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MIKE DOWNEY

For Shaq, Hakeem, It's Fun to Get Paid

September 29, 1995|MIKE DOWNEY

Shaquille O'Neal will be playing basketball, one on one, against Hakeem Olajuwon in a pay-per-view promotion Saturday night near the boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J. No, you cannot call in to vote on whether they should wear swimsuits.

Nick Van Exel of the Lakers also will be there, for a little-guy contest against Kenny Anderson, as will a couple of raw NBA rookies, Joe Smith against the teen-aged Kevin Garnett, who isn't old enough to go into the Trump Taj Mahal to see the showgirls.

How serious is this?

Oh, not terribly, although frankly I can't find a thing wrong with it. This is no different from golf's Skins Game, or paid-admission tennis exhibitions between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, or other cute stuff, so who cares how serious it is? If it sounds like fun, watch it. If it doesn't, don't.

O'Neal had a wild week in Los Angeles, wrapping up his starring role last Saturday as a rap-singing genie in the Disney film "Kazaam," talking hoops with President Clinton at a benefit in Orange County and sealing his deal with a candy bar bearing his likeness, called Mr. Big.

For a 23-year-old, he's doing pretty well.

Basketball camps open soon, so Shaq will go back to his goal of winning a championship, which he has never done, in college or professionally. He and Olajuwon went hand to spine last season in the NBA finals, won by the Houston Rockets over the Orlando Magic, at which point a friendly rivalry with Olajuwon began to bloom.

Next came newspaper ads and TV spots, with the two centers sharing a bicycle built for two.

Then came this one-on-one game, which confuses some people, seeing as how Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson were once denied permission to stage the same act.

The NBA now says OK. Noted sportscasters Chick Hearn, Billy Packer and Bill Walton will even provide commentary. (If anyone says "analysis," tell them to get real.)

And somewhere along the way, Patrick Ewing stopped being one of the two best centers in basketball.

Shaq is asked, "Is Olajuwon the best center you've played?"

He replies, "Of course! By far."

By far? Hmmm.

"He's a good player, a classy player," Shaq says of Hakeem. "He doesn't cry or complain."

Olajuwon, who apparently aggravated a sore back Thursday and put the event in jeopardy, was to be examined by doctors this morning.

In any case, O'Neal swears he is taking the match-up seriously. Someone wonders how he feels about all the pessimism.

"Define pessimism," he says.

Oh, shooting 10 two-minute rounds of hoops worth $100,000 each, insisting that the outcome really matters. . . .

"I'm very serious about this," Shaq says. "I would do this if it was for $100,000 or for a quarter of a million dollars or for a quarter. I would still play."

Hearn, a willing foil, leans over to O'Neal like, oh, Hank Kingsley to Larry Sanders.

Chick: "Shaq, I believe you really mean that."

Shaq: "Thanks, man."

Everybody is obviously having fun with this, although everybody is obviously getting paid for this. The thing is, one-on-one competitions, once frowned upon by the league, might now become regular attractions.

Leonard Armato, agent for both players and promoter of the event, sells it well, saying, "This is not a trash sport. This is not wheelbarrow racing."

There are pages and pages of rules. There's a 12-second shot clock. There are two-point, three-point, even six-point shots. There will be one minute between rounds and a halftime after five. In any round that ends in a tie--same as a Skins Game--the money carries over.

O'Neal says one on one is new to him. But after a lifetime of being triple-teamed, he can't wait.

"It's just us. No [Nick] Andersons, no [Penny] Hardaways, no [Rudy] Tomjanovich, no Brian Hill," O'Neal says, recalling the cast from the NBA finals.

And, maybe dunkmaster Shaq can even shoot a basketball?

Shaq: "I don't know, man. I'm going for the better percentage shot. I'm a mathematician."

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