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For a Day, Shaq Is Just a Big Cat

If Shaquille O’Neal is at his best when he’s in a lighthearted mood, as Phil Jackson implies, then the Philadelphia 76ers are in trouble.

O’Neal was definitely in touch with his inner child Tuesday afternoon, scooping from a giant mound of ice cream as he toured the Philadelphia Zoo.

Instantly, O’Neal turned into as big an attraction as any of the animals. Dads turned their camcorders toward him. Little kids darted in and around his legs, at once attracted to him, awed by him and a little scared of him.

How big is he?

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“Large,” said 5-year-old Janine Roberson, who stood alongside Shaq and hugged his kneecap.

She answered most questions by nodding or shaking her head, but she did have one thought to declare: “We want the Sixers to win.”

There was nothing this zoo could do to make O’Neal feel as if he were in his natural habitat. Philadelphia fans shouted out “Sixers!” or, “Iverson!” or, “Mutombo!”

But officials from “America’s First Zoo” gave him top treatment. O’Neal received a guided tour from Pete Hoskins, the zoo’s president and CEO. O’Neal stayed past closing time, and they kept the ice cream stand open for him.

He and his party were whisked around on golf carts. They stopped at the new rare-animal building, which features two koalas on loan from the San Diego Zoo; the primate building, the big-cat building and the reptile house. They walked with the wallabies, and drove by African wild dogs and giraffes. Unlike Phil Bronstein, Sharon Stone’s husband, they did not walk through the Komodo dragon pen.

In the most dramatic moment of the day, Chaka, the biggest, baddest gorilla in the zoo, suddenly charged at O’Neal’s friend, Joe Cavallero, and pounded on the glass window that separated them. (Apparently, Chaka knew better than to mess with Shaq).

One big difference between boys and grown men is that men have the means to fulfill their wishes. That’s why President Clinton, freed from the responsibilities of running the nation, is popping up at every major sporting event. And it’s why O’Neal likes to visit zoos around the world.

“I never got to go when I was little,” he said.

He said the first zoo he saw was in San Antonio, where he went to high school. He since has seen zoos in Singapore, Australia, Germany and in most NBA cities.

O’Neal is fascinated by animals--although he likes to hunt them as well. He is a devotee of “The Crocodile Hunter.”

“That’s all I watch,” he said. “That guy’s crazy.”

Don’t be surprised if the Big Graduate goes back to school to study animals.

“I’m going to get my master’s in zoology,” O’Neal said. “Homeboy zoology: Rottweilers, pit bulls, German shepherds.”

Actually, O’Neal already sounds knowledgeable about the animal kingdom. As they gazed at a huge rhinoceros and a friend wondered if tigers ever attacked rhinoceroses, O’Neal offered a quick lesson.

“Tigers are not in Africa,” he said. “Tigers are in Siberia and India.”

Jackson would be happy to see O’Neal in his cerebral, playful mood. Jackson doesn’t believe in playing with anger; that’s not very Zen-like. He doesn’t want to see O’Neal simply try to overwhelm Dikembe Mutombo in the low post.

“I’m really cautioning him that this isn’t about power,” Jackson said. “This is about finesse, particularly at this time. He’s tremendously finesseful or has great ability to finesse. When he’s light and jocular and funny and clowning, a lot of times he uses his finesse and athleticism [more] than when he’s double-teamed and he has to bull through things.”

Jackson doesn’t want to see a repeat of Game 3, when O’Neal, making his move to the basket, was twice called for elbowing Mutombo and fouled out with 2:21 to play.

O’Neal accused Mutombo of flopping to draw calls. Mutombo called that “stupid.”

During Tuesday’s media session, O’Neal said the rhetoric was “nothing but us trying to bring the ratings up even higher.”

That drew a laugh from a crowd of reporters. O’Neal has been a hit in the interview room this week. As he normally does this time of year, he has ditched his usual mumble mode and cranked out the sound bites.

He led off Tuesday by saying, “Whether you win by 20 or win by one, you win. For example, if you had a Mercedes-Benz with the rims or without the rims, guess what? You still have a Benz. So it doesn’t matter to me how we win, as long as we get the job done.”

When the crowd chuckled, he said, “Y’all like my quotes, don’t you? I’m a quotatious kind of guy.”

Shaq likes to be liked. He’s happy when one of his lines goes over well. He also is comfortable being a gigantic, impossible-to-miss celebrity--even if he did bump his head on the door coming out of the lion house.

He is at ease among the public and in crowds. At the zoo Tuesday he tried to be accommodating.

Shaq, can I get an autograph?

“I’ll get you on the way out, bro.”

Shaq, take it easy on the Sixers.

“Can’t do that.”

O’Neal did sign autographs for those who waited around by his limousine. And he left having converted at least one Philadelphia resident.

“I’ll be rooting for you,” said Hoskins, the zoo’s president.

O’Neal could use whatever allies he can find tonight in the First Union Center. Now that place is a zoo.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.


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