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The Shaq Derby: Lakers Get Their Man | THE AGENT

Just-the-Facts Man : Leonard Armato Says He Gave Options to O'Neal, and Now His Client Will Join Him in Los Angeles


Unlike David Falk, an agent who has become a major NBA power broker because of his huge stable of clients, Leonard Armato has only a few clients. But what he has, as they might say in his native Brooklyn, is cherce.

Armato represents Shaquille O'Neal, whom he shepherded through a seesaw negotiation process with the Orlando Magic and Lakers that ended with O'Neal signing a seven-year, $120-million contract with the Lakers early Thursday.

Armato has also represented Houston Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon and former Boston Celtic Brian Shaw, and his football clients have included Ahmad Rashad, Ronnie Lott and Rodney Peete. Ten years ago, he helped then-Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar regain his financial footing after some of Abdul-Jabbar's business deals went sour and cost him about $5 million.

But it's O'Neal whom Armato has helped become a household name on the court, as well as in movies and in omnipresent advertisements for shoes, soft drinks and fast food.

O'Neal's decision to leave Orlando and move to Los Angeles, near Armato's Santa Monica office, is likely to fortify an already strong relationship. Yet, Armato insists he didn't try to persuade O'Neal to leave Florida in order to keep a close eye on his valuable client.

"I support his decision. It wasn't my decision. I want to emphasize that," Armato said Thursday. "My job is to gather facts. Then I present them and Shaq makes the call. I did not make a recommendation. I presented the facts.

"I can't break [the Lakers' and Magic's offers] down for you, but I can tell you they were both generally the same financial package, just structured a little differently. It wasn't like we were squeaking out every last dollar. . . . Someone has to be the winner. Unfortunately, there has to be a loser too."

Armato, who helped found the pro beach volleyball league in 1983 and is romantically involved with Olympic beach volleyball player Holly McPeak, is a former athlete. He played freshman basketball at USC before transferring to Pacific, where he was an All-Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. guard and led his team as scoring as a junior in 1975 with a 12.8 average.

He's considered a smooth talker who negotiates well for his clients, not the hard-driving shark Falk is. He's not confrontational, but he's not above complaining that the media doesn't treat his clients well enough.

Although he insists he doesn't make O'Neal's decisions, it's known he had a major influence when O'Neal had left Louisiana State for the NBA draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves had the greatest chance of drafting him, under the lottery system then in use, and Armato hinted O'Neal might not sign if Minnesota took him and would force a trade. Reportedly, that was his idea, not O'Neal's, but his resolve was never tested because the Magic won the right to pick O'Neal.

Armato has negotiated many lucrative, classy deals for O'Neal, making him the second-best paid (behind Michael Jordan) among NBA endorsers. O'Neal earned an estimated $17 million last year, short of Jordan's estimated $40 million but hardly chump change.

And with Hollywood so tantalizingly near, can more movie and recording deals engineered by Armato be far off? Armato said O'Neal didn't sign with the Lakers only for those reasons, but acknowledged, "It certainly will not be detrimental to him to be in the center of the creative hub of the entertainment industry."

That will make two new players in town: O'Neal and Armato.


Times staff writer Mike Downey contributed to this story from Atlanta.

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