At 7 feet 1, Louisiana State's O'Neal is the center of attention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BATON ROUGE, La. -- And now, His Shaqnificence hereby issues the following decrees:

* If you're going to use his nickname, please use the official Shaq-approved moniker, which is, Shaquille "the Deal" O'Neal.

Not "the Real Deal." That one belongs to heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, fair and square.

Not "Shaq Daddy," the nickname coined by his teammates.

Not "Love Shaq," favored by some LSU students.

And not Shaquille "I'm For Real" O'Neal, the choice of O'Neal's father.

Remember, accept no substitutes.

* There will be no mention of a National Basketball Association career, at least not until he celebrates his 19th birthday or begins shaving, whichever comes first.

Of course, if you insist, O'Neal will be compelled to say that he is absolutely, positively sure . . . that he is not sure when he might leave LSU for the pros.

* His royal centerness would like to remind all those concerned that although his body has grown to astounding dimensions -- 7 feet 1 inch and 295 pounds -- he is only two years removed from the senior prom.

Royal translation: Enough already with the breathless declarations that he is "the best ever."

That concludes today's requests. Carry on.

Welcome to the ever-confusing world of Shaq-dom, where America's newest college superstar lives his life in an oversized fish bowl.

If he were merely another player with a basketball scholarship and an overactive pituitary gland, none of this would be happening. But O'Neal can do things on the court that cause opposing coaches to reach for Kleenex. And NBA owners to reach for their checkbooks.

Only a sophomore, O'Neal's name already is required reading for anyone who glances at the weekly NCAA Division I statistics. At last look, he ranked first in rebounds per game, 15; fourth in blocked shots per game, five, and ninth in average points, 27.4. As for his numbers in the Southeastern Conference, why bother? The league is his plaything.

The simple fact is that once O'Neal gets the ball down low, he is as unstoppable as hiccups. His 62.7 field goal percentage proves that.

If it doesn't, look at the cover of the LSU basketball media guide, where O'Neal can be seen ramming the ball through the hoop. Fleeing for cover is a Lamar player, who looks as if he needs police protection. He apparently knows better than to try to stop one of O'Neal's dunks.

And watch when an opposing player ventures near the lane for a shot. If O'Neal doesn't flick away the attempt outright, he will usually force the guy to try some grotesque, ill-fated, triple-pump jumper that has as much chance of going through the hoop as O'Neal has of wearing size 9s.

Arkansas State won't soon forget O'Neal. He scored 53 points against the Indians earlier this season.

Against Auburn recently, O'Neal scored 20 points in 22 minutes and helped foul out the two players assigned to stop him.

"The points he scored looked so easy," said LSU's Geert Hammink, who serves as O'Neal's understudy.

And last Sunday, O'Neal sliced and diced Wimp Sanderson's Alabama team, the conference leader at the time, for 36 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocks.

Few are spared the wrath of Shaq. Even those who have walked away with victories against LSU this season, do so with O'Neal powder burns.

"Shaquille is quite simply the most dominating player to come along since David Robinson," said Kentucky's Rick Pitino, who watched O'Neal score 61 points and grab 33 rebounds in the Wildcats' two games against LSU.

And this from Mississippi State's Richard Williams, whose Bulldogs "held" O'Neal to 27 points and 18 rebounds in an earlier victory:

"I don't think the average person can understand it. People can't picture in their minds how big he is. Seven-one, 295 pounds those are numbers. Until you see him standing aside other players in this league, well, he dwarfs every player on our team. It's just amazing. And he's only 18 years old, for goodness sakes. It's scary how good he can become."

But how 18-year-olds are faced with forfeiting their adolescence in return for an NBA contract worth millions? O'Neal is.

How many grew up ashamed of their size, embarrassed by the endless search for clothes that fit and classmates who didn't taunt? O'Neal did.

And how many have had a basketball program strapped to their backs and been asked to carry it as far as possible? O'Neal has.

So you can understand O'Neal's reluctance to go from 18 straight to manhood. It is one of the reasons his parents' phone bill back in San Antonio averages about $350 a month. Every day, O'Neal calls home, or his parents call him.

Still, this is what O'Neal deals with. He can do what LSU coach Dale Brown predicts he will do -- stay in school. Or he can do what absolutely no one would blame him for doing -- bolt for the riches of the NBA.

"He's like a man among little boys," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "He'd better hurry up. I'll help pack his suitcase. [As the No. 1 pick] he can buy himself a university."

O'Neal isn't going anywhere, at the moment. His parents insist that he will remain at LSU. O'Neal, who is getting good at being noncommittal, simply says, "I'm not thinking about the NBA right now."

That's not entirely true. O'Neal does think about the pros. A lot. Earlier this season, when the Tigers traveled to Georgia for a game, Bulldog alumnus and NBA star Dominique Wilkens was in attendance. O'Neal took one look at Wilkens' $800 suit and said to himself, "That's going to be me one day."

Now then, did he mean one day this year? Next year? The year after?

"I'm not going to lie to you, it [the NBA] is very tempting," O'Neal said. "I could buy my mom her own company. I could get her a van with a TV. I could get my father a sports bar, call it, 'Shaquille's Bar & Tavern' and let him run it. I'd probably let Mom run all my business stuff -- endorsements, business stuff."

This is the way O'Neal thinks: family first, Shaquille second. It is a lesson taught by two loving but no-nonsense parents -- Army Sgt. Philip Harrison, a career military man, and, of course, Lucille, who knows a thing or two about discipline.

It was Lucille who used to tell her son that he needed to become more aggressive on the basketball court.

"He was wimpy," she said.

Away from the game, O'Neal is a quiet sort. In fact, people are always asking him to speak up. And when former teammate Chris Jackson would suffer from a particularly difficult attack of Tourette's Syndrome, he would gently hug the guard and tell him not to worry about anything.

But on the court, O'Neal has learned to play, well, certainly not wimpy.

"I'm a big man," he said. "I'm out there to win."

When LSU beat Auburn recently, O'Neal took special delight in the victory. Earlier this season, Auburn had held him to a season-low 15 points, thanks to the efforts of Robert McKie.

This time, O'Neal was unstoppable and LSU won by 37.

"I wanted McKie to know who the man was," O'Neal said.

He knows now.

Opinions vary on what O'Neal should do next.

One NBA general manager, asking anonymity, all but guaranteed that O'Neal would be the first selection in the draft this year. Still, he counseled patience.

"I wouldn't want my 18-year-old son to come into the NBA," he said. "He's going to enter a whole different world, an unforgiving world. These guys are just going to treat him like another player. And physical? Oh, my god, it will be three times as bad, particularly in his rookie year."

You know how Arkansas' Richardson feels. From strictly an opponent's standpoint, Mississippi State's Williams suggested that he would shed no tears if O'Neal left. Pitino, who once coached the New York Knicks, offered more realistic considerations.

"I feel it will be very difficult for him to remain in school, especially with the new collective bargaining agreement that is coming up," Pitino said. "But I hope he does remain at LSU, at least, for another year."

Who knows what will happen. Right now, about the only sure things in O'Neal's life are the heat in his dorm room (cranked up high), the sound on his stereo (cranked up extra high during his deejay sessions) and the weekend gangster movie festivals ("Scarface" and "Goodfellas" both receive enthusiastic thumbs up).

In other words, simply being 18.

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