Facebook Twitter



Memo to the Lakers: If you go after Shaq, you'd better be ready for the flak.

Actually, there is no real "if" about it anymore. It happens to be the NBA's worst-kept secret. The Shaquille O'Neal Free-Agent Signing Derby is down to two principal contestants - Shaq's present team, the Orlando Magic, and the Lakers.Jerry West and his front-office people in L.A. are prohibited from talking about it because of tampering rules, although a potential deal or two (Vlade Divac to Milwaukee?) immediately before Wednesday's NBA Draft might provide some strong clues as to their intentions. Either way, the handwriting is already on the Forum wall.

The Lakers want Shaq. They want him badly.

If they could rub a magic lamp and make him pop out like the 7-foot-1, 300-pound genie he is about to play in an upcoming movie, they would do it. If it takes paying him more money than Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ever dreamed of making here, they'll do that, too.

Shaq would be box office. Shaq would sell out the place again. Shaq would be the new poster child for Jerry Buss' Hollywood crowd. Shaq might be even bigger than Magic at all the postgame club parties.

Great. But my only question is, would Shaq win?

The obvious answer is, he'd better.

Once you sign the new Big Fella to the 60 or 70 or whatever megamillion dollar contract he would get, you have to realize the only thing greater than the excitement in this town would be the expectations.

If the Lakers sign Shaq, they immediately become the prohibitive Western Conference favorites. It won't be enough anymore to win 50 some odd games. They will have to make it to the NBA Finals.

Some will even insist they should capture the championship, although Michael, Scottie, Dennis and the guys in Chicago might still have something to say about that.

Good thing Del Harris' hair is already white. Because getting O'Neal here would only make it more stressful for the coach. Harris has been an overachiever in L.A. up to now. But once you inherit Shaq on your roster, there is no such thing as overachieving. Just ask Brian Hill.

Talking about Shaq, at this point, is like talking about Whitewater. Everybody has an opinion. To me, he is this era's Wilt Chamberlain.

Some might consider that a compliment. Others might not. Certainly, on a pure physical basis, Shaq is the closest thing we've seen to Wilt in size and strength.

Like Wilt, Shaq never won an NCAA title in college. Like Wilt, he has had a horrible time shooting free throws. And like Wilt, he often seems more concerned with showcasing his various individual abilities than finding ways to help his team on both ends of the floor.

Chamberlain was an overwhelming talent, but he won only two NBA championships in his career. Bill Russell won 11. Shaq, of course, has yet to capture his first.

O'Neal, at age 24, would arrive here as a promising, but still relatively unpolished gem. He's shown a decent work ethic, trying to improve his game, at least on the offensive end.

But defensively, he is not nearly the force he could - and should - be. As for his free-throw shooting, well, ugly isn't a strong enough word to describe it. Shaq could get better. He just needs someone to brush him up on technique. And then he needs to put in the proper practice time.

Oh yeah, time does seem to be something of a pivotal issue with the Shaqmeister.

"I like to do a lot of things, not just play basketball," he has said.

Shaq has made two million selling rap records. He has already appeared in one movie, "Blue Chips," and will be starring soon in that aforementioned genie epic. And as for racking up off-the-court endorsements, he is readily acknowledged as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan as America's leading pitch man.

A number of NBA coaches, including Indiana's Larry Brown, have publicly commented on O'Neal's off-court activities, questioning whether anyone could reach his full potential without concentrating fully on the sport.

Shaq doesn't seem worried, though. Why should he be?

He's too busy slammin' and jammin' and chillin' his way through his own version of the pro basketball landscape.

Would he fit in L.A.? Of course he would. This is a town that has always appreciated star power, from the Koufaxes and Dickersons to the Magics and Gretzkys.

Shaq has style. Shaq has charisma. Shaq has everything this town could want. Except maybe the presence to blend in smoothly with the likes of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones and bring the Lakers a championship.

Is it really worth it to shell out $60 million or $70 million for O'Neal when maybe half that could get you a Dikembe Mutombo, who is already solidly entrenched as a player with extraordinary defensive skills?

With Mutombo, you'd inherit a lower-profile, more team-oriented free agent, someone much more likely to slip naturally into a Harris-type coaching philosophy.

Unfortunately, Mutombo isn't the gate attraction Shaq is. He doesn't have his personality or his smile or, as the ad agency guys put it, his "Q" rating.

No, all indications are that Shaq remains No. 1 on the Forum's wish-list heading into the July 1 signing period. And that's OK. As long as the Lakers understand what they'd be getting.

Shaq comes with an enormous body, big numbers and huge talent. But make no mistake, he also comes with something else.

He comes with some very large baggage.