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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Why Is Everyone Attacking Shaq?

March 13, 1994|MARK HEISLER

He can't shoot free throws, he doesn't work on his game, he simply drops in between movies and CDs, he has no moves, no shot, no clue. . . .

Is this Shaquille O'Neal they are talking about?

The 22-year-old who's No. 1 in the league in scoring, No. 2 in rebounding, No. 2 in shooting percentage and No. 6 in blocks?

O'Neal is suddenly up to his eyebrows in Shaq-bashers--opposing players, writers, those who should know better. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, 12 of 21 coaches picked someone else to start a franchise around.

One coach who picked Alonzo Mourning called O'Neal "a part-time basketball player."

This merely proves what we have always known: There are a lot of coaches in the wrong business.

O'Neal works as hard as any prodigy ever has. Derrick Coleman and Larry Johnson, the top picks the two years before O'Neal, didn't sign until after the season started, nor did Mourning, nominated by Hornet officials as the center with the ideal attitude. O'Neal agreed to terms with the Orlando Magic in midsummer and went to Pete Newell's big man's camp.

He went back last summer. As raw as he is, he has shots and moves he didn't have as a rookie. His assists are up 42%. Part of the bashing is herd mentality--if everyone's saying it, there must be something to it. Part is his peers' natural resentment--he has so much. Part is his immaturity--if they are going to carp, I'm going to brag.

There is no doubt he has been overexposed, the Jordan phenomenon multiplied by 1,000. Jordan went almost 10 years before his endorsement income passed $10 million; O'Neal hit $15 million as a rookie.

Jordan never made a movie. O'Neal got star billing in his, with ads that ran everywhere, the latest drops in a water torture of his fellows.

"It blows my mind, I get so many Shaq questions," says Mr. Nice Guy, David Robinson. "About his feelings, that he's upset about calls, that he doesn't like this or that.

"Who is Shaq? Why should I lose sleep that he's upset? It's funny to me (that) everyone plays to him so much. He's a good player, no question. He's athletic, 300 pounds, a phenomenon. He gets credit for how good he is, but it blows my mind how people are concerned how he feels neglected."

When the Magic lost last week at San Antonio, Spur players jumped in Shaq's face to rub it in.

"I said, 'Who played like the MVP today, you or David (Robinson)?" Willie Anderson said. "That ticked him off."

Actually, O'Neal had held his own: 32 points and 11 rebounds to Robinson's 36-13.

Ironically, Shaq is a polite young man with great respect for his elders and so soft-spoken, he used to whisper through interviews.

However, he did about 10,000 commercials that bragged for him. Remember the one in which Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and John Wooden welcomed him into their inner circle? How do you think Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing felt about that one?

At 21, he dictated his life story, breaking a longstanding tradition: Have the life, then write the story.

As recently as All-Star weekend, O'Neal was pretending the resentment directed toward him was media hype. He changed his tune when the West players jumped all over him, after which he vowed to get them, "one by one."

Said O'Neal after the San Antonio loss: "Jealousy is the ugliest word in the dictionary. I can do a whole bunch of things. Every time I do something, I do it well. My movie's doing well. My album will be platinum soon. . . .

"I'm the best at what I do. I'm just a man of many talents. People don't understand that."

Doesn't look like we can put him down as humble anymore, does it?

Of course, there aren't that many leading-man roles for seven-footers and, whereas singing requires vocal talent, rapping can be done with only a microphone.

O'Neal has to grow up in the harsh spotlight of fame, but one way or another, he's happening.

Now he has three peers. In two years, they will be playing for second place.


Don Nelson, the NBA's only three-time coach of the year, is becoming more disenchanted by the day.

The problem: No matter what he has lost, no one else is likely to cut him the deal he has as Golden State's coach, general manager and part owner of a $100-million franchise.

Nelson, once the program, is now an employee under Dan Finnane, installed as president by Nelson's sponsor, owner Jim Fitzgerald, after Nelson's expensive search for the elusive big man (Ralph Sampson, Jim Peterson, Alton Lister).

For whatever reason, Nelson now trumpets his game plans, like the one he dreamed up at Portland when Chris Webber was sidelined, with Billy Owens at center.

"That was our ace in the hole," Nelson said. "If (Owens) could have come up with a Magic Johnson-type of performance and we could have posted him and run the offense through him and he could have done all those things, we could have just given them fits. But obviously, he wasn't up to the task."

That was the greatest compliment anyone had ever paid Owens. The Warriors lost by 29.

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