LOS ANGELES — Shaquille O'Neal, the 7 ft., 1 in., 320-pound Compassionate Capitalist who last July signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, has often been called pro basketball's next great center. Also its next great drawing card; maker of prime-time TV commercials; and movie star a la carte.
The figure on his Laker contract would pay the salary of the president of the United States for the next 600 years!
On this, the 50th anniversary of the National Basketball Association, O'Neal is to his employers what Harold (Red) Grange was to college football; Maurice Richard to the National Hockey League; and Babe Ruth to Major League baseball.
But professional athletes aren't just athletes anymore, they are also celebrities. Often they charge money for signing autographs; appear in movies; guest star in sitcoms; make millions doing commercials and writing books; and are paid to wear certain labels of clothing.
In show-biz locations like New York and Los Angeles, if you own a sports team, you've got to have a marquee name to make it with the public. Look at centers Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who have carried the Lakers at the box office since they moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1962.
It used to be that when an NBA franchise didn't have the steak, it sold the sizzle. Now it sells both.
O'Neal is probably the prime cut of pro basketball superstars right now. He has to be considered an aspiring member of the "I Will Set Out the House for You Club." In fact, the Lakers season-ticket only, $600-a-person courtside seats were gone soon after they signed the Shaq.
In addition, O'Neal is still young. He has the kind of catchy nickname that everyone remembers and whenever he dunks a basketball, he sets off earthquake alarms at California's Caltech tracking facilities. Shaq is also good for the economy. He owns more cars than General Motors.
O'Neal, originally the No. 1 draft pick in 1993 of the Orlando Magic, is a well-coordinated athlete who has the ability to play both ends of the floor, meaning both offense and defense. While Shaq has a flair for blocking shots, the rest of his defense has always depended on how much he wanted to devote to that side of the game on a particular night.
Yet except for that, a career free-throw average of under 55 percent and a love affair with the movie camera that may at some point affect his concentration, Shaq doesn't have many disadvantages. Call him immature, after viewing the Superman tattoo on his left arm, at your own risk.
The owners of the Orlando Magic - despite rumors that some of his teammates resented the fact that Shaq's fingerprints were often the only ones on the basketball and that he didn't like to practice - wanted to keep him. The Magic reportedly offered him a $115 million seven-year contract before they stopped.
WHO can forget that Orlando won 41 games in Shaq's rookie year; 50 his second year; 57 his third; and 60 in 1995-96. During his four years with the Magic, O'Neal averaged 27.2 points per game; 12.5 rebounds; 2.8 blocked shots; and 2.4 assists. The Shaq is like a big genie who has been let out of the bottle and decided that pro basketball is the quickest way to get Hollywood to notice you.
Historically the NBA was born right after the end of World War II at an arena owner's convention in New York. Even with pro ice hockey, the rodeo, the circus, the ice shows, etc., making money for them, they were still looking for something that would keep the lights on in their buildings another 50 or 60 nights a year.
The owners chose pro basketball and were swimming in red ink until two things happened. Danny Biasone, the owner of the Syracuse Nationals invented a 24-second clock. This speeded up what had been a dull "hold the ball until you get a good percentage shot game" into racehorse basketball. In other words, the team in possession of the ball had to shoot within 24 seconds or give up the ball to its opponent. Eventually, with the exposure TV gave its game, the public made the sport big league.
The other was George Mikan, who played at 6 ft., 10 in., whose devastating hook shot was good almost any night for 20 or more points a game when a player scoring eight points considered that a good night's work. Mikan, an early arrival in the basketball Hall of Fame, was the NBA's first superstar; the first man to dominate the game. In fact, Mikan was so good that when AP ran a poll to determine the best basketball player of the first half of this century, Mikan topped the balloting.