ATLANTA -- As a child growing up -- and up -- at military bases around the world, Shaquille O'Neal said he dreamed about playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. He would imitate his favorite stars of "Showtime." First it was Norm Nixon and later, perhaps when it become evident he wasn't going to be a point guard, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
At the age of 24, O'Neal's boyhood dream has come true.
But yesterday's announcement that the 7-foot-1, 300-pound free-agent center had left the Orlando Magic after four seasons to join the Lakers wasn't about fantasy. Or maybe it was, when you consider that O'Neal's seven-year contract is for $120 million and averages $17.1 million per year, the second-highest annual salary in the NBA behind Chicago Bulls superstar Michael
"Change is for the good and change is for the better. This was a dream," O'Neal said at a news conference at Centennial Olympic Park, where he and the Dream Team are preparing for the Summer Games. "It was a very tough decision. Orlando was the first option, but I think I made the right decision. . . . The Lakers gave me the best offer."
Magic general manager John Gabriel disagreed, saying Orlando topped the Los Angeles bid, but he did not disclose the amount. The Magic's previous reported offer was for $115 million over seven years.
"Our job, from a management standpoint, was to put a fair-market deal on the table. I think we did that, clearly," Gabriel said. "It's just a disappointing end. We lost a family member today. But we will regroup."
O'Neal's contract is the most lucrative total package in team sports history and the second this year to exceed $100 million, after Alonzo Mourning's seven-year, $112 million deal with the Miami Heat.
O'Neal's deal also includes an escape clause after three years, but it seems doubtful that the star of the recently released movie "Kazaam" will venture too far from Hollywood.
Asked if the proximity to Hollywood helped cement the deal, O'Neal said no, adding that he will limit his acting to the off-season.
"People say I don't care enough about basketball because I like to do other things," he said. "There's no way I was playing 82 games and doing a movie during the season."
O'Neal played in only 54 games last season after breaking his thumb in the preseason. He went on to average 26.6 points and 11.3 rebounds, but the Magic, swept in the 1995 NBA Finals by the Houston Rockets, was swept in the Eastern Conference finals by Chicago.
"I have a good chance [to win an NBA title] with the Lakers," said O'Neal, whose career averages are 27.2 points and 12.5 rebounds. "They have a good team. It's not like I'm going to a team of old guys. I bring a lot. I score a little bit and play some defense and I've been working on my free throws."
Said Lakers general manager Jerry West: "He's a great talent and a great personality. Los Angeles is a town of personalities and a city that embraces its personalities. The Lakers have a guy who's a 24-year-old superstar who's going to take us to that incredible level."
The impact was felt immediately, as the Lakers announced the price of their cheapest ticket had risen from $9.50 to $21. Also, to clear money under the salary cap, they traded two former No. 1 draft picks, George Lynch and Anthony Peeler, to the Vancouver Grizzlies for two future second-round picks.
O'Neal will wear No. 34 -- "My father wore that number when he played," he said -- since the 32 he wore with the Magic and the 33 he wore at LSU were retired along with legends Magic Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, respectively.
But his mere presence in a Lakers uniform will tip the balance of power throughout the league, especially in the Eastern Conference, where the newly revitalized New York Knicks will have only the Bulls to challenge.
"It's kind of devastating," said Anfernee Hardaway, O'Neal's former Magic teammate. "We can do it for a little while like we did last season, but I don't think we can win the entire season without a big man."
Pub Date: 7/19/96