O'Neal is NBA's new center of attention No. 1 pick debuts at Capital Centre PRO BASKETBALL


The 1950s and '60s in pro basketball were dominated by two powerful centers -- George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain, who, by brute force and intimidation, convinced general managers and coaches that the quickest way to a championship was finding a big man in their image.

In time, this thinking changed with the arrival of finesse centers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and David Robinson. Then multifaceted players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan proved a team could win titles without a monster in the middle.

But now, with the heralded arrival of the Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal, who makes his Capital Centre debut against the Washington Bullets tonight, the dominant center theory has been revived in earnest.

"He's like Wilt Chamberlain reincarnated," said someone who should know -- Chamberlain.

"He's the closest thing I've seen to myself in a long time," added Chamberlain, who used his 7-foot-1, 270-pound frame to average 30.1 points and 23 rebounds in his record-breaking 14-year career.

O'Neal, 20, bypassed his senior year at LSU to turn pro. He is built along similar lines -- 7 feet 1, 301 pounds. And, like Chamberlain in his college days at Kansas, O'Neal had a tendency to bounce defenders off his back like Andre the Giant toying with midget wrestlers.

He had 12 points and 18 rebounds last night in Orlando's season-opening 110-100 victory over the visiting Miami Heat.

"O'Neal has the same type of physical attributes that you saw in ZTC the young Wilt," Dick Harp, who coached Chamberlain at Kansas, told Inside Sports. "I don't know anyone else playing in the game who is closer in terms of physical ability, running, jumping and quickness.

"But what people forget was that Wilt was 23 when he joined the NBA," Harp said. "He was more mature than Shaquille, even though he's a giant among men. Imagine if he continues to improve as [Houston's] Hakeem Olajuwon has. He'll be a great player. It's just a matter of time."

But the great weight of expectation from the national media and fans around the league will not allow O'Neal to grow in a vacuum.

He has been branded as something special since LSU coach Dale Brown first met the oversized youngster at an Army base in Germany, where O'Neal's father was stationed. Mistaking him for a soldier, Brown inquired if he intended to go to college after his service discharge.

"Sir," O'Neal said, "I just turned 13."

Eventually, O'Neal followed the persistent Brown to LSU. By his sophomore year, he was averaging 27.6 points, 14.7 rebounds and blocking 140 shots. He was chosen college player of the year by United Press International and Sports Illustrated.

Courted by the pros, O'Neal elected to remain one more year at LSU, but soon grew weary of the suffocating zone defenses.

His stats slipped slightly (24.1 points per game, 14 rebounds) his junior year, but there was little doubt that he would be the first player selected in the draft this past June.

Orlando presented him with a record six-year contract worth $40 million.

"Obviously, expectations about Shaquille are going to be sky high," Magic coach Matt Guokas said. "But what people must realize is that it will take time for him to adjust to the NBA lifestyle.

"And, for now, teams will defend him a lot like they did in college. He's going to see a lot of double- and triple-teaming. He's just got to stay involved when things aren't going well for him on the offensive end."

In Orlando's eight-game preseason schedule, O'Neal showed brilliant flashes of what to expect his rookie year, averaging 17.8 points and 10 rebounds.

"If Shaquille never gets any better," Magic point guard Scott Skiles said, "he'd still be one of the top five centers in the NBA."

Added journeyman center Greg Kite, starting his 11th NBA season: "In all my years I've never seen a package of talent like this. [Patrick] Ewing has a lot of strength and Robinson is really quick, but nobody combines the strength and quickness that Shaquille has."

O'Neal says he realizes he is expected to transform the expansion Magic, 21-61 last season, into a title contender.

"Very few people come into this league and dominate right away," he said. "The Magics and Birds are the exceptions. I'm not rushing into anything. What will be, will be. But one thing is certain. If I'm not a dominant player right now, I'll still be OK in the long run."

When he missed his first eight shots in a preseason game against Jon Koncak and the Atlanta Hawks last week, O'Neal did not sulk, but continued battling for rebounds and setting jarring picks.

"I don't have time to get discouraged if things aren't going well," he said. "I'm not a quitter. If there's a game still to be won, I won't be hanging my head. I'll keep my composure when things go bad."

O'Neal already has set a timetable.

"My first year will be a learning experience," he said. "The second year we should make the playoffs. Maybe it will happen in the third or fourth year, but sometime in my career, the Magic will play for the championship."

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