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Shaq's List Starts With the Magic

Pro basketball: Free agent says he wants to return to Orlando, but center's agent says any comments otherwise could imply tampering.


CHICAGO — Dear Vlade, come back, all is forgiven. . . .

Whether it was good manners or a declaration of principles, Shaquille O'Neal, the object of the Lakers' desire, for whom they stripped themselves of their starting center, said he intends to stay in Orlando.

"Orlando is my first option," he said as the U.S. Olympic Dream Team opened practice Monday.

"I've been saying that the whole summer. I just want a fair deal. Money's not the main issue."

However, he has said it before and, again, stopped short of actually saying he will return.

He pointedly suggested little interest in the Lakers or Southern California, where he has hung out so many summers. However, his agent, Leonard Armato, said that was to keep him out of trouble after widespread reports of a "done deal" with the Lakers.

"He and I are very concerned," said Armato, "there will be accusations of tampering if there's any inference Shaq is expressing interest in a specific team other than Orlando."

Orlando is still thought to be the front-runner since salary-cap rules allow it to offer O'Neal anything.

On Monday, O'Neal said he had no problem with Magic Coach Brian Hill or Penny Hardaway. O'Neal is known to have complained about Hill. People close to O'Neal have focused on Hardaway, whose "Li'l Penny" commercials made him a Nike star.

O'Neal, who endorses Reebok, even made an ad in which he knocked a puppet that looked like Li'l Penny off the sofa, but that was all in fun, he says.

"I'm the type person," O'Neal said, "I take care of my own and I take care of my family. I'm glad for Penny, and I'm glad for Penny's mother, his grandmother.

"We're all in this together, but when it comes to outside business, I'm in outside business just to set things up for my family in the future. Not to compete with [Michael] Jordan, not to compete with Penny. 'Cause I'm going to get mine."

The question is, where?

There were moments last season when O'Neal seemed to be distancing himself from the Magic--staying away after his grandmother's death and arriving late for a national TV game against the Bulls; blowing off the season-ending meeting to fly to Los Angeles, a trip that reportedly included a conversation with Nick Van Exel.

Teammates noticed.

"There probably was a time," Hardaway said. "When you're going through hard times and things start going through your mind--I can't really tell you that point, but I'm sure it crossed his mind to go somewhere else. Probably during the season, at the end of the season. He hasn't talked to me about it, but I'm sure it has. . . .

"I didn't know how to take it [missing the final meeting]. I didn't really want to get involved. It's up to management. But I didn't know how to take it and, you know, that's the way it went.

"I read some things down in our newspaper, they said that Shaquille said that we weren't friends, whatever--which were all wrong. But I was looking forward to seeing him when I came here, talking to him a little bit."

The Hill affair surfaced, with Armato noting on national TV during the playoff sweep by the Bulls that the Magic coach was doing a good job "this quarter."

Magic ownership backed Hill. In a poll in Orlando, 85% of the respondents said they should keep Hill, even if it meant losing Shaq.

"It's just the world and especially the media has become very tabloid-ish," O'Neal said. "But as long as I know what's going on and as long and I know in my heart who I am, I try not to worry about it. . . .

"If there was something to it, I would have said something. I don't hold my tongue for no man."

Hardaway says he and O'Neal are friends. They have only chatted a little here, but he says Shaq was as friendly as ever.

"I really want him back," Hardaway says. "I want to finish out my career with Shaquille and hopefully win some titles with him. . . . I might run him off, as much as I'm going to talk to him. I'm going to be begging. I might be outside of his door.

"I'm just going to say, 'We need you and you know that. I mean, I know you're going to make the ultimate decision yourself, but we really need you and I want to retire with Shaquille O'Neal on my team.' "

The good news all around is that after a year of speculation, negotiations will begin next week. O'Neal promises a speedy decision.

"Once July 9 comes up," he said, "I'll make my decision fairly quickly. I mean, I'm not going to be waiting out the whole summer. . . . I plan on getting signed real, real quickly."

If anyone can do it, he can.

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