Slo-pitch softball games have been played with smaller spheres than the pearl that adorned Los Angeles center Shaquille O'Neal's left earlobe before Game 2 of the Lakers' Western Conference semifinal series against the Seattle SuperSonics last week, but that was no surprise. Nearly everything the 7'1", 315-pound O'Neal wears looks as though it has been enlarged to several times its original size. The reason the earring drew extra attention was that team observers familiar with O'Neal's extensive jewelry collection had never seen that particular piece before.
It wasn't long before O'Neal was weaving a tale around the pearl. He had been scuba diving off Manhattan Beach, he said, when he came upon an oyster, which he pried open and discovered the gem. He told the story with such sincerity that some of his listeners were no doubt wondering what sort of trauma the sight of O'Neal in a wet suit and flippers caused the marine life—until he finally admitted that he was joking. The earring was a gift from a friend.
It's no wonder that the scenario Shaq concocted seemed believable, because that kind of adventure would fit right into O'Neal's larger-than-life existence. "Stuff just happens to me," he says. Sometimes it's the other way around; sometimes O'Neal happens to stuff.
He happened to the Sonics last week, when he put together a string of nearly flawless performances that staked Los Angeles to a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 scheduled for Seattle on Tuesday. It wasn't just that O'Neal averaged 30.5 points (including a 39-point effort in Sunday's 112-100 Game 4 victory) and 9.8 rebounds in the four games; it was that he seemed to make all the right decisions, deciphering the Sonics' double teams with cool efficiency.
O'Neal is playing the best basketball of his six-year career, exerting an influence on games that is, dare we say it, Jordanesque. " Shaq is the best basketball player in the NBA right now," says Seattle coach George Karl. "I think he's more powerful and dominating than anyone who plays. Michael Jordan might be prettier and more athletic, but from a coaching standpoint, I think Shaq's probably the most difficult guy to play against. In the paint he is the most powerful player on the planet." It was O'Neal's precision, though, and not his power that made his performance last week significant. Shaq had 16 assists in the four games against the Sonics, but that total didn't accurately reflect the effectiveness of his passing. Several times he made the pass that led to the assist.
His mind was as impressive as his mass, and the rest of the Lakers played with similar intelligence. Guards Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel took advantage of Seattle's preoccupation with O'Neal to slash to the basket, and forward Robert Horry was an all-around marvel, drilling three-pointers on one end of the floor and swatting away shots on the other. As O'Neal says several times per interview, when the Lakers play smart, they can beat anyone, so it was no coincidence that at week's end Los Angeles was playing better than any other team in the playoffs, including Chicago. "If they keep playing like they're playing, they're going to be tough for anybody to beat," Sonics forward Jerome Kersey said after Game 4. "We're throwing everything we've got at Shaq, and he's handling it."
Although the perception lingers of O'Neal as a brute who excels solely because of his strength, he has improved several areas of his game, most notably his court vision and passing. He has given himself a basketball education, and in facing Seattle's complex, attacking defense he is pursuing his graduate degree. The Sonics have presented quite a course load. Consider this list:
PSYCHOLOGY. Seattle's first order of business was to engage O'Neal in mind games. Before the series even began, Karl made his first move. "Remember the high elbow that Karl Malone hit David Robinson with?" he said the day before Game 1, referring to the regular-season incident in which the Utah Jazz forward KO'd the San Antonio Spurs center. "Well, Shaq throws about 20 of them a game, and no one's got enough guts yet to stand in the way. His elbows are high, and he swings them. That's like a 150-pound weight being swung. You shouldn't be allowed to do it. We're going to tell our guys that one of them has to step up and take one of those elbows."
Karl was really talking not to his players, but to the referees and O'Neal. His intent was to get the officials to keep a close eye on Shaq and perhaps frustrate him with a few early foul calls. "You want to get Shaq thinking," says Sonics forward Sam Perkins. "Get him thinking about the refs, get him thinking about how he's getting hacked, just get him thinking about anything other than what he needs to do on the floor. If you can affect his concentration, you have a better chance against him."
Karl's strategy seemed to work, briefly. After Seattle's 106-92 series-opening win, in which O'Neal scored 27 points, the Sonics coach's comments clearly were on O'Neal's mind, as Shaq suggested that Karl was a bit too in touch with his feminine side. "George was coaching like a woman," he said. "He's a crybaby. A woman."