Shaquille O'Neal's nocturnal practice sessions have elevated his game
Pardon the big fella if he's amused by the throng of admirers who insist they have been in his corner all along. Shaquille O'Neal knows better. "I'm good at remembering who was with me," he says, "and who wasn't."
You want to hop on the Shaq bandwagon, which gathered serious steam last week after victories over three title contenders—the Trail Blazers, Pacers and Heat—ran the Lakers' winning streak to 15 and their league-best record to 49-11? First, set aside any notion you might have that Los Angeles is succeeding because Shaq has suddenly decided to get serious about basketball. Fact is, O'Neal has made a concerted effort to add something to his game each year, like that deadly little jump hook he's burying this season, but his improvement has always been overshadowed by the team's failures in the playoffs.
"It takes an awful lot of hard work to refine things the way he has," says Lakers executive vice president Jerry West. "Shaquille keeps strange hours. He goes to the gym from 9:30 to 11 at night. If he weren't so private about it, maybe people would see him differently."
The citizens of Manhattan Beach have done their share of double takes upon seeing Shaq arrive at the Mira Costa High gymnasium for his nocturnal workouts. It's one of many places that O'Neal shoots free throws-over and over and over again. (He would also love to work a night shift at the Lakers' new practice facility in El Segundo, but the players have not yet been given keys.) Early this season coach Phil Jackson benched Shaq for the final seconds of tight games because of his pathetic foul shooting, which dipped to 32% in mid-November. It wasn't the kind of stat that looks good on an MVP resume next to 27.6 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3-37 blocks per game (his averages at week's end), and O'Neal took umbrage at the crunch-time benching. Jackson's reply: "Prove you can hit them."
On LA's six-game trip to the East in late February, Shaq nailed 38 of his 59 free throws (64.4%). Against the Blazers he was 9 of 13 (69.2%). His improvement at the line is only one of the many ways in which Shaq is flourishing under Jackson—even though he averaged a not-so-shabby 26.3 points and 10.7 rebounds last year. "I think I was a pretty good player before he got here," says O'Neal. "But Phil has plugged in missing pieces, and the biggest one was respect. We needed it [from the rest of the league]; he has it."
Last season was marked by tension between Shaq and the other franchise Laker, Kobe Bryant. Each felt L.A. was his team, and the two struggled to play nice. Jackson's triangle offense has forced O'Neal and Bryant to create touches for everyone. The adjustment was easy, says Shaq, who bristles at the notion that in the past he was unwilling to spread the wealth. "I became a team player when I was 15," he says. "Everybody treated me like I was God, so I thought I was God. Then one day the entire [student body at] Robert G. Cole High School [in San Antonio] froze me out. I'd sit down with the fellas at lunch, and they'd pick up their trays and leave. I said to my friend Joe, 'What's up?' He said, 'You think you can do it all on your own, go ahead.' After that, I was all about team.
"There's no problem between Kobe and me this season, because Phil doesn't allow it. I don't have to say anything [to Kobe] because Phil says it. When I said it, it got misconstrued all the time as Kobe and me not getting along."
No one is saying the big fella is perfect. "We don't want him to be satisfied," says Lakers assistant Tex Winter. "Once in a while he can fall into, Why knock myself out? I'm already as good as it gets." That land of observation would have made headlines a year ago: COACH SAYS SHAQ TOO COMPLACENT! Not now. O'Neal is earning his MVP stripes and the belated respect of skeptical fans and media. "He's made it," West says. "Know how I can tell? Nobody ever talks about how much money he makes anymore."
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