It's not like he was ever really gone. His television commercials, magazine ads, videos, books, compact discs and appearances at celebrity functions ensure that the public is never more than moments away from its next Shaq sighting. But son of a gun, we missed the big lug anyway. And it wasn't until Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal returned last Friday from the thumb injury that caused him to miss the first 22 games of the season that we realized just how much his absence had been felt. Shaq is back, and the NBA just became a lot more fun.
There he was against the Utah Jazz in his first game of the 1995-96 season, knocking the basket support loose with a ferocious rebound-dunk and threatening to do the same with some of his free throws. It was, to borrow the title of O'Neal's second rap recording, Shaq Fu: Da Return. And even though point guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway had been brilliant in O'Neal's absence, leading the Magic to a 17-5 record, second best in the league to the Chicago Bulls' 18-2, O'Neal's performance reminded everyone that he remains Orlando's rapmaster. "We got used to playing without Shaq, and it's great that we proved we can do that," says Orlando power forward Horace Grant. "But it's a little bit like when you're reading and you think the light's fine, and then somebody comes along and turns on a big, bright lamp. You say to yourself, Wow, that's much better, isn't it?"
That's not what the rest of the league is saying. As if it wasn't disheartening enough to the other teams that the Magic adjusted so smoothly to life without O'Neal, it now appears that Shaq will be easily sliding back into the Orlando offense, as his efficient performance in the 111-99 victory over the Jazz indicates. He came off the bench and played only 24 minutes yet finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds. (He followed that up on Sunday in Toronto with 32 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes even though, in one of those weird regular-season NBA role reversals, the potent Magic was drubbed by the expansion Raptors 110-93.) "The rest of the league is scared," says Orlando forward Dennis Scott. "Got to be."
O'Neal's triumphant return makes it even harder to believe that there were those who had the absurd notion that he would be a 7'1" speed bump slowing down the streaking Magic. Without Shaq, the thinking went, Orlando was a fast-breaking, free-flowing team. With him in the lineup, there was supposedly the danger that the offense would become bogged down trying to feed him the ball in the low post. After the Magic beat the Bulls 94-88 on Nov. 14 in Orlando, local talk-show callers began debating in earnest whether the Magic might actually take a step backward when Shaq returned. And even Chicago forward Scottie Pippen said he was disappointed that O'Neal didn't play when the Bulls gained revenge on Dec. 13 with a 112-103 win over the Magic in Chicago. "I was kind of hoping he would play, because I figured they might have a little trouble working him in again," Pippen said.
O'Neal seemed amused by that thinking, and with tongue tucked firmly in cheek he indicated that he was coming back to be little more than a caddie for Jon Koncak, who was the starter last Friday night, as he had been when O'Neal was on the shelf. "I'm just a role player," Shaq said before the Utah game. "I'm going for the Sixth Man award." He no doubt will cherish the first Subway Sub of the Game award of his career, an honor bestowed after each Magic game and which he earned with his performance against Utah.
Actually, it looked as if O'Neal might have sampled the Subway menu a bit too often while he was recovering from the Oct. 26 surgery that reattached a ligament and repaired a fracture to his right thumb. His 332-pound body, partly bulked up through off-season weightlifting and 22 pounds heavier than it was at the end of last season, seemed a trifle thicker around the middle than it had been during the exhibition season. That probably resulted from his routine while on the injured list, which he jokingly described as "eating steak, going to movies, waking up and not doing anything."
The Magic offense didn't change its focus to accommodate O'Neal—"We only ran about two or three plays for him all night," Orlando coach Brian Hill said—so he picked up most of his points on offensive rebounds (five in all) and free throws, which, as always with O'Neal, were an adventure. After making his first four foul shots, he finished with eight of 16, which was roughly in keeping with his career 55.8 percentage. But with O'Neal the raw numbers are almost secondary. Shaq at the foul line is reminiscent of Reggie Jackson in the batter's box; he can be more entertaining when he misses than when he doesn't. And O'Neal didn't even offer the alibi that the splint he employed to protect his thumb had affected his touch. "I was thinking it might even help," he said.
O'Neal's absence may not have caused a decline in the Magic's record, but it did have an impact on fan enthusiasm. That changed with 7:16 to play in the first quarter Friday night, after Koncak picked up his second foul, when O'Neal entered the game to a raucous standing ovation. "The big fella has something, I don't know what it is, but he gives the place a shot of electricity," said Scott after the game against Utah.
The injury was the first serious one of O'Neal's career, and, despite the Superman tattoo he displays on his arm, it discouraged the view that he is an invulnerable, larger-than-life figure. That could be a blessing in disguise when it comes to his treatment by referees. Hill and Magic vice president of basketball operations John Gabriel have long complained about what O'Neal's opponents are allowed to get away with, and their objections took on new vehemence after the game in which O'Neal injured the thumb, an Oct. 24 exhibition against the Miami Heat. Miami center Matt Geiger, since traded to the Charlotte Hornets, caused the injury with a karate chop of a foul against O'Neal. Many Magic players insist that officials previously did not protect O'Neal because the refs believed that his immense strength enabled him to play through excessive contact. But the sight of him on the bench wearing a cast and street clothes may have done more to erase that notion than a year's worth of complaining to the league office.
The other enduring benefit of O'Neal's absence is that it forced some of Orlando's secondary players to step into the foreground, including Scott, who is slowly developing from a strictly long-range gunner into an all-around player. While O'Neal was hurt, Scott was second to Hardaway in scoring, with 20.7 points per game (he averaged 12.9 in 1994-95). And he even worked on his defense, which he previously seemed to think was just an opportunity to rest his shooting arm.