ATLANTA — Winning the highest-stakes bidding war in American sports history, the Lakers signed Shaquille O'Neal away from the Orlando Magic on Thursday, giving him a $120-million, seven-year contract that tilted the balance of power in the NBA with the stroke of a pen.
The deal is thought to have an "out," a clause making O'Neal a free agent again in three years, enabling him to test the market anew if rising inflation or other stars' salaries eat into his deal.
On the hook for a fortune, which could look like a bargain compared to what they may have to give him in 1999, the Lakers were ecstatic.
"This is an incredibly exciting day for the Los Angeles Lakers," Executive Vice President Jerry West said. "I can't tell you how excited Southern California is today. I called our office a little while ago and the response from bringing Shaquille O'Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers has been one that's unprecedented in our history. . . .
"Over the last number of days, I can't tell you how many highs and lows that I've gone through. . . . About 2:15 in the morning, when we signed the contract, was probably the most relieved I've ever felt in my life.
"I really can't explain. I've often thought that the birth of my children was something I'll never forget and just the excitement of this, for us to sign him, really ranks right there with it."
West was midwife in this delivery, the baby measuring 7 feet 1 and weighing 320 pounds. It required a Herculean effort, the Lakers dumping three players to make enough room under the salary cap so they could continue bidding competitively.
On June 26, draft day, they traded starting center Vlade Divac to Charlotte, giving them enough room to offer O'Neal a seven-year, $95-million contract--only to see the Magic top it.
Discouraged and despairing of their chances, the Lakers on Tuesday dispatched Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver, allowing them to offer $120 million, which turned out to be the winner.
"Keep in mind the word change," O'Neal said. "To me, change is for the good. I'm a military child; I'm used to relocating every three, four years. The Lakers, they have great tradition, great big-man tradition, George Mikan, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. . . ."
The Lakers have a great tradition, indeed, of big men, most of whom they got from other teams. Wilt Chamberlain engineered a trade from the Philadelphia 76ers and helped the 1972 Lakers win the franchise's first title.
Abdul-Jabbar, the UCLA alumnus, did the same thing to get out of frosty Milwaukee and helped the Lakers win five titles in the '80s.
At 24, O'Neal is considered one of the game's top centers, along with Olympic teammates Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. In size, he dwarfs them. Olajuwon is actually 6-10. Robinson is a legitimate 7-1 but has a 32-inch waist that makes it hard for him to play under the basket.
O'Neal entered the league at a rock-solid 300 pounds and now has begun lifting weights. A throwback to the days when centers stayed under the basket and beat each other up, he has developed a good, if underappreciated, post game that, coupled with his size, makes him the game's ultimate terror weapon.
In four seasons, he has averaged 23, 29, 29 and 27 points and has a career shooting mark of 58%.
However, the Magic was swept out in all three of his playoff appearances, though one was in the 1995 finals against Houston. There was increasing attention on his free-throw shooting, which went from bad, 56% his first three seasons, to worse, 49% last season.
In a 1995-96 season dominated by speculation about his impending free agency, O'Neal sat out the first 23 games because of a broken thumb. The Magic went 18-5 without him and callers to talk shows began questioning how much Shaq was needed.
Late in the season, he left for five days after the death of a grandmother, returning during a nationally televised game against the Chicago Bulls when his mother told him to get back to work, causing another furor.
After the season-ending sweep by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, reports surfaced of a rift between O'Neal and Coach Brian Hill. The Orlando Sentinel asked readers if Hill should go to keep Shaq happy. More than 90% said no.
Last week, when it was reported that the Magic was offering O'Neal $115 million, the Sentinel again asked readers' opinions. More than 90% said that was too much money.
"The media in Orlando kind of bashed me so much, I just kinda stopped reading the paper my second year," O'Neal said. "When I read something in the paper like that? Doesn't make me weak, makes me strong. I like to prove people wrong."