Standing between Magic and O'Neal is his agent, who may prefer California


ORLANDO, Fla. -- The mystery man holding the future pulse of the Orlando Magic is a thirtysomething, soft-spoken, a former all-conference college guard, a Brooklyn-born volleyball zealot with a growing reputation for driving NBA executives to screams. Leonard Armato has a glitzy, 12th-floor office in Century City with a view of the Pacific, a home in fashionable Brentwood not far from the UCLA campus, a wife and two small children.

More pertinent to the fans and management of the Magic, however, is that Armato also has a client named Shaquille O'Neal. After winning the No. 1 draft pick in the the NBA lottery on Sunday, the Magic will claim the 7-foot-1, 300-pound former LSU center -- unanimously stamped as pro basketball's can't-miss next megastar. But whether it signs O'Neal and actually puts him in a Magic uniform likely will depend largely on the whims and actions of lawyer/agent Armato, who nonetheless insists he will be more educator than manipulator in the melodrama expected to dominate Orlando's summer.

The mating dance began innocently enough on Monday with a five-minute telephone conversation between Armato and Magic general manager Pat Williams that both parties described as cordial. "We had never talked. We had a nice conversation," Armato said Tuesday from the offices of his Management Plus Enterprises. Williams invited Armato to bring O'Neal to Orlando for a get-acquainted visit, purely social. Armato was here for the All-Star Weekend and says he likes the city.

His track record suggests Armato is a control freak. He will decide when O'Neal visits Orlando, and he will set the ground rules. He will decide when the Shaq ends his current Greta

Garbo act and actually move his lips in front of the media. He will call local newspapers and TV stations, history suggests, and raise holy hell if he doesn't agree with a phrase or interpretation.

O'Neal's lips are not likely to be unsealed this week, Armato cautioned. "He's just been inundated with media requests. He'll probably surface next week."

Those who have watched Armato operate predict the Magic is in for a long, trying summer and may not sign O'Neal until November, if at all. Reportedly, Armato has told confidants he wants O'Neal playing in Los Angeles' endorsement heaven, creating the assumption that he will try to force the Magic into trading Shaq's rights.

"I don't think anybody should assume anything," Armato said. "My job is as an educator. I will sit down with Shaquille and his parents and try to detail all the options. I will try to present the risks vs. certain strategies."

During the conversation, Armato excused himself to take a call from O'Neal's father, who lives in San Antonio. When the agent returned to the line, he said O'Neal's parents had just agreed to fly to Los Angeles "in a few days" for Professor Armato's class in NBA 101. (Actually, there is a real Professor Armato. The agent's father is a literature professor at Southern California, where Armato played freshman basketball before transferring to the University of the Pacific.)

Armato, who helped form the pro beach volleyball league in 1983, made his first significant foray into sports representation when he was credited with restoring financial sanity to the life of towering Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. More recently, he surfaced as the Houston Rockets' designated villain in a late-season contract/injury flap with another of his clients, center Hakeem Olajuwon. "I specialize," Armato says wryly, "in men

over seven feet with Muslim names."

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