ATLANTA — Shaquille O'Neal finally won something.
Although he played a piddling 5 minutes 14 seconds of the United States' game against Yugoslavia, after entering the Georgia Dome in the worst-looking hat I have ever seen outside of a Dr. Seuss book, the $120-million manchild now bound for Los Angeles can finally call himself a champion. May it be the beginning of a trend.
I trust Shaq will treasure his gold medallion more than Muhammad Ali did. A halftime presentation here Saturday night, at which Ali gratefully accepted a replacement to his missing 1960 Olympic medal, served as a touching reminder that a lot can happen to a young man, the older he grows. Ali either mislaid or discarded his Rome pendant. Put yours someplace safe, Shaq.
As with so many of these Dream Teamers, championships have been difficult to come by for O'Neal. There have been neither NBA nor NCAA coronations for all but Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon (pro) and Grant Hill (college), so O'Neal now understands how much that 1992 Barcelona experience meant to Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson and Charles Barkley.
Playing fewer minutes than any teammate but Hill--who wasn't able to play at all--O'Neal might even appreciate more what a bench-warmer goes through, disappointed at not playing, but nonetheless enjoying the champagne shampoo.
He made one basket.
Didn't get one rebound.
Didn't try a free throw.
(A bad break for Yugoslavia.)
Even O'Neal's only highlight, a block of a shot by the immortal Zeljko Rebraca, was shown on TV to be goaltending, clearly. The most successful moment for Shaq all night came when he dug his shoulder into Vlade Divac's sternum, spun and scored. Vlade, I understand, was traded immediately after the game to Brazil.
A chrome-domed Malone, a Reggie in ruby goggles and an O'Neal in what looked like a baker's cap filed into the Georgia Dome for their final night as teammates. Yugoslavia's guys were so nervous (not) before the game that Divac organized a game of soccer in the hallway. As no-lose situations go, theirs was a doozy.
Ah, but perhaps no one explained this to one Zarko Paspalj, who came out shooting jump shots, unshaven and unguarded, until the score was 23-16 and the Yugoslavs were thinking to themselves: "Dream THAT!"
Alas, it didn't last.
Admiral Robinson came to the rescue, scoring nearly one-third of America's points. Miller contributed 20 points and offered to engage Alexander Djordjevic and most of the Yugoslavia bench in an international incident. Barkley added his own tender touch, fouling out and barking at a referee: "Where you from, man?"
As for O'Neal, he played exactly 68 seconds of the second half, getting plenty of rest for that upcoming Laker season.
"This is what we have all been waiting for," said Penny Hardaway, after his last night as a teammate of Shaq's, even in NBA All-Star games. "We really hushed a lot of the critics and won the gold medal."
Yes, most of those critics were anticipating bronze, Penny, or, at best, silver. What a shocker, this USA victory! Lake Placid revisited.
Pippen, who now has enough NBA diamond rings and Olympic gold medals to open a shop on Rodeo Drive, called this success more satisfying than the Barcelona one, by virtue of "playing in front of our home crowd. This group of guys is very loose and flamboyant and fun. This was just a lot different than 1992, which was a lot of veterans."
Stockton, who snuggled the game ball like a boy with a teddy bear, thought this Olympics different more for the U.S. opponents. He said, "The newness has worn off for the other teams, and maybe, to a degree, for us too. The fact that the 'Dream Team' is there just doesn't magically make everybody awe struck. It also doesn't necessarily make us play our best."
And Barkley said: "We've got to stay strong, because every four years, it's going to be a dog fight from now on."
He pretty much let his teammates do the talking, much as they did most of the playing. His smile of the night came at halftime, standing directly behind Ali for a group portrait.
That is something else Shaq should save. After the game, Atlanta officials issued a news release saying that Muhammad Ali was presented a duplicate medal because his previous one had been "stripped for dodging the draft," which was totally untrue. That's why you should hang onto your memories, because so many people have short ones.