But Shaq certainly motivates the NBA. The league has scheduled Orlando to play on national television 16 times in '93-94—not bad for a team that didn't make the playoffs last season. With a little luck, the Shaq and 'Zo Show will make its postseason debut next spring. "Power, size and brute strength against Mourning's quickness, agility and hostility," says Pat Williams hopefully, greedily and ecstatically. "I think people see a reincarnation of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. The far bigger player, the true Goliath, being combated by the smaller, more agile, maybe more athletic center. For 15 years that was the greatest matchup in sports. I think people will see that again."
But 76er coach Fred Carter doesn't yet buy into the Shaq-Mourning/Chamberlain-Russell comparison. "When it comes to Wilt, you're talking about the Colossus of Rhodes," Carter says. "Russell, he was the defender of the castle. There aren't going to be two like them again. Shaq and Mourning are outstanding, but they would have to stand the test of time."
Russell and Chamberlain squared off 155 times during their careers, 56 of those meetings coming in the playoffs. O'Neal and Mourning will at least have to face each other once in the playoffs so that the NBA's marketing machine can operate unfettered by such a minor inconvenience as the historical record. When that happens, the rivalry could become big in a hurry. "Wilt and Russell were a rivalry in Philadelphia and Boston," says Washington Bullet general manager John Nash. "But if you didn't live in cither city, unless it was Sunday afternoon on TV, you didn't see Wilt and Russell. The people in Charlotte and Orlando didn't know about Wilt and Russell back then. Shaq and Mourning will be more global."
What is more, it is no longer necessary—nor in some cases even desirable—for a young star to have a personality of his own when his shoe company can simply invent one for him. "This league, more than any other, has built itself around the stars and does a tremendous job of marketing them," says Williams. Chamberlain and Russell are preserved in legend, like two scorpions trapped in amber, but it's still true that more people will see O'Neal and Mourning play this season, on television and in person, than saw Russell and Chamberlain during their entire careers.
"That's something we didn't have in the past, players becoming celebrities at an early age because of their television commercials," says Jerry West, the Los Angeles Laker star of the '60s who is now the team's general manager. "They're actually more famous than their contributions on the court would merit. But that's fine." Even if it isn't fine, it will have to do. Today's game, says Bristow, "is about marketing, slo-mo, putting music to it, making the game bigger than reality. People in the '60s didn't get a chance to see Oscar Robertson floating through the air."
Orlando guard Scott Skiles recalls returning to his home "way out in the middle of nowhere" in Indiana at the end of last season and visiting the tiny corner grocery store. "As soon as I walked in the door there was a life-sized cutout of Shaq right next to the Pepsi display," says Skiles. "As long as the NBA and these companies are marketing these stars and their reach is that far into a remote area, there are always going to be superstars. There are so many stars now that there are some players I would call marginal players who still get marketed heavily. The NBA is great at creating stars. As long as people fill the seats, watch games on TV and, more importantly, buy the merchandising, the success of the league is going to keep on climbing."
With Jordan gone, the all-important team merchandising championship will almost certainly pass from the Three-Peat (copyright by Pat Riley) Bulls to Charlotte, a team that already has enormous appeal, with such marketable stars as Mourning, the adorably Smurf-like Muggsy Bogues and the dress-wearing Larry Johnson. If the kids all wanted to be like Mike, wait till they get a fuller load of Grandmama, the character Johnson plays in his shoe-endorsement commercials. "Put Larry Johnson right up at the top," says Boston Celtic forward Ed Pinckney. "Definitely, Grandmama is big. Cross-dressing, that's big. You have to go with the trend." Does that mean Shaq will have to strap on a bustier to become the NBA's next Madonna-like megastar? "If he wants to beat Larry Johnson in endorsements," Pinckney says, "he may have to go that way."
"To be the really big star, you have to be able to combine what you do on and off the court," says Celtic forward Rick Fox. "Larry Johnson is in a perfect position. He's definitely a great player, and people have really embraced Grandmama. At the camp I ran this summer there were a lot of kids wearing Michael Jordan shirts, but I wasn't expecting as many kids as I saw wearing Larry Johnson shirts. The kids are the ones who grab on to these guys, so they're probably the best measuring stick of who's going to move into Michael's place."
O.K., that's two votes for the guy in the dress. And why not? The NBA is easily the most evolved hip-hop league in the 'hood. The sleeper in this class of young guns is Philadelphia's second-year forward Clarence Weatherspoon, who at 6'7" and 240 pounds looks like a baby Barkley. Weatherspoon is the youngest of 13 children, including six sisters, so he could have been wearing hand-me-down dresses long before Johnson even thought about it. But there is nothing hand-me-down about Weatherspoon's emerging stardom. He arrived from Southern Mississippi last year, just as Barkley was departing for Phoenix, and averaged 15.6 points a game. Don't be surprised if he darn near doubles that this season. "If you can play, the NBA is definitely going to put you out there and advertise you," says the 'Spoon that stirs the long, tall drink of water in Philadelphia.
The question of just how much the league's young and the restless stand to earn was answered exactly a day before Jordan announced his retirement, when the Hornets signed Johnson to an eight-year contract extension worth $68 million. In front offices around the league, Charlotte's largesse was as much of a bombshell as Jordan's sudden departure. The contract established a watermark for all the young stars, and some teams weren't sure they could keep their heads above it. Even before Johnson had signed the deal, Mourning was assured by the Hornets he would get a similar deal next year; it seems unlikely he will settle for anything less than becoming the sport's first $100 million man.