ORLANDO, Fla. -- There's a sports memorabilia room in the Orlando-area mansion that Shaquille O'Neal calls home, and in that room is a piece of paper the Orlando Magic center considers of extremely high value; it bears the autograph of Hakeem Olajuwon.

"It means a lot to me," recalled O'Neal, who was 16 when he got the signature at a Houston Rockets game in San Antonio. "I was just a kid with no money, no clothes, no car. I just snuck in the back and got his autograph. We talked a little. He knew who I was."

If Olajuwon didn't know who O'Neal was at the time -- and yesterday he was unable to recall the encounter -- he definitely knows what he's up against starting tonight when the most-anticipated center matchup in, perhaps, decades unfolds when the Houston Rockets meet the Magic in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Yes, the Rockets are the defending NBA champions. Yet in reaching the Finals for the second straight season, Houston became the biggest surprise in the league this season. The team struggled throughout, finishing in sixth place in the Western Conference. A first-round playoff exit was expected by many. But the Rockets marched through their series, beating the top three teams in the Western Conference to reach the Finals.

The Orlando franchise has been in existence for just six years, and on its locker-room wall there's a sign that reads, "Why not us, why not now?" The run through the playoffs by the youthful Magic has been impressive, and Orlando is trying to become just the fifth team in NBA history to win a title without having won a playoff game in a previous year.

Expecting a replay of last year's ugly final series between Houston and the New York Knicks? Forget it. Both of this year's teams like to run, both love to shoot three-pointers and both play a style of basketball that is entertaining to watch.

"The similarities between the two teams is quite amazing when you break the teams down," Orlando coach Brian Hill said.

And the similarities start in the middle, with both teams boasting dominant big men.

Olajuwon against O'Neal is finesse vs. brute force; quickness and agility vs. size; quiet superstar vs. new-school rap star.

It's the Dream vs. Shaq (or Shaq Daddy, or Shaq-Fu -- O'Neal's so big he even has an array of nicknames).

"I don't think either guy can stop the other," said Jack Ramsay, former coach of the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers and current analyst on ESPN. "O'Neal is too powerful and Hakeem is too fluid. It should be a great matchup."

A great matchup, yes, but not one built on animosity or jealousy. O'Neal can't find nice things to say about David Robinson or Patrick Ewing. But ask about Olajuwon, and you hear words of respect for Houston's 7-foot all-star. O'Neal even had a line about Olajuwon on one of his rap records: "I want a ring like Hakeem's."

"I think if you guys would compare me to any great center, I would love to be compared to Hakeem," O'Neal said. "On the court, he's a hard-nosed player. He doesn't play dirty, doesn't down other players. He's well-dressed, sociable and nice-looking, so compare me to him."

As for O'Neal, Olajuwon simply calls the 7-foot-1, 300-pounder his "biggest test.

"He's such a unique player with his size. He's so active and you can't give him anything around the basket or he'll dunk," Olajuwon said.

"Each round, the test for me has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. This is the biggest challenge for me, no question."

How did the two fare head-to-head during the regular season? Olajuwon averaged 24.5 points in two games. So did O'Neal. But O'Neal was more impressive on the boards (27-19) and shot better from the field (61.1 percent to 42.2 percent). And O'Neal had the edge in what counts the most: the Magic won both games, by an average of 17 points.

But throw out those numbers. Houston's loss to Orlando in November came during a three-game losing streak. The March loss came in the midst of a five-game slide.

During Houston's impressive playoff run, Olajuwon averaged 33.0 points. Matched in the conference finals against Robinson, Olajuwon was unstoppable in averaging 35.3 as the Rockets won three games in San Antonio and took the series in six.

"Awesome, just awesome," Orlando guard Anfernee Hardaway said of Olajuwon's recent play. "The things that he does, you don't classify him as a center. I think he can play three positions if he wanted to."

As for O'Neal, Olajuwon said: "To look at his talent and what he can do, you cannot compare him to any player. He's a unique player with his size, quickness and power. I'll need all the help I can get against him, because to play him one-on-one is a joke."

The O'Neal-Olajuwon matchup will be far from a joke.



(Best of seven)

Today: At Orlando, 9 p.m.

Friday: At Orlando, 9 p.m.

Sunday: At Houston, 7:30 p.m.

June 14: At Houston, 9 p.m.

June 16: At Houston, 9 p.m.*

June 18: At Orlando, 7:30 p.m.*

June 21: At Orlando, 9 p.m.*

* -- if necessary; TV: Chs. 11, 4

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