But what may irk O'Neal most is that he is 0-4 lifetime against Robinson and the Spurs. And the circumstances tonight—playing his second road game in two nights. an early-morning arrival in San Antonio, the hot Spurs (who have won six in a row)—are not in his favor. Early in the game it seems as though those factors are having an effect, as Robinson beats O'Neal down the floor for a few easy baskets.
The Magic throw a defensive wrinkle at the Spurs, having power forward Horace Grant guard Robinson while O'Neal checks Spur power forward Dennis Rodman. It is a logical move, since Robinson plays like a forward, roaming out on the wing and facing the basket, and Rodman camps near the backboard. Grant's quickness is effective against Robinson, who makes only 7 of 24 shots, but San Antonio still takes a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
That's when O'Neal begins to lead the Magic back. He scores 12 points in the final quarter. On consecutive possessions he provides a scary look at how good he may someday be. Getting the ball in the low post, Shaq backs Robinson in a few steps, then spins into the lane and hits a jump hook. The next time, he backs Robinson into the same position, fakes the same spin move—but turns the other way for a baseline jump shot that ties the game at 109. "If he's going to do that, he'll just be impossible to defend," Robinson says later. O'Neal finishes with 36 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks to Robinson's 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks.
But as if to remind everyone, including perhaps himself, that he is still a work-in-progress, O'Neal has a crucial lapse when he allows Rodman to grab an air ball by Spur guard Doc Rivers and lay it in with 3.7 seconds left for the winning basket in the Spurs' 112-111 victory. "Shaq was daydreaming," Rivers says. Says O'Neal, "I was expecting it to hit the rim. If it hits the rim, I grab the rebound and we win the game." (This Sunday he gets another crack at San Antonio when the Magic plays host to the Spurs.)
After coming so close to sweeping three elite centers in four days, O'Neal can afford to be blasé. "I think I held my own," he says after the game. "If you guys want to put me up there with them, fine. If you don't, it doesn't matter."
Sunday, San Antonio: Olajuwon vs. Robinson
Robinson wakes up an hour earlier than usual, at 8 a.m., to watch a video of Disney's The Lion King with his two-year-old son, David Jr. "Just to get myself psyched up," he says.
When Robinson and Olajuwon play each other, the similarities of these two quick, agile big men are striking. "They can both go out on the floor and play," says Spur coach Bob Hill. Today Robinson has a statistical edge over Olajuwon, with 31 points and 11 rebounds to Olajuwon's 25 and six, but the story, again, is Rodman. He grabs 27 rebounds in the Spurs' 124-103 win (their fifth in six games over slumping Midwest Division rival Houston this season) and proves that while the individual matchups of the centers may be intriguing, they're not necessarily decisive.
Robinson already understands that. "Last year my stats were better than Hakeem's, but big deal," he says. "His team was better than mine. He won the championship, and he deserved the MVP."
"You can't really tell who's best unless you play a seven-game series against them," Olajuwon says. He was referring to Robinson and the Spurs, but he could have been talking about all the centers who live on Legends Lane.