PHOENIX — The counter attaq:
This was no ordinary NBA All-Star game Sunday for Shaquille O'Neal, even if it felt that way to most everyone else. His team, the East, was outgunned by most valuable player Mitch Richmond and the West, 139-112, before 18,755 at America West Arena, but the Magic castle won something anyway.
Maybe it wasn't redemption. Maybe it wasn't an increased degree of respect among his peers--O'Neal is, after all, averaging 29.7 points, tops in the league, and 10.8 rebounds for an Orlando team that is 6 1/2 games ahead of its closest challenger in the Eastern Conference. But, to be sure, it was something.
"He was not going to let what happened last year happen again," said Anfernee Hardaway, his teammate for the day and the season. "He went out and had more fun."
He did because he made nine of 16 shots for a team-high 22 points along with seven rebounds in 26 minutes, a year after he was frustrated while making two of 12 for eight points in 26 minutes at Minneapolis. He did because he got a healthy diet of single coverage, a year after being regularly double- and triple-teamed as the West ran everybody but the vendors at O'Neal when he got the ball inside.
Thus a conspiracy theory was born. Players scoffed at any suggestion that they tried to freeze out O'Neal, as if to remind him that this league wasn't made on CD sales, but Shaq wasn't so sure.
"I don't get mad," he said when the subject came up a few days ago. "I get even."
Not that he was holding a grudge or anything.
Come Sunday, he had two baskets before the game was four minutes old. In between those two dunks, he dropped the ball off to Scottie Pippen for a dunk when Hakeem Olajuwon and Shawn Kemp did double. By the end of the third quarter, O'Neal was six of 11, matching the number of field goals in his previous two All-Star appearances combined.
"I'm just glad somebody gave me a chance to play," he said later. "Last year, I didn't get a chance to show my stuff. This year I did."
He should have held some of it back. It was even unimportant by All-Star game standards because the West had already turned the game into a rout by the time O'Neal got the ball behind the three-point line on the left side with about 6 1/2 minutes to play in the third quarter.
All of 0 for 0 from that range in the first half of 1994-95 and a career 0 for 4, he stood there alone, saw no one coming out to guard him, took aim and fired.
O'Neal broke into a big smile. The East bench busted up.
"Slipped," O'Neal said.
"It slipped out of my hands."
The comic relief was merely beginning. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Gorilla, the Phoenix Suns' mascot, traded his mini-trampoline for a spring-mounted platform, then put it at the top of the key during a timeout. He ran in from half-court, made contact and flew in for a dunk.
The West turned its attention away from the huddle to watch follow-up attempts, all successful. Not content with that, Charles Barkley started walking out, as if to prepare his run up. The crowd loved it. Sun teammate Dan Majerle and assistant coach Scotty Robertson, no doubt imagining Barkley--and themselves--watching the second round of the playoffs on TV, quickly corralled him back to the huddle.
Paul Westphal, coach of the Suns and the West, was considerate enough to offer up another sacrifice: Hakeem Olajuwon. Westphal, a former guard, pushed the Rocket center toward the mascot's departure point, but the major obstacle in the Suns' bid for the conference title didn't budge.
The only intrigue that remained, if there was much to begin with, was who would be named MVP.
Richmond, the Sacramento King shooting guard who had 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting, won out.
Orlando Magic assistant coach Richie Adubato, 57, in town to help coach the Eastern Conference All-Stars, was hospitalized Sunday after feeling short of breath. Adubato, scheduled for an angiogram today, was hospitalized overnight but resting comfortably. . . . The three officials who worked the game reportedly are among at least 35 NBA referees under IRS investigation for an alleged scheme involving millions of dollars in phony travel expenses.