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The Shaq Derby: Lakers Get Their Man | LAKERS : IN
ORLANDO

91% Say Price Was Too High to Keep Shaq

July 19, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The phones at One Magic Place in Orlando were ringing Thursday, mostly from callers wondering how Shaquille O'Neal could have been allowed to become a Laker, but occasionally from someone telling John Gabriel that the price was too high, let Shaq go, we're with you.

They are the 90 percenters.

One day before O'Neal signed a $120-million contract with the Lakers, the Orlando Sentinel asked its readers about the Magic's offer: "Is Shaquille O'Neal worth $115 million over seven seasons?"

The answer was no, from 4,668 callers, or 91.3% of the respondents.

"Not the type of thing that you want to come out on the day that your franchise player is about to sign or not re-sign," said Gabriel, the Magic's vice president for basketball operations and player personnel.

"I really wonder why that came out on the day it did. I wanted to call to find out why, but I didn't really want to ask the question. Shaq is a kid who wanted to be accepted and appreciated. Maybe it's a factor. I don't know."

It wasn't, said Sentinel columnist Brian Schmitz, in Atlanta for the Olympics and coverage of O'Neal and the Dream Team.

"I don't really think that had anything to do with it," Schmitz said. "I think he was headed to L.A. all along."

Schmitz said that he read the Sentinel's poll result as a reaction to:

--The Magic's quick departure from this year's playoffs, leaving many Orlando fans angry.

--And O'Neal's recent involvement in rap videos and movies, giving some fans the impression that his efforts toward basketball are less than 100%.

"I also think that hard-core basketball fans could clearly see his potential and also see he wasn't using it," Schmitz said.

If so, they won't find out in Orlando, where Thursday was not about blame-throwing or fault-finding by Magic team officials. It was a day for questions that have yet to be answered and for reliving recent memories. And for wondering how a structure built over four seasons was going to stand without its foundation, realized potential or not.

"Right after the press conference, Pat Williams [the Magic's general manager] and I were together, commiserating," said Gabriel. "It's sad. We felt as if four years of work has been ripped up.

"We felt as though we did the right things for four years. We built a team around him. We've been a model for a young franchise, doing things the right way, and it's been a storybook."

With an unhappy ending. Orlando has Jon Koncak at center, a fill-in at best, and no real prospects for getting a real starter for the $250,000 it can pay.

"He's virtually irreplaceable," said Gabriel. "Because of the [salary] cap ramifications, you cannot go spend the dollars that we were once going to offer him. . . . So it will set us back quite a bit."

Those dollars, by the way, were more than the Lakers' $120 million, according to reports in Orlando. And they were apparently offensive to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and some listeners to a radio station that played "Hit the Road, Shaq."

"I don't blame the players. But it shows you maybe where we are as a country, where we are willing to put our money," Chiles said.

"Obviously, some think they are making money paying $100 million salaries. But let's examine: What is a teacher worth; what is a policeman worth; what is a day-care worker worth?"

What is Shaquille O'Neal worth?

"I don't think it's [amount of money being paid to NBA players] getting too crazy," said Magic guard Penny Hardaway, in his last days as O'Neal's teammate, with the Dream Team. "Players are just taking full advantage of their worth. I think it's great that players are being paid like that, even though a lot of people don't. Naturally, I was hoping I wouldn't be asked these questions."

Everybody in Orlando was hoping that.

"We understood, at least we heard, that for weeks we were his first choice," said Gabriel. "We felt if we put the best offer on the table . . . and if we were his first choice, that he would be here."

And how he's not, and there was little attempt to put a happy face on the day. Reality bites.

"Well, we had practice last year when we were without him for 26 games," said Gabriel. "We had our best start ever, 13-1."

O'Neal was out because of a broken finger, suffered in an exhibition game.

But Hardaway is having nothing to do with such expressions of hope.

"What happened early last season when Shaquille had an injury was just us having a little luck and winning early," Hardaway said. "I really don't think we can win for an entire season without a guy like Shaquille or a big center. You might be able to do it for a while, but not for a whole season."

Orlando won 117 regular-season games over the last two years, including a franchise-record 60 last season, when the team advanced to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the Chicago Bulls.

The Magic went from winning 21 games the season before O'Neal arrived to 41 his rookie year. Orlando won 50 the next year, then 57 en route to the NBA finals in his third NBA season.

Don't look for that to continue.

"I don't think what we did without Shaquille has any bearing on what next year will be like," Coach Brian Hill said. "For anybody to expect we're going to win as much without Shaquille as we did with him is totally unrealistic."

For now, there is mixed reaction in Orlando, possibly because it's only July.

Schmitz said that he thought Magic fans would be upset, and that there would follow a feeling of "good riddance."

"But then," Schmitz added, "once October and training camp come around and the Magic has no center, there will be that sinking feeling of 'Oh-oh, now what do we do?'

"Then, what happens next, I think, will be some anger at Magic management along the lines of: 'You should have paid him more.' But I'm not sure that really mattered, in the end. I think he was heading for L.A., no matter what."

*

Times Sports Editor Bill Dwyre and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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