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Ready or not, the NBA is about to find out if its bright young lights have what it takes to replace the game's holy trinity: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. At least one of those three players—and at particularly beguiling moments, two of them—played in 13 of the past 14 NBA Finals, a run of genius and good fortune that ended on Oct. 6 when Jordan announced his retirement from the Chicago Bulls. There is a small constellation of new stars waiting to fill the void created, within a span of 23 months, by the retirements of Magic, Bird and MJ. But it remains to be seen whether any of the upstarts will be able to carry his team to the Finals or whether the league instead faces the unappetizing prospect of slogging through two months of playoff games only to find Brad Daugherty and Chris Dudley waiting at the end of the road.
Not that the NBA has had the Air let completely out of its sales. "This league is beyond the point of hinging its hopes on one player or a couple of players," says Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams. "We have seen the passing of Abdul-Jabbar, the passing of Bird and Magic, and now Jordan. But there is a new wave of players always coming." Despite all the hand-wringing over Jordan's retirement, the league could very well break its attendance record for the ninth time in 11 seasons, and if it does, it will be because of the new wave of young stars who are about to come channel surfing over the horizon. For instance, rookies Shawn Bradley and Jamal Mashburn have brought new promise to two cities—Philadelphia and Dallas, respectively—where attendance has been soft in recent seasons. "If all the stars got up and retired at once, we would be in a lot of trouble," says Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando's great wide hope, "but that hasn't happened."
What has happened—with the departure of not only Magic, Bird and Jordan, but also such All-Stars as Kevin McHale (page 146)—is a generational change in the comparative blink of an eye. For better or worse, the NBA is suddenly in hands so new that some of them don't leave fingerprints. "We'll probably disappoint people for a while," says Milwaukee Buck coach Mike Dunleavy, whose most promising prodigy is second-year guard Todd Day. "You're not going to see another Michael Jordan, but I think there could be more fan interest because of it. After three championships, I think a lot of people may have felt that as long as Michael was around, you couldn't beat him. It's going to be more wide open now."
For the first time in 20 years a season will begin with no single, defining superstar—or pair of stars—to whom the league can hitch its wagon. "There are a lot of guys on a high level, but I don't know if there is a Dr. J out there, somebody who mastered the game and toys with it," says Charlotte Hornet coach Allan Bristow. "To me, that even includes Charles Barkley. He can do spectacular things, but I still don't think the torch is passed. You've got to wait and see."
Inasmuch as passing anything on fire to Barkley seems like asking for trouble, it may be just as well that the league's reigning MVP has already calculated the likelihood of his retirement at the end of the '93-94 season as "99.9 percent certain." Of course, Barkley's coach with the Phoenix Suns, Paul Westphal, doesn't place much stock in that figure. "We all know that Charles didn't major in math," Westphal says.
But if not Barkley, then who? Chris Webber, the 6'10" forward who was the No. 1 pick in the college draft as a sophomore, the first such player since Magic? Or Anfernee Hardaway, the 6'7" point guard who looked so much like Magic that Orlando immediately shipped Webber off to the Golden State Warriors to get Hardaway's draft rights? Or second-year Sun center Oliver Miller, whose passing reminds people of Wes Unseld almost as much as does the size of his body? How about the Denver Nuggets' 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, a throwback to Nate Thurmond? Or the Sacramento Kings' Bobby Hurley, who could be the next Tiny Archibald? Or maybe Bradley, the 7'6" Philadelphia 76er wearing uniform number 76, who spent the past two years on a mission from God and may spend this one on a mission for a bod? Or Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics? Pick a Shawn, any Shawn.
Or pick a Shaq, any Shaq. There is the Shaq who reported to training camp last month with a SUPERMAN logo tattooed on his right biceps. And then, of course, there is the Shaq who proved himself slightly less than Superman when he led the Magic back into the lottery last season. "It's a credit to how good the talent is in the league now, that no one guy can come in and make a team a champion right away," says Dave Twardzik, the Hornets' player personnel director. The Hornets may not have to wait much longer now that they have forward Larry Johnson under contract into the next millennium and center Alonzo Mourning to smack O'Neal in the S.
Like Bird and Magic before them, Mourning and Shaq came into the league together last season and will probably always be thought of as a set. "Alonzo Mourning is going to be the next great, great, unbelievable player," says Barkley. "Shaquille, in my opinion, is a great physical specimen." Ouch, Babe. O'Neal calls Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks a "great player," Hakeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets a "great player" and David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs a "great player" but says that Mourning is merely "upcoming."
As if to show how little Mourning occupies his thoughts, Shaq spent the summer making a movie, recording a rap album, writing his memoirs and traveling to Japan and Europe. Mourning, meanwhile, was in a gym at Georgetown working on his game, but, O'Neal says dismissively, "ask Mourning about me in the Magic Johnson [summer all-star] game, when I had 45. Ask him about that. I had 45, he had 29.1 have been working out. People look at the things I have accomplished this summer, and they automatically assume I haven't been working out. Keep on assuming. I'm not worried."
Preferring to ignore this colloquy, Mourning bites off the head of the well-meaning reporter who tells him about the Shaq attack. "I'm not into hyping up some rivalry," Mourning says. "You all ask me these crazy questions. That's your little game, trying to create this rivalry. I'm not into that. I'm not going to answer your questions the way you want me to. You guys cooked this whole thing up. I don't get excited about it at all. The bottom line is wanting to be the best. Any player who tries to keep me from doing what I want motivates me, not just Shaq."