O’Neal Becoming the Center of the ‘90s


Wading through a horde of autograph seekers outside Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., toward a bus full of waiting teammates, Shaquille O’Neal smiles and winks, and says the attention from the crowd--some of whom needled him mercilessly during a loss to Duke less than an hour earlier--"makes me feel like Michael Jordan.”

At the tender age of 18, O’Neal already has been christened “Center of the ‘90s,” which doesn’t seem at all far-fetched when you realize that as a sophomore he’s averaging 28 points (eighth in the nation), 14.5 rebounds (first) and 5.1 blocked shots (fourth) for the Tigers while still learning the game.

“The thing that’s so shocking is that there’s still so much room for improvement,” said Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino, who once coached Patrick Ewing with the New York Knicks. “He’s the only player I’ve seen in quite some time that would be the number one pick in the draft any of his four years, if he came out.”

If he stays in school, which may be hard given the size of the contract he would command by coming out this June, O’Neal is all but conceded one of the three spots likely to be reserved for collegiate players on the 1992 Olympic basketball team.

Jordan didn’t become JORDAN until after the 1984 Games; should O’Neal make his mark alongside the professionals in Barcelona, the 7-foot-1, 295-pound frame with a medal dangling off his chest might cast a much bigger shadow than did the Chicago Bulls superstar.


“He has to be the center of the ‘90s,” said Duke center Christian Laettner, who must content himself with all-American candidacy. “People don’t realize how big he is because of how well he moves. I consider myself a good-moving big guy, but it’s fun to watch him.”

Entering Cameron for the recent game with the Blue Devils, O’Neal, dressed in cotton shirt and blue jeans with Walkman headphones around his neck, doesn’t look so imposing. Rather, he looks very much like any other kid who might idolize a professional superstar -- though admittedly a lot taller.

But after he changes into his uniform and the game begins, it’s a different story. O’Neal seems to swallow up the court, dwarfing the 6-11, 270-pound Laettner, let alone gnats such as Bill McCaffery and Bobby Hurley.

Unfortunately for LSU, on this day those two, and medium-sized players such as Grant and Thomas Hill, cut off the passing lanes, limiting O’Neal to nine shots and a paltry 15 points, both season lows.

Afterward, O’Neal is wearing the same amiable expression he had before the game, charitably saying he played a lousy game and it was his fault that LSU lost.

Asked if he wanted to yell at the other players to get him the ball, O’Neal said the thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“What does yelling do? I know they were trying their best,” he said. “Yelling isn’t my style. If it didn’t work today, you come back and try to do better the next time.”

“That’s the best thing about him,” said LSU Coach Dale Brown. “His world doesn’t rise and fall on wins and losses. He has no ego at all.”

His teammates agree, adding that O’Neal is nothing more than one of the guys. One reason may be because last season, that’s about all he was to the Tigers. Despite a storied career at Cole High School in San Antonio, where he led the team to a 68-1 record and a state championship, O’Neal went to Baton Rouge and found himself the third spoke in a wheel powered by the jump shots of guard Chris Jackson and the inside game of 7-footer Stanley Roberts.

“That was very difficult for me,” O’Neal admitted. “Coach’s philosophy is if you’re open, shoot it, and Chris was so quick with the ball that every time he touched it and made a move he was open, so he shot it most of the time. The only time I got the ball really was on rebounds.”

O’Neal still averaged 13.9 points and 12 rebounds and had a Southeastern Conference-record 115 blocked shots. When Jackson left for the NBA, Roberts went to Europe and Maurice Williamson was declared academically ineligible, the scoring onus fell on O’Neal.

Brown showed his confidence by naming the youngster a co-captain at the end of the 1989-90 season, and O’Neal, who had only an 18-inch vertical jump during his senior year of high school, did his part by working out and increasing his leap to 42 inches. With his arms outstretched, he can touch a spot 2 1/2 feet above the rim. That, combined with his strength, leaves O’Neal with little need for fancy footwork in the lane.

Thus, terms such as “Shaqnificent” have been added to the basketball lexicon.

So far, the only glitch in O’Neal’s season -- he has had double figures in points and rebounds in 23 of 26 games -- has been the physical pounding he has endured from smaller, less-talented players literally grasping for some sort of equalizer. At the same time, O’Neal says he has been whistled for phantom fouls because those opponents tend to flop to the floor whenever he comes around.

“The refs always assume I did something but there are a lot of actors in the Southeastern Conference. A lot of people must be related to Marlon Brando,” O’Neal said. “The only complaint I have is when I get the ball and go strong, use my Akeem-like post-up moves, and someone guarding me goes ‘Oooh’ and the referee assumes I did something wrong.

“There are three or four guys touching me every time I get the ball. My hands are big, I’m strong, I get fouled all the time. That’s the only way that they can get the ball from me.”

Brown has argued that inferior officiating eventually will drive his center and other talented big men out of the collegiate ranks and into the pros. O’Neal said he has no particular desire to go pro early, in part because his father, Phillip Harrison, a U.S. Army sergeant, has insisted that Shaquille stay in school.

Recently, however, Harrison said that if his son (who uses his mother’s surname) is going to be subjected to such hooliganism from opponents, he wouldn’t stand in O’Neal’s way if he chose to leave early.

Pro scouts, eager to have him, regarded the statement as providing an out for O’Neal should he decide to accept the NBA’s largess. But his teammates say they expect him back in Baton Rouge next fall.

“I know about the money and all that but I think he’ll stay,” said guard Mike Hansen. “I think he wants to learn more before he goes pro. The guys there are as big as he is so he wants to have a bread-and-butter shot like a fadeaway or hook.”

Should that happen, college coaches nationwide would want to petition the NCAA to make O’Neal turn pro early. It might also make him the center of attention for this decade and beyond.