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COMMENTARY : O'Neal Poised to Inherit Mantle From Jordan

November 12, 1994|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — There was a moment early in the game when Shaquille O'Neal tried to spin to the baseline against Patrick Ewing, but Ewing took the baseline away from him.

Ewing would not let O'Neal come into Madison Square Garden and treat him like some aging sparring partner. Now O'Neal gave up his dribble and Ewing seemed to surround him.

It did not matter. O'Neal turned slightly away and pushed his own soft version of a hook shot toward the basket. It went in. Ewing has been the big man at the Garden for a long time, but O'Neal made him look small. More and more, Shaquille O'Neal does that to the rest of basketball.

In the fifth row of seats, Red Holzman smiled. Suddenly, it was not the Garden of 1994 for Holzman, it was the old Garden, and it was 1959, and Holzman was not looking at O'Neal, he was was looking at the young Wilt Chamberlain.

Holzman was a scout for the Knicks 35 years ago. He was asked what he'd thought the first time he saw Wilt Chamberlain play.

"I thought I was having a nightmare," Holzman said.

The ball came back to O'Neal's end of the court. They gave it to him on the left side; he turned and hit a soft jump shot.

Holzman nodded. "I feel the same way watching this kid," he said. "I feel like I'm having the same nightmare all over again."

He is 7-feet 1-inch tall and weighs more than 300 pounds and can run and jump. This is only his third season, and even before the Orlando Magic have done anything in the playoffs, O'Neal seems to have become the biggest star in the sport.

Magic Johnson is gone, Larry Bird is gone, Michael Jordan is a minor league baseball player. The stage has been left wide open, and Shaquille O'Neal, Shaq, has come crashing through the curtains to take it.

There is no real art in his game. There may never be. Wilt, at the beginning, was dunk shots and fall-away jump shots, and he missed even more free throws than O'Neal misses.

There was a time in sports when the progression, even for people who became huge stars, went something like this: Talent, achievement, recognition, unbelievable riches.

Now talent and recognition are enough to make you an international celebrity, before your team has ever won a playoff game. O'Neal sells his awful rap music, soft drinks, sneakers, anything with his name and number on it.

Things change fast in sports. A couple of weeks ago, there was an embarrassingly bad farewell television special for Jordan. The longer he stays in baseball, the quicker he will fade. In a few years, O'Neal will be as big with the kids as Jordan ever was.

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