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THE NBA

Anatomy of a Deal: Magic Disappeared

July 19, 1996|MARK HEISLER

ATLANTA — Having sold off a small team so they could offer Shaquille O'Neal a ransom worthy of a large king, the Lakers waited with dread for the Magic hammer to drop on them.

And waited and waited and waited. . . .

Magic owner Rich DeVos had a hammer, all right, but didn't swing it. He could raise his offer at will while the Lakers had to get rid of players and salaries first. And Jerry West was running out of players.

Thankfully for West, the Magic pulled up at $115 million and stayed there, even with the Lakers at $120 million and Shaq vowing to make his decision.

DeVos told the Orlando Sentinel even as O'Neal flew here Wednesday night to meet with his agent, Leonard Armato: "If they are trying to squeeze another million or two out of this, then the Lakers can pay it."

Quoth the Lakers: Glad to.

DeVos is a recent NBA arrival, having built an empire at Amway. A man who takes his principles seriously--he wrote a book, "The Compassionate Capitalist"--he set out to build a model organization, a task made easier by inheriting O'Neal and watching General Manager Pat Williams, with one slim chance in '91, draw the ball that became Penny Hardaway in his first draft.

DeVos believed in doing the right thing, such as standing by Coach Brian Hill when reports surfaced of a rift with O'Neal. He wanted to conduct Shaq's negotiations the right way too, telling him, "I want your heart, not just your body."

Unfortunately for the Magic, this apparently meant if Shaq didn't really want to stay--if he did something as ungrateful as soliciting other bids and asking the Magic to beat them--it wasn't meant to be.

On the other hand, the Lakers are old hands in the basketball business who have watched their dynasties rise and fall when great players came and went, teaching them the game's first lesson: Talent is the great imperative.

Is your star playing you against another team while declaring he doesn't care about money? Of course! That's what great players do!

In fact, O'Neal kept insisting it wasn't about money while Armato worked hard at getting the offers up, suggesting someone thought it was about money.

It's possible the money had only symbolic importance to Shaq. A man earning about $17 million annually in endorsements may still want his team to show it wants him more than another team does. The Lakers were doing backward somersaults to land O'Neal, but the Magic seemed to be trying to teach him some lesson in life.

West, meanwhile, was feeling queasy about this roller-coaster ride.

The conspiracy theories going around reach their highest stage in a version advanced by a Pacific Division general manager who insists everything that has happened for months--O'Neal's stated preference for Orlando and indifference toward the Lakers, West's anguish, the Lakers' 11th-hour bid--is part of an elaborate mosaic, laid down to protect the Lakers against a charge of tampering.

However, it's hard to imagine a "done deal" West wouldn't have known of--and a wide array of sources agree he was a basket case during negotiations.

He fumed at the press for the tampering talk. He tried to set up fall-back positions, such as Indiana's Dale Davis. As recently as Tuesday, he told a confidante he wanted to go to Plan B, but owner Jerry Buss had his heart set on Shaq.

"To be real candid with you," West said Thursday, "there's a couple of things we did that we did not want to do. [But] we could not match the financial offer that they first put out there.

"As early as Saturday of last week, I talked to our owner and I said, 'Jerry, I just don't think it's possible with what we have to offer.'

"I know there's a lot of wonderful owners in the NBA, but I happen to work for the best owner because he encourages us to be bold, he encourages us to take risks, and this is a risk-taking business."

West hated throwing Peeler over the side but did it, with Buss' approval.

Maybe Armato told Buss he could get O'Neal at $120 million because the Magic didn't look like it would go that high? It wouldn't have been illegal or unethical and, in any case, Armato was restless about the Magic.

Around the NBA, people thought the Magic would go $20 million a year, but that wasn't how the Magic saw it. The Armato people said the offers were coming slowly and conservatively; until the last day the Magic was at $110 million--$15.7 million a year.

Meanwhile, the Orlando press reported the offer was $115 million. O'Neal had ducked all specifics but at the Dream Team's practice at Disney World, he acknowledged having been briefed for the first time. He didn't look happy about the situation.

"Leonard gave me some numbers last night," he said of the Magic offer, "and they weren't the ones in the paper."

The same day, the Lakers made the deal with Vancouver, dumping Peeler and Lynch.

The Lakers could now get to $120 million. The Magic did get to $115 million and stopped. On the last day in Orlando, O'Neal stomped out after practice without talking.

There now are people in Orlando saying Shaq is "one dimensional." The Magic is about to discover it has a new dimension of its own: small.

It's 7 feet 1 shorter, 320 pounds lighter and as far as being an elite team goes, it's over.

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