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O'Neal just 1 of many in land of celebrity New Laker still big fish, but in a bigger pond

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- It's the end of a work day for Shaquille O'Neal, and at 2 p.m., with practice behind him, the options here for this mega-millionaire are numerous. Perhaps a trip to nearby Venice Beach, where he can flex his muscles. Maybe a spending spree down fashionable and pricey Rodeo Drive. Or possibly a late afternoon lunch, where he could conceivably rub elbows with one of the area's other one-name celebs: Arnold, Demi or maybe even Snoop.

"No, nothing like that," O'Neal said, soaking in the sun outside the Westwood Recreation center. "I'm playing daddy today, bro."

Welcome to the new world of Shaquille O'Neal, who with the recent birth of his daugther, is a "Shaq-Daddy." Signed by the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer to a contract worth $121 million over seven years, O'Neal will make his Great Western Forum debut tonight as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers when they play the Philadelphia 76ers in the GTE Shootout. The Washington Bullets will face the Phoenix Suns in tonight's early game.

In his old world of Orlando, O'Neal was a big star in a small town, hoisted on a pedestal for all to admire -- but at the same time having every little aspect of his life scrutinized. Here, life for O'Neal is more refreshing: He finds himself in a city where there isn't a daily "Shaq-watch" in the newspaper, a place so abundant with celebrities that he may have to wait a few minutes before he's seated for dinner at local restaurants.

But don't let the easier off-court lifestyle be an interpretation that life here for O'Neal will be less demanding. Playing with a franchise that has a long and proud tradition of winning -- most recently in the 1980s with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- the Lakers are expecting a return on their big investment.

"The Lakers have acquired a superstar who we feel is going to bring us back to the incredible level that the franchise has enjoyed in the past," said Lakers general manager Jerry West.

The interest is evident. The Lakers, who sold out 16 games last season, have sold out eight for the 1996-97 season "and we'll sell out a considerable amount more," said Bob Steiner, public relations director for California Sports, Inc., parent company of the Lakers.

Steiner said the Lakers will likely sell 14,000 to 14,500 season tickets, the maximum amount allowed (9,000 were sold last season). The anticipated numbers rival the sales of the Magic Johnson era in the mid-1980s.

Fans will get to see a team that returns four starters -- Elden Campbell, Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel -- who helped the Lakers win 53 games last season. Once O'Neal came on board, the team also got a bonus by signing two veterans -- Byron Scott and Jerome Kersey -- who were willing to sign for the league minimum of $247,000 for a shot at an NBA title.

And O'Neal is excited about a possible championship, although there are many who say he had a better shot of attaining that goal in Orlando, where he would have been teamed with one of the best point guards in the game in Anfernee Hardaway.

"Everybody knows that all the great teams had a great 1-2 punch. Bird and McHale, Bird and Parish," O'Neal said. "Our 1-2 punch was supposed to be me and Penny. [Coach Brian Hill] was worried sometimes about getting other guys [Nick Anderson] plays."

For O'Neal, the way the media followed his every move was also a problem. When the media in Orlando discovered in January that O'Neal was going to become a father, he was criticized heavily.

"I think the guys down there were kind of small-minded," O'Neal said.

And these days O'Neal is enjoying life with his daughter, Teheara, although there are still darts being thrown his way by the Orlando media. A columnist there recently wrote the Lakers are upset with O'Neal after he allegedly demanded that three members of his entourage be put on the team payroll, and after he didn't take a team flight to training camp in Hawaii because he was finishing a movie.

"This is a new start for me, and hopefully I can just go out and do well for this team," O'Neal said, just before his entourage steered him toward a getaway in his souped up truck. "I want to win -- we want to win. But winning is not going to be good enough."

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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