Perhaps it's because he was raised by a military man—his stepfather, Phillip Harrison, is a retired Army sergeant—that Shaquille O'Neal has a tendency to speak about his Los Angeles Lakers teammates the way an officer might refer to his troops. Before the Lakers supplied him with marksman Glen Rice, O'Neal used to say, "I need a shooter," as if one could be reassigned from another platoon. Los Angeles guard Brian Shaw "was one of my players in Orlando," says Shaq, referring to the two years they played together for the Magic. While coach Phil Jackson may be the team's commander-in-chief, on the field of battle O'Neal is its general, a role he is handling with more assurance than ever before. " Shaq was handed the title of leader when he came here four years ago," says L.A. point guard Derek Fisher. "But being given the tide isn't the same as earning it. This year Shaq has really earned it."
There is another title O'Neal wants even more, that of NBA champion, and if he is to earn that one, his leadership skills will have to pass the sternest test of his eight-year career. The Indiana Pacers made sure of that with a 100-91 win in Game 3 of the Finals on Sunday, slicing the Lakers' lead in the best-of-seven series to 2-1. L.A.'s advantage was especially precarious because the Lakers faced two more games at Indiana's frenzied Conseco Fieldhouse—where lung power more than makes up for the star power of the Staples Center—and because the health of O'Neal's All-Star sidekick, guard Kobe Bryant, was in doubt. Bryant missed Game 3 with a moderately sprained left ankle, and although he was optimistic about returning for Game 4, Jackson admitted that Bryant probably wouldn't be fully effective for the rest of the series.
That meant Los Angeles would have to do the figurative equivalent of what Bryant did the day after his injury—hop on Shaq for a piggyback ride. If anyone could carry the Lakers the rest of the way, it was O'Neal, whom Jackson called "the first frontal piece of our offensive machinery." He initially bombarded the Pacers in L.A., with 43 points and 19 rebounds in Game 1 and 40 points and 24 boards in Game 2. He then nearly led Los Angeles to an improbable comeback in Game 3, when he scored 33 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and spearheaded a counterattack that cut an 18-point Indiana lead to four late in the fourth quarter. But without Bryant, the Lakers' perimeter players were overmatched against Reggie Miller (box, page 46) and Jalen Rose, who combined for 54 points. "We're not coming in to be pushed around," Rose said after Game 3. "We're not the jayvee team. They're just like us—they haven't won a championship. Therefore, if you put pressure on them and get them down by 10 points, you have a chance to be successful."
But Los Angeles's habit of crumbling under pressure so far seems to be a thing of the past, thanks largely to the burgeoning leadership skills of the 28-year-old O'Neal. He has cemented his stature among the Lakers not only with his strengths, which have been all too evident to the Pacers, but also with his weaknesses. Even his celebrated difficulties at the foul line—he was 3 of 13 in Game 3—have indirectly won him greater respect from the other Lakers, who watch him taking hundreds of extra foul shots at practice and know he has the key to a high school gym for late-night free throw sessions.
"We see how hard he works at it," says Shaw. "We see how he takes the criticism and the hard fouls and the crazy Hack-a- Shaq stuff and keeps at it. It makes you realize that if he's willing to go through all that without losing his cool, he must want to win more than anything. If he wants it that badly, you want to win it not just for yourself but for him too."
His teammates understand that O'Neal has more at stake than any of them, that he will be the 7'1", 325-pound target of blame if Los Angeles falls short of the championship. At times he uses that knowledge to help motivate his teammates. When Bryant was injured in the second quarter of Game 2, Shaq told them during a timeout that he expected to be gang-defended even more than before. "When I kick it out to you guys," he said, "make some shots for me."
It was his way of telling the Lakers that they were the only ones who could make Indiana fully pay for double- and triple-teaming him. He would take the pounding and the potential embarrassment at the free throw line if they would retaliate for him from the perimeter, which they did, making 7 of their 15 three-pointers, including 5 of 6 by Rice, in the 111-104 win. "I know that I can't do it myself," O'Neal says. "Maybe early in my career I thought I could do everything, but I know now how important it is to have my teammates helping me out."
O'Neal doesn't lead by cracking the whip at practice, the way Michael Jordan did, nor is he a locker room orator, as Magic Johnson was. "He'll have something to say in the big moments of a game, but it's going to be short and direct," says forward A.C. Green. "Whenever he opens his mouth we ride on it, because he doesn't do it that often."
When O'Neal picked up his fifth foul—which was mistakenly called a flagrant—with 6:40 to go in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and the Lakers leading by eight points, he gathered the team around him. "I can't repeat exactly what he said," forward Rick Fox says. "He told us, 'Look, I'm going out for a couple of minutes,' and then it was 'Bleep, bleep, bleep. Bleep, bleep. Got it?' "
Adds guard Ron Harper, "He went off a little bit in the huddle. We needed him to do that. He pumped us up, and we held on."