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The Votes Are In And Shaq Is NBA's...MVP

O'Neal Will Be One Ballot Shy Today of Being First Unanimous Pick for Most Valuable Player

May 09, 2000|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shaquille O'Neal, the Lakers' leader, driving force and 28-year-old revelation, will be announced as the NBA's 1999-2000 most valuable player today after receiving 121 of a possible 122 first-place votes, the highest percentage in the 45-year history of the award, several sources said Monday.

"I hope I get it," O'Neal said with a not-at-all-worried smile Monday.

There was, of course, never much doubt after the Lakers bolted from the pack and finished with one of the eight best regular-season records in NBA history.

It will be O'Neal's first MVP trophy, and he will be the first Laker MVP since Magic Johnson won the last of his three trophies in 1989-90.

The vote for O'Neal this time was, as expected, a slam dunk, with no double-teams in sight.

Since March, with O'Neal dominating the league, there was really only one nagging question about the MVP vote:

Would O'Neal, who had been named to the all-NBA first team only once in his previous seven seasons, become the award's first unanimous winner?

"That would be a nice accolade," O'Neal said. "I had a pretty good year. It'd be nice to be appreciated. . . ."

Previously, the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan and the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird had received the highest percentages of first-place votes. In 1995-96 Jordan received 109 of 113--96.5%. Bird in 1984-85 and again in 1985-86, received 73 of 78, 93.6%.

According to one source, CNN sports anchor Fred Hickman denied O'Neal the unanimous tally by giving Philadelphia 76er guard Allen Iverson his first-place vote.

That left O'Neal with 121 of the 122, or 99.2%, of the first-place votes cast by writers and broadcasters from each NBA city.

Besides leading the Lakers to a league-best 67 victories, O'Neal led the league in scoring, with a 29.7-point average, and in field-goal percentage, 57.4%. He was second in rebounding at 13.6 a game, third in blocked shots at 3.03, and had a career-high average of 3.8 assists.

O'Neal became the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976-77 to finish in the top three in points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and blocked shots.

And, with Coach Phil Jackson pressing O'Neal to become an all-purpose player, O'Neal also was named to the all-defense second team, the first defensive honor of his career.

O'Neal played in 79 games, more than in any of his previous three injury-marred Laker seasons. He also blocked more shots, scored more points, had more assists and grabbed more rebounds, fulfilling every expectation heaped upon him since Executive Vice President Jerry West signed him as a free agent after O'Neal had spent four seasons in Orlando.

"Somewhere along the way, a different player emerged this year," West said recently of O'Neal.

"His numbers have always been incredible, but the way he has played the game, the way he has approached the game this year has been unbelievably gratifying for me to see.

"There have been doubters out there. . . . This is an unbelievably proud man, and he has worked very hard at his game. . . .

"Here's a guy, just because he wears a big S on his arm, he's supposed to win every game. And it just doesn't happen. But I'm really proud of him, unbelievably proud of what he's done."

Although the voting was conducted before the playoffs, O'Neal has continued to feast in postseason play, leading all playoff participants with 30.7 scoring and 16.8 rebounding averages and, after struggling in two games at Sacramento in Round 1, leading the Lakers to a 1-0 lead over the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.

In his previous six trips to the playoffs, O'Neal averaged 26.7 points and 11.1 rebounds.

O'Neal pointed to the success of his first four years in Orlando, and said that this was the first time he has been injury-free as a Laker.

"My first four years were pretty dominant," O'Neal said. "And when I came in here, I was supposed to be dominant, but I had a couple injuries. And now I'm knickknack injury-free."

Laker backup center John Salley, a veteran of three previous championship teams, said that he can attest to O'Neal's physical condition and strength from his regular practice regimen.

"I hit Shaq every day [in practice], whether we're playing or not, just to get him used to it," Salley said. "I try every tactic I learned [with the Detroit Pistons] from Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn. . . .

"It really doesn't work. I wind up going to the chiropractor every afternoon."

O'Neal also alluded to the cohesiveness of this current Laker squad, a far cry from the tension and little jealousies that tore at the team in previous seasons.

"I have a pretty good team," O'Neal said. "I would say this is the best team I've been on. Everybody's getting along, we're just playing well.

"I'm just trying to get into a zone. I'm on a mission. I'm just playing my game."

Earlier in the season, Jackson said it was good to see O'Neal receiving the plaudits. But Jackson said he was also pleased that O'Neal was focusing on a bigger goal.

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