Experts have unanimously named O'Neal as the heir apparent to the throne now shared by the ruling Olajuwon-Ewing-Robinson axis. Another great center, Bill Walton, who spent a week working with O'Neal in the preseason, likens him to a different-size NBA player. "Charles Barkley," says Walton. "Shaquille has that quick, unrestrainable explosion, like Barkley. It's a raw power you don't get in the weight room. It comes from somewhere else, deep in the soul. This guy may have the physical talent and personal discipline to be the best. But I told Shaquille, it's not the numbers or the stats. It's how he controls the flow of the game."
But O'Neal has had to stockpile some fairly auspicious digits to carry what is otherwise a mediocre LSU team. The Tigers went into the season missing 60 points and 24 rebounds a game from the 23-9 team of a year ago. As of Sunday, The Shack led the NCAA in rebounding, with 15.2 a game and was sixth in scoring (28.5 points), fourth in blocked shots (4.8) and 14th in shooting (63.9%). While O'Neal has cut down on his fouling from last year—he was disqualified nine times in 1989-90, even as the SEC tested the six-fouls rule (now abandoned)—he has been unable to stem the flow of fouls called against him on the road. In addition to the Illinois defeat, LSU lost while away from home to Villanova when O'Neal got into foul trouble; the Tigers' 96-84 victory over Auburn last Saturday—O'Neal grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked four shots but scored a very sub-Shack 14 points—was their first road win. LSU's record stood at 10-3 as the Tigers headed toward a midweek meeting at Alabama.
Surely it was a historical rarity when possibly the two best players of their generation at their positions met in Louisiana State's final game last season, the Tigers' 94-91 NCAA tournament loss to Georgia Tech and point guard Kenny Anderson, in which O'Neal had 19 points and 14 boards but committed four fouls. While that game offered a disappointing conclusion to O'Neal's fluctuating rookie season—he had 17 points and 14 rebounds against NCAA champion UNLV (which LSU beat during the regular season), but only 10 points and eight rebounds in an SEC tournament loss to Auburn—his breathtaking, unrefined skills were obvious to those NBA folks who vowed he would have been the first draft choice if he had left school last spring.
It was obvious that sharing the ball with spectacular little guard Chris Jackson and another 7-footer, Stanley Roberts, in a virtual no-pass offense restricted O'Neal's development as a freshman. But now Jackson has left school for the Denver Nuggets, and Roberts, who became academically ineligible last August, is starring in Spain for Real Madrid. That everybody in the arena knows to whom LSU is going these days and that The Shack still continues to run the table makes manifest his striking improvement.
Last summer O'Neal played pickup ball for three hours nearly every day and did calf-raises every night in his room until he fell asleep. The results include an eight-inch improvement in his vertical jump; from a standing position, The Shack can now touch a mark nearly 2½ feet above the rim. At the Olympic Festival in Minneapolis in July, O'Neal was not merely a man among boys; he was a monster. In four games he had 98 points, 55 rebounds and 27 blocks.
"There's no comparison to him as a freshman," said Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler after O'Neal had 34 points and 11 rebounds in an 87-70 LSU victory on Jan. 2. "Trying to stop Shack now is a joke." Georgia coach Hugh Durham was equally forlorn after O'Neal (34 and 16, with seven blocks) helped put away the Bulldogs 83-76 on Jan. 7. "Last year you could play behind him and know he wasn't going to get the ball from those other guys," Durham said. "Now you have to front or side him, and he muscles you out of the lane anyway. They just keep going to the mountain, going to the mountain. Shack may be unguardable."
About three years ago, another young center with a lyrical name, Alonzo Mourning, was proclaimed basketball's next great hope. Recently, however, Mourning has been the second-best center on his Georgetown team. Still, O'Neal didn't hesitate when asked what team he most wanted to play. "Georgetown," he said. "Alonzo was the guy I always heard about. I've always wanted to measure myself against the best."
That was why O'Neal got so excited about playing Arizona. "I'd heard stuff from out there that I was just another player, that I was too young. I wanted to show I could play with anybody," he says. Similarly, after Kentucky's gifted freshman forward Jamal Mashburn suggested before the Wildcats' Jan. 5 appointment with LSU that O'Neal was merely "all right" and could be "stopped," The Shack mumbled, "Yeah, with four guys," and proceeded to stick Mashburn for 28 points and 17 boards. Later, a stunned Mashburn corrected himself by saying O'Neal belonged "in a higher league."
Long before O'Neal, who was born in Newark, N.J., went to high school for two seasons in Texas, he was already prominent on LSU coach Dale Brown's wish list. Five years ago, during a European tour of coaching clinics, Brown came across the then 6'6" Shaquille at an Army base in Wildflecken, West Germany, where his father was then stationed.
"What rank are you, soldier?" Brown asked.