Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic has fielded so many questions about his maturity this season that he must be wondering if he's a center or a savings bond. Last week in Orlando, on the occasion of the gazillionth inquiry concerning the M-word, O'Neal made his gazillionth attempt to explain his position. "I don't believe in that stuff about how youth can't win NBA championships," said the 7'1" O'Neal, who is in his fourth NBA season but only turned 24 in March. "If you got game, you got game. That's why Tiger Woods is out there playing golf with Greg Norman. Once and for all, I am mature enough." That said, Shaq goosed a bystander and then sprayed another with a fake sneeze.
O'Neal is Eddie Haskell in a land full of Beaver Cleavers. There was, for instance, the scene on Sunday at the Omni before Game 3 of the second-seeded Magic's Eastern Conference semifinal series against the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, which Orlando led 3-1 going into Wednesday night's Game 5 at the Orlando Arena. Forward Dennis Scott stood up from his chair in the Magic's locker room. When he sat back down, he was seated on a cheese Danish. Shaq could hardly contain his glee.
Throughout O'Neal's mercurial NBA career, Orlando management has afforded Shaq something the Magic's brass calls "customized treatment," which basically means that he can do whatever he pleases. Thus, at the end of a road trip O'Neal isn't always aboard the Orlando team plane. He might be off cutting another rap CD or negotiating another film role. "You have to realize that this is the way of the NBA in the 1990s," says Orlando general manager John Gabriel. "I compare it to parenting. You don't know if your kids will choose Cheerios or Froot Loops, but at some point you have to trust them to make their own decisions. Shaq is a superstar who has earned some freedom, and he hasn't done anything to erode our trust."
Despite his propensity for adolescent behavior off the court, O'Neal has recently displayed numerous symptoms of maturity in the workplace. His attitude adjustment began moments after the final game of last season. The Magic had just been swept—read humiliated—by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, and Orlando coach Brian Hill asked O'Neal and his teammates to linger at courtside in the Summit for a few minutes to take in the Rockets' celebration. Shaq still winces at the memory of his foes' revels. "After the Finals were over, my father told me that I wasn't playing hard enough, and he was right," says O'Neal, even though he averaged 28.0 points and 12.5 rebounds. "After looking back at it, I realized I sort of laid down and took a vacation. I was chillin'."
This painful revelation transformed what should have been a short off-season into an endless summer for O'Neal. Before and after shooting his soon-to-be-released movie, Kazaam, in which he plays a rapping genie, the 320-pound Shaq went on a weightlifting regimen for the first time. He took out his frustrations on some unsuspecting Nautilus machines, raising his bench press by 150 pounds, to 375, in two months. O'Neal wanted that extra strength so he might more easily attain the immense goals that he had set for the 1995-96 season. He had decided he would be satisfied with nothing less than an NBA title.
But O'Neal suffered a broken right thumb during an exhibition game and missed the Magic's first 22 regular-season contests. When he returned to action, he discovered that Orlando's main Eastern Conference rival, the Chicago Bulls, on their way to a record-setting 72 regular-season wins, had stolen the spotlight. O'Neal didn't get it pointed back on him until early April, when his grandmother, Odessa Chambliss, passed away and he left the team to attend her funeral in New Jersey. During his weeklong sabbatical O'Neal missed two games, signed another movie deal and turned up in an Atlanta nightclub on the eve of a loss to Chicago he would join in progress, thus proving once again that we all grieve in our own way.
As the playoffs approached, however, O'Neal, who would finish the regular season with a 26.6 point average, began to exhibit a stronger sense of purpose. For instance, after Orlando crushed the New York Knicks 98-79 on March 31 to clinch its second straight Atlantic Division title, O'Neal was given a celebratory T-shirt. He tossed it aside. "We don't want no stinking shirt," he declared.
He was similarly dyspeptic during the Magic's first practice of the postseason. " Shaq came in and shifted into another gear, a gear we haven't seen before," Hill says. "He was pushing people around, treating practice as if it was the first playoff game. When one of your leaders does that, then everybody gets caught up in it."
Indeed, all of the Magic's starters broke briskly out of the gate in Orlando's opening-round sweep of the Detroit Pistons. Each of the five—O'Neal, Scott, power forward Horace Grant and guards Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway and Nick Anderson—scored in double figures in all three games. Then the Magic turned its arsenal on the Hawks in a series in which Shaq and Penny would have a chance to rehearse for their Dream Team III coach, Atlanta's Lenny Wilkens, in the Olympic city. But Shaq found himself motivated more by an old wound. He is still miffed about being left off the original Dream Team of 1992 when, having just departed LSU, he was passed over for the last spot on the team in favor of current Hawks center Christian Laettner, who had just completed his college career at Duke. "I should have been on that team," Shaq said before the Atlanta series. "I'm a better player than Laettner." O'Neal proved it in the opener at the O-rena, using his bulk one-on-one against the overmatched 245-pound Laettner to outscore him 41-7. Shaq also had nine offensive rebounds as the Magic defeated Atlanta 117-105. The Hawks gave Laettner some double-team help in Game 2, but O'Neal still scored 28 points (Laettner had 20) as Orlando blew out Atlanta again, 120-94.
However, the Magic's litmus test figured to come at the Omni, where Orlando had lost twice this season and had collected only three wins in 13 games before these playoffs. Game 3 was close throughout, a struggle that a less seasoned Magic team might have lost. But despite characteristically shooting 4 of 13 from the line, Shaq had 24 points to go along with 12 rebounds. Hardaway and Scott each scored crucial baskets in the final minutes, and the Orlando defense held the Hawks to only 14 points during the final period of a 103-96 win. On Monday night, however, in Atlanta's 104-99 win, a frustrated O'Neal had his first subpar game of the playoffs, going 7 for 17 and an abysmal 5 for 17 from the line as the Magic wasted a stirring comeback from a 22-point deficit. Still, Shaq's performance in crucial Game 3 was, well, a mature one that left the Hawks impressed. "The scary thing is that Shaq's not only bigger than everybody else, but he's getting smarter all the time," said Atlanta backup center Sean Rooks, taking note of O'Neal's four assists and two blocks. "Every time we took something away from him, he just found another way to beat us."