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War Starts for O’Neal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Orlando Magic has apparently decided on its opening offer to retain free-agent-to-be Shaquille O’Neal, a starting price of $10.2 million for this season and $54.76 million over the next four.

The Orlando Sentinel reported the figures, citing anonymous sources. The paper said confirmation came from the Magic’s front office and insiders close to O’Neal.

This news emerges as it has become apparent that the Lakers would be O’Neal’s first choice should he decide not to re-sign with the Magic. Laker officials are prohibited by tampering rules from commenting.

How the Magic came up with the $10.2 million as an opening bid is not known, but it probably doesn’t matter. If Alonzo Mourning, not even the best center in Florida, can get $13 million from the Miami Heat as rumored, would O’Neal sign for less, before or after Mourning does his deal?

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O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato, will have a counteroffer, and then the real negotiating begins. The party will really get rolling July 1, the day free agency becomes official, the offers come in from the outside, and the Magic sweats out the possibility of seeing the end of the great run before it ever got started.

If O’Neal bolts, Horace Grant, who has an out in his contract, probably will leave too. If that happens, it’s Penny Hardaway against the world for Orlando.

“We’re not going to negotiate through the news media,” Magic President Bob Vander Weide told the Sentinel. “But we think we can put together a win-win situation that will make Shaq happy with the dollars and happy with the competitive direction of this franchise.”

Armato continues to stress that money will not make the decision. But just in case it will have a say, the Lakers are in the running, able to open with about $9 million for next season and increase that by 20% each of the next six years.

Asked how many teams his client will consider, Armato said, “I don’t mean to be evasive, but I don’t know. On or before July 1, teams may make moves to free up more [salary] cap room or alter their roster to secure him or tempt him.

“The most important thing for him is to be able to play on a team that has a very, very good opportunity to win a championship.”

This much is also known about the situation less than two weeks before open bidding begins:

--The Magic continues on the inside track, and not just because it can go over the salary cap to sign its own free agent, thereby being able to offer the most money. O’Neal has moved family members and friends there.

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--At the same time, he has grown tired and frustrated with the intense scrutiny, leading all the way to many aspects of his private life, that comes with being the biggest celebrity in Orlando. Not having to deal with that, at least to such an extreme, in Los Angeles is appealing.

--O’Neal and Laker guard Nick Van Exel did not have lunch together in Los Angeles a few weeks back. They did, however, talk on the phone.


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