Mark Eaton and seven times as quick. And he's 20 years old. Give me a break."

In his network debut on TNT last month, Shaq, who wears size 48 shorts, had 35 points and 13 rebounds in three quarters against the Charlotte Hornets. "He could become so good, they might have to declare him illegal," Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Jack McCloskey said after witnessing the carnage.

A few days later, Shaq, who has a 36-inch vertical leap, had a 29-point, 15-rebound game against Sam Bowie and the New Jersey Nets. "No one in this league can match up with him physically," Bowie said. "It's good for the league, but bad for opponents."

Like backup Nets center Rick Mahorn. "If he got meaner," Mahorn said, "there wouldn't be a league."

In his big one-week test, Shaq, who carries around a meager 10 percent in body fat, averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds against Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks. Together, Olajuwon and Ewing equal Wilt. "You know what he looks like?" Olajuwon said of O'Neal. "A bigger me."

A big Hakeem. Bigger than the league. Better than Wilt?

"Shaquille has that quick, unrestrainable explosion, like Charles Barkley," Bill Walton said. "It's a raw power you don't get from the weight room. It comes from somewhere else, deep in the soul."

Everyone's trying to measure Shaq, get a grip on just how big he is. His body, his game. His soul, his head. His heart.

The Magic (8-9) has lost six in a row, falling from first to third in the Atlantic Division. Right now, those are the numbers Shaq uses to measure himself.

"The coaching staff is beautiful and the team is young," O'Neal says, "so we're going to be all right."

His contract is worth $40 million over seven years. He also has off-court deals that will be worth an estimated $15 million over five years. Look for a Spalding Shaq Attack basketball coming your way. Reebok expects nothing less than for O'Neal to lead it back to No. 1 in the lucrative athletic shoes market. Kenner will have a Shaq action figure in stores soon. Before long, he will be measured in sales, like Michael Jordan.

LTC Where Jordan is at his apex in accomplishment and popularity, Shaq is just beginning to grow. But already Shaq has graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and The New York Times Magazine.

Media requests for interviews, up to 100 a day, are pouring in. Time, Entertainment Tonight, a sports magazine in Spain, another from Italy. Every day, there are requests.

"I'm what is known as a child superstar -- Gary Coleman, Partridge Family, stuff like that," Shaq says. "So, I'm kind of used to the media. I've been getting the attention since I was 14."

Shaquille ("Little One" in Islamic) Rashaun ("Warrior") O'Neal (his mother's maiden name) grew up with an odd name and an odd frame. For the longest time, he solved his problems by slapping the other kids around. And thus, he drew incessant discipline from his father, Philip Harrison, a 6-7 Army staff sergeant who shipped on his first assignment before he could marry Shaquille's mother. Eventually, they would join in matrimony and have five more children.

When their oldest was 13, there was a discernible change. "I decided," O'Neal said, "to become a leader, rather than follow people who were going nowhere." From that point, O'Neal was measuring himself by his own standards, rather than anyone else's.

"I'm my own person," he says. "Cool. Down-to-earth. Chill.

"The Shaq ain't nothing but a kid having fun playing pro ball. I keep things simple. I play ball, have fun, take care of my family, take care of my friends. I had a good upbringing, so I know how to do the right thing."

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