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Living Large

O'Neal Learned Early to Appreciate Value of Hard Work and Enjoys the Rewards It Brings

July 19, 1996|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tattoo on Shaquille O'Neal's right arm proclaims, "The World is Mine." And after signing a $120-million, seven-year deal with the Lakers on Thursday, O'Neal can afford to buy almost anything in the world he wants, and have a nice chunk of change left over.

That should provide him some comfort after the opening this week of his movie, "Kazaam," a kiddie-oriented film that got the kind of reviews usually reserved for his free-throw shooting.

But life wasn't always movie premieres, sneaker endorsements and multimillion-dollar paydays for O'Neal.

Born in Newark, N.J., to an unwed teenage mother who got off welfare and took a series of menial jobs to support her son, O'Neal learned early to appreciate the value of hard work. He learned discipline from his stepfather, Philip Harrison, an Army sergeant whose frequent transfers meant the family moved often during O'Neal's childhood. O'Neal credits Harrison with giving him direction.

"I used to be a juvenile delinquent, and nobody really knew if I was going to come through it or not," he told Ebony magazine. "I used to do bad stuff. Not bad stuff like killing or drugs or anything like that, but anything below that, I did it."

Philip would lecture him or banish him to his room, but his mother, Lucille, would soothe him with offers of milk or ice cream. When Harrison was busy working as a supply sergeant, however, Lucille took over as disciplinarian.

"I have what is known as Oedipus complex," O'Neal said. "In the Greek stories, a guy named Oedipus was so in love with his mother that he married her. Of course, I can't marry my mother, but whenever I get married, I'll marry someone like her."

He bought her a house and offers to buy her a new car every year, but she invariably refuses. If his mother won't take those gifts, however, O'Neal never fails to indulge his own whims.

It's his childlike spirit of adventure and unabashed joy that make O'Neal an icon to kids--seen by the NBA as future customers--and make him one of corporate America's favorite commercial spokesmen.

Unlike most superstar athletes, O'Neal ventures out in public to shopping malls, "just to look," he says. He can usually last 15 or 20 minutes before the crowds that trail him, Pied Piper-fashion, become too big, and he ducks back to his 50,000-square-foot, gate-guarded estate in Florida or his summer digs in Manhattan Beach.

He has been known to participate in paint-gun attacks on friends' houses in the dead of night and play miniature golf all day. He's just as likely to play a pickup game against baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. and actor Jaleel White as he is to play against the kids next door.

And on Mother's Day, he sends his mom 50 dozen roses.

"The best thing about Shaq is that I've never seen anybody who pigs out on today more than him," Orlando Magic General Manager Pat Williams once said. "He feasts on today, he drinks out of the cup of today, he sucks the marrow out of the bones of today.

"He's a lesson to me to take advantage of every day in life. There's a uniqueness to this kid that's just marvelous."

This 7-foot-1, 320-pound kid has a recording studio in his Florida home, a weight room, a well-stocked game room and a theater with leather seats. He collects autographed posters of Cindy Crawford and other stars, and owns 6-foot replicas of the monsters from the movies "Alien," "Predator" and "Superman." His living room has a 4-foot-tall painting of Arnold Schwarzenegger and a huge Superman figurine.

Yet O'Neal, who once worked as a courier for a construction company and marveled at the huge contracts and incredible bids he delivered, is no spoiled, self-absorbed brat. Every three months he cleans out his closets and sends unwanted garments to underprivileged kids.

He also remains sensitive to criticism, and reportedly was stung when the Orlando media hinted he was not a good role model because he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby but said they had no immediate plans to marry.

Nor was he happy when nearly 90% of the people contacted in an Orlando Sentinel poll asking if the Magic should fire Coach Brian Hill if that were one of his conditions for returning said no. In addition, only 49% said he was worth the seven-year, $41-million contract he had originally signed.

The Lakers, however, think he's worth $120 million. His agent, Leonard Armato, said, "His decision wasn't made upon a desire to be in Hollywood," but think of the fun he can have trading acting tips courtside with Jack Nicholson.

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