THE NBA: 1994-95 PREVIEW : A Magic Kingdom or Another Shaq-Sized Setback? : Pro basketball: O'Neal ready to seriously contend for NBA title with addition of Horace Grant, but growing pains may still get in the way of young team.


They don't build dynasties the way they used to.

Scene 1: Here's General Manager Pat Williams of the Orlando Magic sticking in his thumb and pulling out the plum of the 1992 draft, 20-year-old Shaquille O'Neal.

Scene 2: Here's O'Neal, 21, tooling around Los Angeles the summer after his first NBA season in the car he garages here just so he can have wheels whenever he's in town. Shaq's working on his first movie, "Blue Chips," and has just met 21-year-old Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, who also has a part.

Having played pickup ball with him, Shaq is impressed enough to pick up his car phone, call the office and tell the Magic brass to take another look at this guy. Hardaway's first workout had been so-so, but the Magic bring him back, fall in love with him and make a draft-day deal for him.

Scene 3: Here's O'Neal, 22, driving free agent Horace Grant around Orlando to show he isn't the jerk some people are saying he is. Shaq's second season has been highlighted by an All-Star game in which Western Conference veterans ganged up on the young star of stage, screen and rap music, bumming corporate America's young hero out so much, he charged around the NBA like an angry bull, dropping large numbers on anyone he could identify who helped do this.

"Other teams were telling him, 'Shaq don't work hard.' 'Shaq's an arrogant person, don't go down there,' " O'Neal says later. "I just wanted him to see me."

Grant, convinced that this great big lug is really only a huge teddy bear, signs with the Magic, giving the team the perfect self-effacing power forward to complete the puzzle.

Scene 4: Here are Shaq, Penny and Horace accepting the Larry O'Brien Trophy from David Stern after winning the NBA title. This, of course, is only their first of many. What's the Celtics' record, eight in a row? Should be no problem.


OK, there is one little problem.

"I think our goal is a championship, and with a team like this, we shouldn't think anything less," O'Neal says, grinning. "But we've got to win a playoff game first."

That would certainly help. Shaq and his teammates boogied on the court last spring after clinching their first postseason berth, but they drew the wrong team for their maiden voyage. The fast-closing Indiana Pacers swept them in three games, the first two in Orlando.

The thing was all but over when Byron Scott dropped a three-pointer on them at the end of Game 1 to win it, 89-88.

Four days later, when the Pacers polished them off in Indianapolis, Magic players could attest that there was, indeed, something different about the playoffs.

"Byron, he's been there," Nick Anderson said. "He made it when it counted.

"The intensity level. Every basket counts. You've got to play every play like it's the last play. You've got to come to play and play the whole game. Every turnover, every missed shot, every missed rebound, every pass that you had the opportunity to score off of--everything counts. You can't fall asleep because in the blink of an eye, you're dead."

The sneaker companies might dote on young stars, but NBA coaches understand what it takes to win a title: experience, and lots of it. Michael Jordan, the greatest player who ever lived, didn't win a title until his seventh season. It took three tries for the Bulls to get past the hoary, old Detroit Pistons, who gave the youngsters some experiences to remember: Scottie Pippen's migraine, Jordan challenging his teammates to stand up to "the Bad Boys."

"I think the expectations are unrealistic, to be totally honest with you," says Magic Coach Brian Hill, the man first in line to deal with them.

"Last year was our first year in the playoffs and we didn't win a playoff game and for us to be expected to be in the NBA finals this year really kind of borders on the ridiculous, I think. . . .

"I think there's a process you have to go through to get there and you have to learn what it takes to get there and I think history proves that. It took the Pistons three years to break through on Boston. It took the Bulls three years to finally break through the Pistons. It took New York three years to finally break through Chicago.

"I don't see why the process is going to be any different for us. I think we're going to have to learn what it takes and I think we're going to have to probably suffer some more playoff hardship before we ultimately get to where we want to go."


Here's Shaq, finally settling into the life of a superstar.

Of course, players resented him. Only Jordan ever made as much commercially as he did and it took him years to build up what O'Neal walked into as a rookie.

A competitor such as Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning might have been offended at his very presence. Whether Mourning shared the sentiment or not, Hornet officials said they would have drafted Mourning ahead of Shaq, praising their player's work ethic and questioning O'Neal's.

For his part, O'Neal would call it press hype. Then when the session was over, he'd often turn to a reporter and say, "Alonzo Mourning, huh?"

But they became teammates at the World Championships last summer and, as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had after making a commercial together, became friendly. From now on, O'Neal and Mourning may be fierce rivals but not bitter ones.

"A lot of guys perceive me as being intense, intimidating," Mourning says. "They're just going by what they see when they compete against me, but by hanging out with me, they understand I'm fun to be around. I joke around a lot. There's a lot of things I like doing that don't really connect with how I play.

"Shaq and I had fun together, had a chance to talk. He's fun to be around. I like his personality. He's a big kid in a whole lot of ways. A lot of people wouldn't see that, but he is."

This is how the world changes, slowly.

If the best team never to win a playoff game has to have its heart broken some more to acquire the character it will need, it had better get to it. The world hates to be kept waiting.

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