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MIKE DOWNEY

This Town Definitely Needed More Tinsel

July 19, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — Los Angeles, shorn of football, Magic Johnson and Wayne Gretzky, torn by earthquake, riot and the murder case of the century, took a giant step on its comeback Thursday in the size 22-EEEEE shoes of Shaquille O'Neal, who called his new home a place to "showcase my skills" while Californians rejoiced over a brand new era: Shaqtime.

Once upon a time, Orlando, Fla., had two great centers, O'Neal and EPCOT. But somehow, in the middle of the night, Orlando's sentinel fell asleep at his post, the barbarians from the West Coast were at the gate with $120 million, nearly five times what it costs for Arnold Schwarzenegger to battle Batman, and a powerful new player had been seduced by Hollywood.

"This," said Jerry West, who landed the big one for the Lakers, "is going to be the biggest star in Los Angeles."

Expected soon to be looking at homes--Hugh Hefner's? San Simeon? Michael Jackson's? Aaron Spelling's?--once the Summer Olympics are behind him, O'Neal must choose what to do with that 50,000-square-foot Florida crib of his, not to mention those Sunshine State personalized DUNKON-U license plates. Otherwise, his life of slamming, jamming, acting and rapping won't dramatically change, except for being hooted in Orlando every time he touches the ball.

Ah, but everything now begins to change for Los Angeles, a hip and happening capital of entertainment and sports that has been longing for some excitement. L.A. needed more action on the court, and less on "Court-TV."

With most of its professional teams failing to make the playoffs, or last beyond one round, L.A. seemed to be in serious danger of losing its glitz. The hottest news of the last few months was that the Lakers had gotten their hands on a high school kid. Children who once dreamed of growing up to be a Dodger, a Raider, a Ram were suddenly telling their moms and dads that they wanted to be a Galaxy, or a Mighty Duck.

Jerry West just resuscitated the whole town, like David Hasselhoff or Pamela Lee giving mouth-to-mouth to a drowning swimmer.

"He didn't give up," Leonard Armato, O'Neal's agent, marveled of West's efforts. "He wouldn't give up when he probably should have given up."

And now, as a result, Forum crowds for years to come should be SRO--Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal's monogram of choice. "Little Warrior," which is what Shaquille Rashaun means in the language of Islam, is today a very large Laker. He will wear 34 on his shirt front, mainly because 32 and 33 belonged to the Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth of the village of Inglewood, and he promises to run more, do more than just dunk and practice, practice, practice those free throws, so help him Bill Sharman.

Meanwhile, you can almost hear the buzz, from thousands of miles away. Basketball season might be months away, but people are discussing it, dissecting it, harping over how much the Lakers spent, calculating that seven years into $120 million comes to a cool 17.1 mil per fiscal year, rhapsodizing on what dream teen Kobe Bryant might become and how young O'Neal still is, ripping old Shaq Daddy for never having won squat, fantasizing about the Lakers being kings with O'Neal in the middle the way they were with men named Mikan, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain.

In old Orlando, where 90% of those 5,111 who responded to a newspaper poll said no way they would pay something like $110 million to keep Shaquille O'Neal, the sky must nevertheless be the color of L.A.'s today, considering the pall that exists. Five fairly frightening words echo throughout the community this day: "And at center . . . Jon Koncak."

Fans of the Orlando Magic must be holding onto hope that Penny Hardaway knows how to throw alley-oop passes to . . . Penny Hardaway, assisting on his own dunk.

Overnight, they turned into the Orlando Timberwolves.

As for the future of L.A., there will be a new arena within three years, with luxury boxes that help defray the Incredible Shaq Tab. The new kid in town says he won't feel any pressure--"Pressure is when you don't know where your next meal is"--and is looking forward to walking around a town where he won't draw stares everywhere he goes, as though Beverly Hills had just been invaded by a brontosaurus.

"Keep in mind the word change," suggested Shaq, repeating the theme several times that sometimes a man's simply gotta move on. "I know people out there are tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. My final decision wasn't based on money. Change was necessary."

Well, that's exactly what he got: A hundred twenty million and a change. There is a new star on the sidewalks of Hollywood, and you can contact him at his new address in Inglewood--Shaquille O'Neal, 90305.

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