Shaq Attack! O'Neal quickly reaps marketing bonanza


The biggest stars in the NBA are often recognized in the simplest terms: Wilt, Magic, Michael.

And now there is Shaq, the newest star in a league that markets its players better than any other sport.

Shaquille O'Neal's appeal seems even larger than his 7-foot-1, -- 303-pound frame.

He makes $7 million a year as a center for the Orlando Magic, but the latest estimate of his income from long-term endorsements is $70 million, with products that include Reebok, Pepsi, Spalding, Kenner Toys and Scoreboard trading cards.

Supported by his own business firm, Management Plus Enterprises, O'Neal already has his personalized logo, a signature ball and his own line of clothing.

"In Shaquille, we have the charisma of Magic Johnson, the talent of the NBA's legendary centers, and a personality that supercedes Michael Jordan," said Roberto Miller, president of Reebok's sports division, which signed a $20 million deal with O'Neal. "It took Jordan three years to have the same impact Shaq has made in three months."

It's reached a point where his Los Angeles-based agent, Leonard Armato, is concerned about overexposure.

"I don't want to see five or six Shaq commercials airing on TV at the same time," Armato said. "We don't want to dilute the message."

There is no diluting O'Neal's impact. At last weekend's NBA All-Star Game, he was the center of attention, a 20-year-old kid who has turned the Magic into a playoff contender after three seasons as one of the NBA's punching bags.

Orlando, which visits the Washington Bullets tonight, has won lTC four more games than it did all of last season and has the league's highest percentage of improvement.

On the court, Shaq is averaging 24.1 points, 14.3 rebounds, 4.02 blocks and drawing comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain. Off the court, he has TV talk shows competing for his presence. His boyish personality is a large part of his appeal.

Appearing on "The Arsenio Hall Show" last December, he told his host of the time he walked into a car dealership wearing a Safari hat that was promptly cut to shreds by a ceiling fan.

Before chatting with Arsenio, Shaquille and his agent had a serious discussion about the proper dress code. "I wanted him to wear a conservative suit and tie," said Armato. "Shaq told me, 'I can't do my rap that way.' So we compromised. He brought some baggy red clothes along for his rap session with the Fu Schnickens."

The NBA juggled its schedule in order to showcase O'Neal on four consecutive Sundays, after the Magic had been ignored its previous three seasons. Orlando also will make five appearances on TNT this season.

"It's no coincidence that we got our highest rating ever [14.3] for an All-Star Game with O'Neal involved for the first time," said NBC sports publicist Ed Markey, who has hyped Shaq's matchups at center against New York Knicks star Patrick Ewing and San Antonio's David Robinson.

"That's his star quality at work. The NBA is star-driven, and O'Neal is still a curiosity around the country," said Markey. "People are realizing he's legitimate.

"But I knew he was something special when, before the season even started, The New York Times Magazine chose him for a cover story. And then, of course, when he shattered the backboard support in Phoenix, that certainly didn't hurt his image as a Superman."

Everything about O'Neal is the stuff of myth and legend. He has sold out every arena in the NBA this season save for the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Only Jordan and the defending champion Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics have drawn more fans on the road than the Magic, who have averaged 17,573.

O'Neal's size 20 sneakers were the biggest attraction at the NBA Jam Session, a marketing adjunct to the All-Star competition. From the tips of his toes to his clean-shaven head, O'Neal was the principal attraction.

Magic publicist Alex Martins, who accompanies O'Neal on all road trips, is amazed by his drawing power. At a preseason game in Asheville, N.C., it took the 5-foot-9 Martins five minutes to run interference for O'Neal on a 15-yard trip to the team bus.

"I got the feeling I was clearing the way for the Beatles," said Martins.

O'Neal is already the biggest entertainment act in Florida.

"He's even giving Mickey Mouse a run for his money," said Magic general manager Pat Williams. "Disney still controls Central Florida, but Shaq is making everyone sit up and take notice."

The Magic was selling out its home games before O'Neal arrived. But Williams said, "He's made our games an almost impossible ticket to buy. The demand for season tickets just keeps climbing. We've already topped 13,000."

The Orlando Chamber of Commerce now pushes O'Neal as much as the world-famous Disney characters in its back yard.

"A guy like Shaquille raises the profile of the city," said Joe Mittiga, a spokesman for Orlando Mayor Bill Frederick.

"People know Orlando as the site of Disney World and other theme parks, but now we're also known as the place where Shaq plays. It's what we call 'top-of-the-head' recognition, something that makes you instantly identifiable in a positive way."

O'Neal has also given back to the community. He contributed generously to help the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas and after Hurricane Andrew left thousands of Floridians homeless.

"Basketball is not everything in life," he told The Orlando Sentinel during a fall visit to a homeless shelter to which he donated $7,000. "I've eaten on food stamps myself. I lived in a project in Newark, when I was just a kid. The people here just aren't as fortunate as I am now."

Despite his wealth and fame, O'Neal has a knack of quickly ingratiating himself with the man on the street. Perhaps the greatest of his virtues is a self-deprecating wit.

"I've got a beautiful smile -- and it comes in three versions," he said. "The $1 million smile, $2 million smile and $3 million smile. I'm a very marketable player. Tall, dark and handsome, and a pretty good player."

As good as all the hype that preceded him to the pros after he skipped his senior year at LSU to sign a record seven-year, $40 million contract?

According to some of his peers, O'Neal is just scratching the surface of his potential.

"You never know what kind of impact a rookie is going to have. But Shaq is probably the best center in the league now," said Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star center Brad Daugherty.

"The other great centers all do something different, but nobody can really match his total package."

Former NBA star and coach Doug Collins said the package isn't quite complete.

"Really, he needs just two moves," said Collins, now a TNT analyst. "One weapon he can go to and one counter move if they take the first one away. Just two moves, and he'll be unstoppable."

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