SHAQ SETS THE HOUSE ON FIRE

NBA's youngest player is already a pro-basketball superstar

A YOUNG man strolled into Boston Garden and wowed the crowd. All 7 ft., 1 in. and 303 pounds of Shaquille O'Neal - the National Basketball Association's biggest media event since Michael Jordan - came to Boston Jan. 15 for his first game against the Celtics here.

The 20-year-old, who prefers to be called Shaq, left Louisiana State University last spring as a junior and signed a reported $40 million contract with the Orlando Magic in August. That, together with a lucrative endorsement from Reebok shoes and an action-figure contract with Kenner toys, make him not only a very wealthy man, but also one of the most sought-after young superstars in professional sports.

"I would say he is the most physically gifted young man to enter the NBA since Wilt Chamberlain in 1959," says Bob Ryan, a Boston Globe sports columnist who has covered the National Basketball Association (NBA) for more than 20 years. "He combines his size with a gymnast's agility. Once he learns the nuances of the NBA, he has an opportunity to become the most powerful, pivotal force in the history of the NBA."

O'Neal seems to have made the transition from college to pro basketball without a hitch. He is fast becoming one of the best centers in the league, averaging 23.3 points, 15 rebounds, and 4.13 blocked shots per game.

Dale Brown, his former coach at Louisiana, said by phone that he knew he had someone very special in O'Neal. He worked diligently with him in regular practice and private drills to prepare him for the NBA. "At first, Shaq didn't want to work on his jump and hook shots - he was so powerful he could just dunk everything," Brown said. "So I brought in Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Bill Walton to work on that. The following year I brought in Dr. J [Julius Erving] to talk to him about school and success, because [Erving] handled that so well. I tried to get good people to talk to him so he could ... keep his feet on the ground."

And his feet are on the ground - off the court, that is. O'Neal handled Boston press and autograph-seekers as effortlessly as he does the pro game. Mobbed by journalists after practice and the game, he calmly answered questions, bantered a bit, even made jokes.

When he was asked about all the media attention, he said: "It's a job; it's not that bad. I only spend 20 minutes after practice and 20 minutes before and after games with the press."

Terry Catledge, a teammate who has the locker next to O'Neal's in Orlando, says, "It can get crazy in the locker room ... with the number of reporters, but we know what type of player he is. Playing with him makes all of us play better. He handles it all well for someone his age. He's very mature on and off the floor."

Coach Brown credits O'Neal's stability to his upbringing. His father was a career military man and a strong disciplinarian. Brown says that O'Neal grew up with a strong sense of family values. He's "very uncomplicated, very conscientious," Brown said. "He's playful. His head is out of the clouds and in the right place. I don't think anything will change him."

And the kids love this young man. Phil Rozinsky, a 14-year-old from Sharon, Mass., had a middle-school basketball game at the same university where O'Neal was practicing before the Celtics game. Phil and his teammates were walking down the hall after their game and saw Shaq. "He did this Kung Fu thing - made a weird face," the teenager said. "The guy is a real comedian. He's way more friendly than the other guys."

O'Neal, the youngest player in the NBA, was matched up with Robert Parish, the NBA's oldest player. Neither seemed daunted by the other. In fact, they seemed to bring out the best in each other in terms of fancy moves, shots, and blocks. The sold-out crowd in Boston roared with appreciation.

After the Celtics lost to the Magic, 113-94, Robert Parish said that in his 17-year career, only longtime Chicago Bulls star Artis Gilmore was physically stronger than O'Neal, but that Shaq was more athletic - "and that's a very scary thought," he said in mock seriousness. O'Neal "played very well," Parish continued. He's "very aggressive. He's a good transition player both ways, which is rare in this league. He showed me some things tonight, like the alley-oops. Once his game becomes polished he'll beco me two handfuls. He's already one handful."

O'Neal said of Parish that "he's in great shape, and he's going to be a hall-of-famer. When I take my son to the hall of fame and see Robert Parish," he said, grinning, "I can say, `Son, I played against him.' "

Mr. Ryan concludes: "The whole question with [O'Neal] is, given he has all the money he ever could have dreamed of already, does he really want to be a champion, get a ring on his finger, go down in history? Or does he just want to earn money and have a good time?

"He has it within his grasp. He now must push himself to understand there is more to master and find out if he has the scientific curiosity to find out how good he can be. Other superstars like Bird, Magic, Kareem, and Walton had that curiousity."

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