That sounds almost like O'Neal. A kind of mythology has enveloped the 7'1", 303-pound (a mere 4% of which is fat) Shaq, including the belief that he relies on raw talent alone and doesn't work to broaden his skills because he's more interested in being a celebrity than a champion. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn't any longer. O'Neal has shown a variety of new moves around the basket this season, including jump hooks, turnaround jump shots and drop steps. He may not be ready to make an instructional video on low-post play yet, but he's more than just a dunker, a tag his critics had hung on him.
"He took a lot of bashing over the last two years, and it was always unjustified," says Hill. "People saw the movie [Blue Chips, in which O'Neal and Hardaway both appeared], the videos, the rap albums, and they just assumed that he wasn't doing anything else during the off-season. They never found out that he was spending a couple of hours on his game every day in the summer, because they never asked."
There is something almost sad in the way O'Neal has hardened to the criticism that he believes he won't ever totally escape. He feels he's destined to be a giant who never quite satisfies everyone, no matter what he accomplishes, in much the way Wilt Chamberlain was before him. Even as he enjoys his brilliant early season, he waits for the critics to begin taking their shots. "It's early," he says. "It'll come. It always comes. They'll say, 'He can dunk, but he can't shoot jumpers. He can dunk, but he doesn't have the jump hook or the baseline fadeaway.' " But he is developing those shots, isn't he? "I have 'em," he says. "I have everything."
He doesn't have a championship, but he doesn't think even that will silence the critics. "Getting a ring won't change it," he says. "Winning MVP won't change it. The same thing happened to Michael Jordan. First they said he couldn't win a championship. Then they said he couldn't win back-to-back. Then it was, 'O.K., but can he win three in a row?' It's going to be like that for me as long as I'm in the league."
But shed no tears for Shaq. He's not asking for any, and not just because the $16.7 million he earned last year in salary and endorsements made him the second-highest-paid athlete in sports, according to a ranking in Forbes magazine. O'Neal is one of the rare big men who is comfortable with and even embraces his fame. "He's feasting on life, he's pigging out on it," says Williams. "But he never forgets that what he does on the basketball court makes the other things possible. Watch him flip in a little jump hook over [the Denver Nuggets'] Dikembe Mutombo or shoot a short jumper in the lane against [the Rockets'] Hakeem Olajuwon. He didn't develop those things while he was rapping in a studio somewhere."
Even before O'Neal expanded his offensive repertoire, characterizing him as merely a dunker discounted some remarkable things he did to get in position for the jam. In a 120-96 win over the Nuggets on Dec. 14, Hardaway threw Shaq a length-of-the-court pass that was behind him. O'Neal reached back on the run, plucked the pass out of the air with one hand, whirled and slammed the ball through the hoop.
But what has gained him new respect around the league is his ability to overcome defensive tactics that once stymied him. "When I was with the Bulls, our strategy was to turn him into a passer," says Grant. "We felt that if we double-teamed him, he'd throw the ball away or, even better, to us." Indeed, O'Neal led the league in turnovers his first season (3.8 per game), largely because of his indecision when doubled. That's no longer true (this season he's averaging 2.3 turnovers). On one possession during a 131-128 overtime victory at Golden State last Friday, he was doubled on the baseline and found Grant cutting to the basket for a dunk. "When Horace made that cut, Shaq had his back to him," says Magic assistant Richie Adubato. "That was a pass he probably couldn't have made at this time last year."
So now how can O'Neal be stopped? "Pray for a hurricane," says Sacramento King coach Garry St. Jean. "Your best bet is still to try to force him to turn away from the basket, but that's easier said than done. His strength is so remarkable that people just bounce off him."
In fact, the best strategy against O'Neal is to foul him. After shooting well from the line in his first few games, he has gone back to laying bricks, shooting .563 through Sunday (as a team, the Magic's percentage from the line was a shabby .657, ranking next to last in the league). In close games opponents send him to the line as often as possible.
That's when Hardaway becomes especially valuable, says Hill: "He can get to the basket, he can shoot over smaller guards, he's a brilliant passer, and, if he's fouled, he can knock down the shots." Hardaway is so skilled that he sometimes seems restricted in the point guard's traditional role of passing first and shooting second. But he's thinking like a point guard. After scoring 38 points against the Warriors, the first thing he wanted to know was how many turnovers he had committed. (Eight was the answer.)