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Celluloid Hero Comes Off Screen, Into Kids' Lives

July 27, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — It was a movie house with a concrete floor. You had never seen one of those before.

The concrete was cracked, sticky, and shoe-deep in old popcorn and jujubes. The air conditioning was sputtering, the seats sweating.

You were assigned to this dank inner-city theater in the middle of a wonderfully bright afternoon, and told to expect some magic.

You wondered.

The seats were filled with several hundred bouncing children, sucking on juice boxes, shrieking.

The curtains on the giant screen opened to a movie called "Kazaam," a bit of poorly reviewed tripe about a boy and a genie.

Across town, there were wrestlers with five minutes of a lifetime opportunity and gymnasts with futures balanced on a four-inch beam. Across town, they were holding an Olympics, and you were stuck in Nightmare on Sesame Street.

The movie continued. The genie, a giant black man, developed a rapport with a punk white kid. The genie roamed the screen with increasing confidence, pouting and preening and slowly capturing the fidgety audience. . . .

Then . . . click-click-click. The projector suddenly stopped. The screen went black. The kids went silent.

From the front of the theater, a crack of light appeared. A door opened.

And into the theater walked the genie.

All 7 feet 1, 300 pounds worth.

Smiling, eyes wide with seeming wonder, blowing kisses, grabbing a microphone.

"I love you guys," said Shaquille O'Neal.

And three pig-tailed girls in the second row fell over as if suffering heart attacks.

You had never seen that before either.

Later you learned that this was the first time O'Neal had tried something like this.

Gather 300 kids from urban Atlanta summer camps, kids who miss their parents during the day, kids who need all the friends they can get.

Bring those kids into a theater. Buy them all the junk they can eat. Let them spend a few minutes falling in love with a fantasy hero.

Then walk through the door and turn that hero into reality.

"Cool, huh?" O'Neal said.

He should have been with his other Dream Team members, preparing for far more important events.

But moments after arriving, he made it clear that he would rather be here. With all the other kids.

He wore a straw hat, black golf shirt, black shorts that fell below his knee, black tennis shoes with no socks.

He looked silly, and acted sillier, mugging for the girls, scolding the boys.

"What are your dreams, darlin'?" he asked one girl.

"You a clown, ain't you?" he said to one boy.

The children gave him a red gift-wrapped box. He shook it and listened to it and mugged again like it was Christmas morning.

The box was filled with hand-written letters from the children. He acted as if they were gold.

"You know, I wasn't born with a silver spoon," he said. "I had Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday jeans. I wore the same pair those same three days every week."

The children laughed. As if many of them were wearing their Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday jeans.

"But you guys can be better than me!" O'Neal shouted. "Be a leader, not a follower."

The lines did not sound rehearsed, but they could have been.

There are many things that this championship-free, free-throw-impaired Laker center needs to prove in his new town. But an affection for children is not one of them.

It takes Alex Martins, public relations director of the Orlando Magic, nearly 15 minutes to explain O'Neal's work with children during his four years there.

"And these are just the things he came to us with," Martins said. "Things that were his idea."

With titles that were invented by him.

There was "Shaqsgiving," where he bought and served dinner for 500 homeless.

There was "Shaq-a-Claus," where he spent $10,000 each Christmas to buy toys for deprived children.

There was "Shaq-a-Bunny," where he would take baskets to children on Easter Sunday.

"The one thing that was really evident about his time here is that he cared about children," Martins said.

Little wonder, considering the pinball and video games scattered throughout his Orlando mansion, and the putt-putt golf course in the back.

"He really is just a big kid," said Martins of O'Neal, 24. "He probably portrays that to the children."

O'Neal finished his 10-minute speech to those children in that movie theater, closed with, "Peace. I love you," and strolled outside into the sun.

There were two reporters there. He squinted at them, tightened his jaw, lowered his voice about 80 decibels.

He was comfortable in there. He was not comfortable out here.

"I was one of them," he said of the children. "I was one of them."

He used to be a Julius Erving fan. One day, his father promised him that if he got a "B" on a school report card, he could attend a game and perhaps meet Erving.

"The report was about insects, roaches and ants and things like that," O'Neal said. "I didn't like it, but I got a 'B' on it. We went to the game. I got to talk to the 'Doc.' I will never forget that."

O'Neal waved good-bye and headed back to the Olympics, where thousands would spend this bright afternoon in search of memories.

None of which will last as long as the ones discovered by the children in that stale movie house, the ones who met a genie.

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