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Shaquille O’Neal: A Celebrity for the New World

He jams, he raps, he sells—what can’t this superstar do?

Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic

Shaquille O'Neal #33 of the Orlando Magic looks on before a foul shot during a game in East Rutherford, NJ on March 4th, 1993.

Rogers Photo Archive/Getty Images

Boom! Boom! Boom! Whoooomp! Whoomp ta da whoomp! Boom! Boom!

Try to imagine a jackhammer just behind your left ear drilling into a slab of hot, greasy asphalt. The noise is so loud you can feel the air, thick with sandy particles of sound, blowing over you like jet-engine exhaust.

BOOM! BOOM! WHOOMP POW BOOOM!

It’s the bass line from Dr. Dre’s nasty anthem “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” blasting through a deck of 12 industrial-strength speakers in the back end of Shaquille O’Neals new toy, a customized Suburban (license plate: “Shaq-fu”). Shaquille is at the wheel of the burgundy Chevy, running a red light on a two-lane road a few miles from his house in a gated residential area just outside Orlando, Fla.

Whoomp! Here he is! Known to all simply as Shaq, the crown prince of the NBA is picking up speed as he heads toward the freeway.

“We’re boomin’!” Shaq exclaims. He’s also chatting with his girlfriend on his car phone, so accustomed to the din that he can sweet-talk her without turning the sound down a notch. After he hangs up, he turns his 7-foot-one-inch, 305-pound frame in my direction and offers a huge grin: “Whaddya think?” I tell him I can feel something melting in my inner ear.

One of Shaq’s favorite pastimes, boomin’ involves driving around Orlando considerably faster than the speed limit while blasting a selection of Shaq rap faves, everything from Da Lench Mob and Terminator X to A Tribe Called Quest.

It’s 3 p.m. on the day of Michael Jordan’s retirement, two days before training camp opens for Shaq’s team, the Orlando Magic, a lowly NBA expansion team until their prince arrived. So far, Shaq has put in a typical celebrity workday. It started with an 8 a.m. appearance on CBS This Morning, done at the local CBS affiliate, followed by a visit to another local station, where he chatted via satellite with a dozen local-TV reporters around the country. Then he rushed off to a book signing at a mall, followed by even more TV interviews — then a photo session.

At the mall, Shaq dutifully autographed 300 copies of Shaq Attaq!, which celebrates his rookie year in the NBA. By the time he left, he had gone through nine pens and collected a stack of business cards and brochures from people offering to tint his windows or landscape his back yard.

Here’s what else happened today: An Orlando Sentinel sports columnist complained that, so far, Shaq has “simply enjoyed being Shaq the celebrity.” USA Today’s NBA preview grumbled that the Magic star “did so much traveling this summer, he never had a chance to work on his game.” And just hours after the book signing, a caller on a local talk-radio show called Shaq a jerk for not signing a few hundred more books (although, in fact, it was the bookstore, not Shaq, that set the cutoff point).

Thus the necessity of boomin’. “When I’m stressed out, I get into my truck and pump up the volume,” Shaq says. “I get the boom going —1,900 watts — and I go riding around, just thinking, wondering what I want to do.

“When I get into a good beat,” he adds, “I get a smile, and then I get to laughing, and once I’m laughing, I’m OK. Rap and R&B are what saves me. It’s always been my stress reliever.”

With Jordan stepping out of the spotlight, there’s plenty of pressure in Shaq’s immediate future. Only 21, he has emerged as the NBA’s Grand Slammer, the Air Apparent, the league’s most heralded newcomer in more than a decade. Perhaps someday he’ll develop a crunch-time shot, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook or Wilt Chamberlain’s fall-away jumper. But for now, Shaq is most famous for his volcanic, backboard-shattering dunk. During the last season it was hard to go a week without seeing a highlight clip of Shaq slamming the ball through the hoop, punctuated with a ferocious ninja cry.

For knowledgeable fans, the dunk is a one-dimensional weapon, little more impressive than a good no-look pass. But for rambunctious young fans — the ones who pay $130 for sneakers — the Dunk, with its shuddering violence and sudden fury, is exactly the sort of display that makes instant phenoms.

It wasn’t until his senior year in high school that Shaq mastered the dunk. That’s when things started to happen. “It changed the way people played me,” he recalls with delight. “They started holding me and kicking me and triple-teaming me. They’d do anything so I wouldn’t dunk on ’em. It was so embarrassing for them.”

In his last two seasons of high-school ball, his team went 68-1. At Louisiana State University, he was hacked and attacked every game, yet he still found ways to be up among the nation’s leaders in rebounds and blocked shots. After his junior year, at 20, with nothing left to prove, he turned pro, signing a seven-year, $40 million contract with the Magic The day after the Magic picked O’Neal in the draft, when fans called the team’s offices, the phone system was playing the B-52v “Love Shack.” The pre-Shaq Orlando Magic had been a woeful 21-61; with Shaq, they went 41-41, narrowly missing the playoffs.

“Shaq gave us a presence, a sense of self-confidence,” says Magic general manager Pat Williams. “We used to think, ‘Maybe we can be respectable.’ We’d worry about the other teams. But now they have to worry about us.”

But for all Shaq’s accomplishments on the court, he real Shaq Attack has taken place high above the rim, in the dizzying, cathode-ray, cable-ready, CD-friendly, cellular-driven New World marketplace of global images and products.

In a universe where Nike and Reebok are youth-culture brand names just as potent as MTV, sports has gone showbiz — big time. Thanks to his cleverly packaged TV commercials, Shaq is himself a brand name. You won’t hear his agent, Leonard Armato, compare him to just another jock like Wilt or Kareem. Armato calls Shaq a combination of Bambi and the Terminator.

“In a lot of ways, the NBA has already become an entertainment company,” says Armato, sitting in his Century City, Calif, office, whose walls are decorated with Shaq merchandise. “[NBA commissioner] David Stern says it’s just like Disney. He’s got these characters, Michael Jordan and Shaq, who sell merchandise the same way Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sell toys for Disney.”

Before Shaq had played even a minute in the NBA, he had signed a multiyear contract with Reebok, valued at close to $20 million. Other endorsement deals, which include pitches for Pepsi, Spalding and Kenner Toys, brought him $8 million in his rookie year alone. And he earns every penny — Reebok expects its line of Shaq apparel to do $100 million of business in 1994.

Advertising Age recently polled its readers, asking who was the most likely heir to Jordan as endorsement king. Shaq won by a landslide, collecting 75 percent of the vote.

Shaq owes much of his endorsement clout to his youth-culture credibility, which in turn provides him with access to the worlds of hip-hop and Hollywood. His first test comes with the October release of his debut album. Shaq Diesel, on Jive Records, offers such rap songs as “(I Know I Got) Skillz” and “Shoot Pass Slam,” which will also serve as the soundtrack for his next Reebok commercial. February will bring Shaq’s first major screen role, in Blue Chips, a William Friedkin-directed drama that stars Nick Nolte as a coach forced to bend the rules to compete in the cutthroat world of college basketball.

In an era in which the dividing line between hoops and hip-hop is almost indistinguishable, Shaq has emerged as a New World celebrity. Armed with an infectious grin and an instantly identifiable skill — the Dunk — Shaq is a perfect ambassador for the NBA. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s a youth-culture hero with the global right stuff — a sly sense of humor, deadpan cool and incomparable physical authority.

“It used to be that the personality cult was reserved for movie stars and rock performers,” says Tom Carmody, vice president of Reebok’s sports division. “But for kids, what is cool is now being determined by athletes, too. They respect Michael Jordan, but he’s not part of their generation. So they adopted Shaq.”

In the rarefied realm of New World celebrity, you are nothing without your own TV commercial. In 30 seconds, sports stars — just like campaigning politicians — can define or refine their image without any interference from pesky reporters or a skeptical public. Larry Johnson is Grandmama. Bo knows. Charles Barkley kicks Godzilla’s ass (afterward, Charles to Godz: “You ever thought about wearing shoes?”). Deion Sanders is Sander Claus.

In Shaq’s groundbreaking Reebok commercial, he impresses his NBA elders with a feat of superhuman strength — shattering the backboard with a thunderous dunk. The commercial is so vivid that it doesn’t matter whether it airs in Detroit or Paris or Warsaw, Poland. The Dunk needs no translation. Neither does Shaq. In Tokyo, he hung out with Japan’s leading sumo wrestler. In Singapore, he hosted a Shaq apparel fashion show. And in Sydney, Australia, he shared the bill at a rap concert with Fu-Schnickens and Ice Cube.

A key strategist behind the Shaq marketing blitz, Reebok’s Carmody admits he was worried when he first spoke to the firm’s Japanese partners about the Far East promotional tour the basketball star took in August. The Japanese executives were openly skeptical of Shaq’s drawing power, saying that none of their contemporaries seemed to know who he was.

“But everyone under 21 knew him,” says Carmody, who went on the trip with O’Neal “All the kids were crazy about him. For them, sports and music are a universal language — and America is the language maker in the world of sports. We had pandemonium.”

Des is running his razor along the top of Shaq’s head, carving it down to the bone. “I’m giving him a bald fade,” Des says cheerfully, shaving rows of hair like he would mow a lawn. “All the basketball players get it.”

Shaq is sitting in the chair at Desly’s International Hair, a scruffy, one-room barbershop near Orlando’s old downtown. His clean head is an unspoken debt he owes his basketball elders. Ever since Kareem and Michael opted for shaved do’s, the look has become almost mandatory for younger players.

Shaq stops each week to see Des, who makes a big fuss over his celebrity client, teasing and clowning with him, running a line of motor-mouth patter.

“Shaq went to Japan and got his hair cut,” Des says horrified. “Came back with all these bumps on the back of his head!”

Shaq jives as good as he gets. As Des massages his head with cherry alcohol, Shaq inquires about a painting Des has for sale, depicting a man watching a ballerina leap in the air. Des says Shaq can have it for $250. “What’s it mean?” Shaq asks. Des giggles. “It don’t mean anything.”

Shaq looks unconvinced. “Every painting has a meaning,” he insists. Des says with a shrug, “They don’t all have meanings.”

Shaq wiggles his finger at Des. “Well, if it don’t mean anything, then it ain’t worth $250.”

Eventually Shaq finds a painting he likes more, a portrait of a 19th-century black cavalryman, known as a buffalo soldier. It’s a present for his father, a just-retired Army sergeant. Des claims it’s worth $200. Shaq negotiates the price down to $125 — with an extra $5 for the mound of chocolate mints he devoured during his shave.

“I know how to get deals,” Shaq says with a sassy smile as he drives home. He proudly notes that he owns seven cars but only paid for three of them. “That was my first nickname in college: the Real Deal.”

Sitting in Shaq’s driveway as we pull in is another in his fleet of custom cars and trucks, a black ’69 Ford Galaxy convertible (its plates say “Hoop-T”) equipped with lowrider-style hydraulic pumps that bounce the Ford up and down like a pogo stick (he got the idea from Ice Cube’s car in Boyz n the Hood.)

Inside, his home is adorned with family photos, gold records from hip-hop faves DFX2 and Fu-Schnickens, even a framed cardiogram of his heart. There’s a game room, complete with NBA Jam and Terminator 2 video games. In the living room, an enormous gorilla hangs from a ledge, as if ready to leap on an unsuspecting guest. In one corner sits a stuffed tiger.

Shaq’s house feels more like a frat house than a celebrity hideaway — but then, Shaq’s still only 21. He seems remarkably uncorrupted by his sudden wealth. His only brush with the law came in Los Angeles, where a cop ticketed him for disturbing the peace because he was driving down Crenshaw Boulevard playing his sound system too loud. He’s been dating the same young woman for the past few years, but she lives in Houston, so they don’t see each other very frequently.

You get the feeling Shaq is cautious about relationships — and uneasy about discussing them. Tall and ungainly as a kid, Shaq says, “Women didn’t like me until high school.” Asked how old he was when he lost his virginity, Shaq hides his head behind a pillow. “It was late,” he mumbles after a long silence. “Real late.”

He says he quickly learned how to fend off the NBA’s legions of serpentine locker-room groupies. “I know what time it is,” he explains. “I know whether they’re interested in me or in the almighty dollar. My mom gave me good advice. She said, ‘Stay away from all them floozies.’ “

While he was shooting Blue Chips in Los Angeles, Shaq saw a lot of actress Holly Robinson, who visited him on the set, sitting in his lap, her arms wrapped around his waist, flirting shamelessly. Soon there were tabloid reports of a romance.

“We’re just friends,” he insists. “She’s not interested in me romantically. She told me: ‘Shaq, I’m 29. I’m too old for you.’ “

After a long day of TV interviews, Shaq is content to hang around the house playing video games and romping with his dog, a homely Rottweiler — Shazaam — which Shaq has trained to respond to commands in a language only the dog and his 7-foot master can understand.

When the dog wanders into the living room, Shaq says sharply: “Kapaya!” The dog eyes Shaq before lowering himself to the floor. “See,” Shaq boasts. “That means sit.”

Shaq has trained himself to speak another foreign tongue as well — the cautious, well-rehearsed patois of the TV interview. He’s circumspect, even when asked about some of his favorite rappers’ foul-tongued lyrics. “Some things shouldn’t be said, like ‘Suck my d,’ ” he says, avoiding the nasty word. “But, hey, the Constitution says a guy can say what he wants to say.”

Shaq has been asked the same basketball questions so many times that he sometimes can’t resist engaging in a little mischief. Once, when a USA Today reporter asked if he could imagine playing in the NBA at 30, Shaq replied: “I’ll be retired already. I’m going to quit at 25.” As the reporter stared at his note pad, scribbling furiously, Shaq glanced at a pal across the room and winked.

Dealing with Jordan’s retirement is a more complicated matter. Shaq first heard the news just before he went to bed the night before Jordan’s press conference. The next morning, giving the first of a dozen numbingly repetitive satellite TV interviews to promote his book, Shaq was still sorting out his feelings.

“Michael and I were friends,” Shaq said to the first reporter. “I’m going to miss him.” By the third interview, his answer had grown more politic: “I’ll miss him — and the league will miss him.” After a half-dozen more, the answer had grown more elaborate: “Michael was special. I’m just happy that I can tell my children, if I have them, that their daddy had the opportunity to play one season against the great Michael Jordan.”

As the interviews dragged on, Shaq started bantering with a studio technician and a local TV sportscaster, waiting around for an in-person interview. First Shaq peppered the technician with questions about the TelePrompTer: Who invented it? How does it work?

Then Shaq started in on the sportscaster: “Hey, can I come down and do the sports one night?” The sportscaster was extremely attentive; this would be a helluva scoop. “You’re welcome anytime,” he said. “How ’bout Saturday?”

Shaq laughed. “Give me some time to practice.”

Suddenly it was time for the next interview. Just as Shaq was about to be beamed out to Boston, Jordan’s press conference began in Chicago. Shaq could see Jordan on a nearby monitor, taking a seat before an enormous congregation of newspeople. Someone asked Shaq if he wanted to stall Boston so he could watch the NBA’s reigning king relinquish his throne. He glanced at Jordan’s image on the screen, then looked away. “No, let’s keep going,” he said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Shaq doesn’t travel with a bodyguard or a posse. He went to his book signing by limousine, accompanied only by Dennis Tracey, an old LSU teammate who now functions as Shaq’s assistant and PR man, plus a rep from Hyperion, his publisher.

Led by a phalanx of police, Shaq entered the store through the employees’ entrance. The store was jammed. It was not big enough for the 500 or so who’d been waiting since 8 a.m. to have their books autographed. Most had brought cameras so they could be photographed with Shaq, too. The routine had its own peculiar rhythm: Shaq autographed a book, then the owner leaned across the table, posing for a photograph as Shaq looked up from signing.

Shaq made an effort to be charming, smiling for the Instamatics and chatting with most of the kids. When they told him to have a good year on the court, he automatically responded: “OK. And you stay in school.”

Just before he finished, a blind woman with long dreadlocks and a Seeing Eye dog approached the table, a book in her hand. As Shaq signed his autograph, she asked shyly: “Can you stand up so I can see how tall you are?”

Shaq was puzzled until her companion explained: “She can tell how tall you are by hearing your voice.” So Shaq rose from his chair. The woman stretched her arm out, but she was unable to imagine his incredible height. Her hand barely reached his chest.

Shaq flashed a huge smile: “I’m up here.” The woman raised her arm until her fingers touched the visor of Shaq’s baseball cap. A look of wonder spread across her face: “Oh!”

Shaq soon departed in his limousine. After making a few calls on his cellular phone, he fell silent, watching the road roll by. When someone mentioned his encounter with the blind woman, it seemed to jog a distant memory. He began to reminisce about Dr. J — Julius Erving — the suave, gravity-defying emperor of the NBA in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“I always wanted to be like Dr. J,” Shaq said. “Not really like him, but in the same place as him. I liked his style, his moves on the court. He came to LSU one day and stopped by my apartment. It was my junior year, and it was funny because I was still asleep. He just walked in my room and woke me up.”

Shaq’s eyes gleamed. “I remember he touched me, and I woke up. And you know, I thought it was a dream.”

Our Sports Gods are always asked to be role models. If athletes can persuade millions of kids to buy sneakers and soft drinks, maybe they can influence them to stay in school or away from drugs. The issue came to the fore earlier this year, stimulated by a Nike commercial starring the Phoenix Suns’ Charles Barkley, who drew his line in the sand: “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”

Utah Jazz star Karl Malone responded, chiding Barkley: “We don’t choose to be role models. We are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.”

It’s a sign of Shaq’s media savvy that he can manage to come down on both sides of this issue. “Charles is right — you can’t raise everybody’s kids,” he says. “But Karl is right, too, because we do have a big influence. But the whole responsibility can’t be on us. We can go on TV all the time telling kids not to do drugs, but when the next question comes up — why not? — the parents need to know the answer for that.”

In Shaq’s eyes, he has had only one real role model — his dad: “I could always talk to him — about the birds and the bees, about anything. I used to be lazy. I had to be made to play ball well. And my father would pull me over and say, ‘You lazy son of a… If you’re gonna make it as a basketball player, you’ve got to eat with that basketball, you’ve got to sleep with that basketball.’ ”

Shaq grins. “I got the message. I’m not lazy anymore.” Shaq’s father is Philip Harrison, a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian whose gruff demeanor and occasional altercations with reporters have earned him the moniker Little League Father From Hell.

Philip and Lucille O’Neal married a few months after the birth of Shaq, who took his mother’s last name. Only recently retired after 20 years in the service, Harrison still runs a tight ship. When I arrive late for an interview at his house, the Sarge promptly bawls me out.

Angry one minute, cordial and gracious the next, his mood changes like the weather. “I think people misunderstand my motives,” Harrison says. “I was in the military, and we do things differently from the way you do things in the outside world.”

Even the sergeant had his hands full when Shaq was a youngster, however. Growing up in Newark, N.J., Shaq was something of a delinquent. “People look at me now, and they think I was an angel child,” Shaq says, stretching out on his couch at home one afternoon. “But I was bad. Anything before drugs and killing someone, I’d do it. I stole. I lied. I cheated. I broke into cars to steal tapes. We’d steal books out of school.

“I was a very intelligent child — I skipped first grade. But I was a follower, not a leader. I wanted to be the class clown,” says Shaq. “I wanted people to look at me, so to get attention, I’d get into trouble. I’d beat people up bad just to get attention.”

When Shaq was in eighth grade, a beating got out of hand. One of his classmates ratted on Shaq for throwing toilet-paper bombs at a teacher. Furious, Shaq waited for hours after school until the kid showed up.

“I punched him in the stomach, and he started to have an epileptic attack,” Shaq says softly. “It was scary. I thought I’d almost killed him. I waited for the doctor to come, and I said to myself, ‘This tough-guy act is over. I’m going to change.’ ”

Shaq still had a few setbacks. He hated living on an Army base in West Germany — “They didn’t have any malls!” — and rebelled against his father’s discipline. But things changed by the time the family moved back to San Antonio, where Shaq finished high school and emerged as a schoolboy basketball legend. “I knew something was going on when I started getting all these letters from college coaches, all wanting me to come see their school,” he recalls with pride.

To hear Shaq’s grandmother Chambliss Odessa tell it, Shaq grew up in a family where failure was not an option. “There was no way Shaq could be nothing and get away with it,” she says one night after cooking Shaq’s favorite dinner, fried chicken. “Not with his father around. He had to be a success.”

The Reebok commercial that helped cement Shaq’s image as a badass, backboard-smashing superstar opens with him standing at the doorway to the Land of the Basketball Giants, the storied realm of Wilt, Kareem, Bill Russell and Bill Walton. When Shaq tries to enter, Russell appears, peering through a tiny window. “Password?” he asks. It would be hard to find a teenage hoopster anywhere who can’t recount Shaq’s rousing response: “Don’t fake the funk on a nasty dunk.”

The line was a Shaq original. “It was never in the script,” Armato, his agent, recalls. “There was some other line, but it didn’t feel right, so Shaq started coming up with new ideas. As soon as he hit on ‘Don’t fake the funk,’ everyone knew it worked.”

Reebok’s first idea for its next Shaq spot involved a takeoff on Jurassic Park, with Shaq portraying a new kind of monstrous dinosaur — a Shaqosaurus. “That was wack,” says Shaq, who swatted the idea away like an errant jump shot.

Shaq is brimming with youthful-millionaire dreams, including plans to buy a radio station and produce rap records. But so far his vanity hasn’t overwhelmed his hardheaded realism. Asked why he picked Armato over more high-powered agents, Shaq explains the choice as a less-is-more decision. “Leonard didn’t have a big list of clients,” he says, “so I knew he’d spend more time thinking about me.”

“He’s so savvy, he could have a huge career in anything he wants,” says director Friedkin. “I think it comes from his basketball experience. He’s the center, so he’s the floor leader — he’s always communicating with everybody. “We were shooting a scene with these school kids in the film,” Friedkin continues, “and when I started to tell Shaq what’s supposed to happen, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry, I know exactly what to do.'”

When Shaq talks, people listen. With the ’93 NBA draft only days away, he phoned Magic GM Pat Williams from the Blue Chips set to say how impressed he was by the play of movie teammate Anfernee Hardaway. Williams promptly brought Hardaway back for another workout the night before the draft — and made him the team’s first-round pick.

“Shaq said, ‘This guy’s for real’ and he was right,” says Williams. “We came away saying, ‘We think he’s our guy.’ “

Williams insists he wasn’t just stroking his star’s ego, not when it cost the Magic more than $65 million to sign Hardaway to a multiyear contract.

Shaq has taken the same hands-on approach to his burgeoning career as a rap artist. He chose the hoops-oriented “(I Know I Got) Skillz” as the first single from his new album because he felt it would build a bridge between his rap and basketball following.

“Gangsta rappers talk about gangsta stuff, so I rap about what I know — basketball,” he says as we’re driving around Orlando one day, listening to the soundtrack from Poetic Justice. “I always put a basketball lyric in each song. During the season, I’ll be working on my next album. I’ll just sit in my hotel room, get the beat, get the book, then I get the lyrics.”

Shaq doesn’t have the silky smooth delivery of a rap pro, but his lyrics occasionally crackle with clever comic bravado. Showing off on “Where Ya At?,” Shaq offers these rhymes: “Who the hell is Shaq attack/You better read the paper, treat me like Biz Markie/You better catch a vapor…. I’m hard like a 360-degree twice jam, ask Dr. Dre and Ed Lover who’s the man…. Brothers don’t play me like a shrimp, I’m dunking on their head, then I’ll point like Shawn Kemp.”

As we roll down the freeway, Shaq cranks up the watts, gyrating in his seat to the slinky beat of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s “One in a Million.” “I get hopped up by the beats,” he says. “A lot of people take rap music the wrong way, always worried about the controversial lyrics. But I listen to the beats.”

Shaq grins. He’s in beat heaven, right on top of a Pete Rock groove. “For a big guy, I got pretty good rhythm, huh?”

With his NBA career in high gear, a rap album out, a book in the stores, a film just around the corner, Shaq’s career is riding the groove. In fact, the big worry is whether Shaq’s career has too many career paths, too many distractions for him to keep his focus on the basketball court.

To put it bluntly, as Washington Post sportswriter Tom Boswell did, comparing Shaq — unfavorably — with the Charlotte Hornets’ rookie sensation, Alonzo Mourning: “Basketball isn’t a contest to see who has more commercials during the Super Bowl. It’s about winning.”

Bill Walton, who briefly tutored Shaq at LSU, has voiced similar concerns. “You have to wonder if he’s spreading himself too thin,” Walton said recently. “[Being the best] didn’t come from making commercials. To rank in the all-time elite group, you need to live the game of basketball.”

The Magic have already hired ex-Atlanta Hawks center Tree Rollins as an assistant coach, with his priority clearly being to help Shaq hone his skills — and his focus on the game. Shaq has obviously heard all the complaints about his busy off-season schedule. “Hey, this is the off-season,” he says, playing with his dog in his living room. “I don’t play basketball 365 days a year. It’s my time to chill out.”

As it gets dark outside, Shaq seems restless, ready to move on. He could visit his girlfriend, who’s in town for the week. He could go see his neighbor Wesley Snipes, an Orlando native who’s invited Shaq to a party Snipes is throwing down the block. But Shaq wants to get a point across first. He walks into his game room, a basketball in his hand. He stands behind the pool table, as if it were the free-throw line. Staring at the opposite wall, focused on an imaginary rim, he rises on his tiptoes, pretending to let fly a feathery 15-foot jumper.

“I’m going to surprise some people this year,” Shaq says, his eyes still drawn to the imaginary rim. “I got my shot. I got some secret weapons people don’t even know about. I’m ready to play. They think I’ve been out partying all summer, going soft, getting distracted, forgetting about my game.”

To make sure he has my attention, Shaq puts on his game-face, menace-to-society stare. “Well, they better be watching, because they’re in for a surprise,” he says softly, squeezing the basketball like a lemon. “I’m just getting warmed up.”

With that, Shaq is out the door, a couple of his pals tagging along. He drives off in his souped-up Ford Explorer, running the first stop sign he sees, heading off into the night.

The next day he is deliberately vague about where he went. “I was too tired to go to Wesley’s party,” he says. “I just went to sleep early.” He didn’t see his girlfriend, either. That night, at his parents’ house, I end up talking with Shaq’s grandmother, who works as a nurse’s assistant in New Jersey.

“Whenever he has time, he comes to see me,” she explains. “We had a lot of fun last night.” Last night?

“He came around when everyone else was at dinner, so it was just him and me getting caught up on things,” she says proudly. “He’s not too old to make time for his grandmother, you know.”

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