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WINNING AND LOSING:

You want to know how it feels to walk in his shoes? Here you go. Step into these size 22 high-top sneakers. You're about to understand what it takes to be the biggest man in sports.

Life is a limo ride when you're this large. You've got a $120 million contract, so it's nothing for you to pull out your fist-sized wad of hundreds and purchase every seat in a Los Angeles movie theater—just because you and your buddies want the place to yourselves. Hell, never mind watching the movie. You're in it. That's you on the big screen, doing your own stunts, leaping from a train and out of the way of a flaming helicopter. The planet is your personal playground, and that's a good thing, given your oversized love of toys. You've got a state-of-the-art television editing system in your bedroom that allows you to splice your basketball highlights together and make your own commercials. If you need some accompanying music, you can walk across your 15,000-square-foot house to the recording studio and produce your own, or just grab one of the four CDs you've released. You're not bad at directing, actually, having done that for a children's show on Nickelodeon, because, well, even pampered actors tend to listen when the instruction is coming from someone who's 7'1", 340 pounds.

You remain the world's largest 11-year-old, even though you've spent so much of your life being told to grow up and finally reach your potential, and that childlike joy for life is why you still paint your toenails, and greet strangers by pantomiming crazy karate moves, and open the Staples Center (which was built to hold you and all your attendant immenseness, really) by accidentally putting your right sneaker on the wrong foot. You have to be 11 to do what you've done to your luxury cars, replacing the Bentley's steering wheel with a giant Superman logo, equipping your truck with such ridiculous hydraulics that it wiggles and dances at stoplights, and ripping out the back seats of the Benz for a louder-than-a-Kid-Rock-concert sound system that must scare the bejeezus out of all the living creatures in the fish tank (yes, fish tank) built inside the car's trunk. "He has this truly amazing gift," teammate Ron Harper says of you, the biggest man in sports, "for ruining expensive things."

Clearly, you've arrived. You've wanted to be a Laker all your life, wearing Magic's jersey (not Kareem's) as a kid because he and those Laker girls felt so much fresher than the Celtics you describe in your autobiography as "old and musty," and now Hollywood's smorgasbord of temptations is there to satiate your every appetite. Money? Women? Power? Fame? You can dabble or drown in any or all of them on a whim, any night. You are already the youngest player among basketball's 50 all-time greats, and you already have your own clothing line and Web site, and your agent already describes you, accurately, as a "multimedia global icon." So how are you going to celebrate after dropping yet another 30 points and 15 rebounds on some team that feels so helpless against you that its millionaire players actually laugh out loud on the court at the utter impossibility of keeping you away from their basket? If you're Shaquille O'Neal, you're going to celebrate the same way you have dozens of times this season. As midnight approaches, you're going to drive out to Manhattan Beach alone. You're going to take out the key you requested to the Mira Costa High School gym. And you're going to work on your game.


It is far easier to become Shawn Kemp than it is to become Shaq, far easier to take your mountainous millions and cash in, getting fat in more ways than one. "IDGAF" is the nameplate above O'Neal's locker and, depending on his mood, he'll tell you it stands for "I Dominate Games Always Forever" or for "I Don't Give A F—." It is awfully appropriate, having these disparate tags hung on him, because the assumption about O'Neal has always been that his ability to produce the former IDGAF was being sabotaged by the casual attitude articulated by the latter. The easy knock on Shaq was that he didn't care enough because he never seemed to spend nearly as much time on his free throws as he did on his rap music. Didn't help, either, that he was literally at the center of two teams that were swept from the playoffs five of six seasons, all while he talked about having won at "every level except college and the pros"—a statement almost as absurd as the one he made in one of his rap videos when he told kids not to be materialistic … while sitting in a convertible Benz.

Former Laker coach Del Harris can recite Shaq's odyssey from memory: "The first summer I had him he spent on the set of the movie Steel. Second summer was a rap tour in Asia. Third summer was a U.S. rap tour. He went through profound basketball disappointments during that time. He had to make a decision: You either give up, blame others, or demand more of yourself because you want more. Most human beings have to go through some disappointment before they make a commitment to what is really, really important to them. You know what he did this summer? He spent it with a cross-trainer in Phoenix."

Truth is, O'Neal has always cared plenty (he had it written into his movie contracts that basketball hoops would travel with the set and be placed outside his trailer), but hard work will get you only so far. Karl Malone has a helicopter fly him up to the top of a mountain just so he can run all the way down it in a defensive basketball stance, but all that effort hasn't placed him atop the championship mountain Shaq appears ready to scale this season. Clearly, there's more than work at work here. Yes, O'Neal has removed some of the commercial clutter from his life. In the past, he's had marketing relationships with more than 10 companies, but now he declines dozens of offers at a time, costing himself "tens of millions of dollars" in agent Leonard Armato's estimation, because O'Neal doesn't want his focus to wander too far away from that rim or that ring.

He has a live-in chef, a bodyguard, a trainer, a masseuse and an acupuncturist, surrounding himself with people who help make him stronger, bigger, better. But O'Neal has far too much child in him to be one of those people who keep distilling and distilling and distilling their world until it is so small they can palm it. It isn't his nature to concentrate so much on the revolving basketball that he loses sight of the world revolving around it. He figures his journey can be serious and fun because, while Michael Jordan was a maniacal worker, didn't he dabble in golf, gambling, commercials, movies and partying aplenty en route to the throne? "Shaq will tell you himself he's still the same 11-year-old," teammate Rick Fox says. "The only place he has ever matured is on the court." And, good god, has he. Ask Fox if O'Neal has really become a better teammate, and he corrects you: "What he's doing is making us better teammates. He's making the game a lot easier for all of us." Never mind leading the league in scoring average and shooting percentage this season, and finishing second in rebounding. O'Neal's numbers have always been enormous in those areas. Heck, he scored just as much in Year 2 and Year 3 as he did this season, and his free throw shooting, shot-blocking and rebounding were better his rookie year. When he was named the league's Most Valuable Player, O'Neal dubbed himself "Big Aristotle" because, in his words, "It was Aristotle who said, 'Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.'" What Shaq has repeatedly done is average more than 27 points and 12 rebounds a game throughout his career, excellent no matter what philosopher you are quoting. Where he has improved most dramatically, though, is in making the team around him better—these Lakers won more games in a single season than the teams of Magic, Kareem, Worthy and Riley ever did—by concentrating on things far less obvious than earthquake dunks. O'Neal, for example, led NBA centers in assists this season (a career-high 299 in 79 games as opposed to the 152 he had in 81 games his first season), and took a sudden, dramatic pride in his defense after Phil Jackson told him how ridiculous it was for a man his size to be soft on one end of the court. It is a formidable vehicle, Jackson's pushing, heavy on the acceleration, light on the brakes. "I've always been confrontational in a way that doesn't tear a player apart—honest and open," Jackson explains, and it cannot be overstated that the child in Shaq wants very badly to make Jackson, whom he calls "a father figure," proud. It doesn't hurt, either, that Jackson, O'Neal's fifth coach in eight years, came in with instant respect. Says Harris, now a Dallas assistant, "If Phil says it's yoga and swimming today instead of practice, that isn't questioned because he has a $30 million contract and all those rings. If it's coming from someone like me, with a one-year contract and no rings, it's a whole different situation."

Jackson erased the silly ego clash between Shaq and Kobe Bryant as soon as he arrived by saying the Lakers were Shaq's team, period, and that Shaq was going to have to start making more free throws if he wanted to be a leader, period, and that this kind of containing-instead-of-contesting defense was unacceptable, period. Mix Jackson's firm guidance with O'Neal's desire to please him and you have the biggest reason the Lakers went from 25th to sixth in team defense in one year, and why O'Neal's teammates insist he should be named the league's Most Improved Player, too. "Phil has called him out the way nobody has ever called him out," says Pat Riley. "Greatness can suppress ego and say, 'You are right; I can get better,' and that's why greatness always evolves. Growth steps are a natural process in life, whatever your trade, and in our trade Shaq has evolved into the most imposing, unstoppable, intimidating force in the league." Says Fox: "Phil put an added pressure on him, pressure he needed, pressure he never had. When you are scoring 30 and getting 12 rebounds, and you are already the best center in the game, it's easy to feel like you are doing your job. But Shaq knew he could get better, so he was responsive to the challenge Phil placed in front of him. Very responsive, obviously." This is hard to fathom and frightening to consider, but it is the God's honest truth: The biggest man in sports is growing.


"Look at this," Laker forward Robert Horry is saying. Horry is pointing at a television in the locker room. A tape of a recent Laker game is on. There's Shaq, erasing a teammate's defensive mistake by altering a shot. There's Shaq hitting a wide-open Glen Rice over one of those double-teams that perpetually shadow him. There's Shaq with a turnaround jumper off the glass. All of this happens in fewer than 45 seconds, O'Neal's game growing up right before your eyes. Horry's Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, easily swept Shaq's Magic out of a championship once upon a time. Now Horry is pointing at that TV screen. "If the Orlando Magic had that Shaq, they would have beaten us easy," Horry says. "You could see all his talent back then, and everyone just wanted to snap their fingers and have all his potential come out right away. But Dream took a while before making his discovery too. You understand this game and then you really understand it. That's how it works." O'Neal has now framed his force with finesse, adding jump hooks and fadeaways and a soft touch off the glass. Sacramento's Corliss Williamson remembers being stunned earlier this season when O'Neal turned around ballet-like and, looking like a small forward, banked one in. "What can you do?" Williamson said. "I laughed. I told myself that it had to be luck, that he couldn't do that again. But it can't be luck when you're doing it for an entire season." Adds Sacramento center Vlade Divac: "You can see how hard he's worked because he has improved his game everywhere. You can't stop him. You just hope he misses. He's the most dominant player I've ever seen." Says O'Neal: "I'm on a mission."

Ending it with anything less than his first championship will be a failure, of course. O'Neal doesn't want his legacy forever attached to the incomplete histories of Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, guys who were plenty great but never great enough. That's why he harrumphed when he won All-Star Game co-MVP and said he was vastly more interested in "the big-picture award." A long time ago, O'Neal moaned about losing an All-Star MVP trophy to Jordan. He doesn't care about that anymore. O'Neal will remind you that he's only 28, and that Jordan didn't win his first championship until he was 28. Until O'Neal wins one, though, his basketball life will sound a lot like it did during Game 4 of the first round at Sacramento. A group of hecklers behind the bench was taunting the Lakers during a timeout. Ron Harper fished out one of his gaudy championship rings, put it on and casually answered them by placing his ring-bearing hand behind his bald head. One fan cried out, "Where's Shaq's?" and that gave rise to the chant that will follow L.A.'s big man everywhere until he does something to silence it: "Not with Shaq," the Sacramento crowd began singing. "Not with Shaq."

"That stung him, and it should," Harper says. "That should burn a hole right through him. It should eat at him even when he sleeps. He has a giant hole in his résumé. There's only one way to shut that up." Harper is standing in the players' parking lot after practice. He waves a hand over the Porsches and Mercedes around him. "This is all bull," he says. "Money. Cars. Films. Songs. What have you got to show for it? A big house? Everyone in this league has fame and funds of some kind. What separates players is the ring. You can't be great without one of those. You can't be. Did you take your team to the highest height? Did your teammates celebrate around you at the ultimate moment? That's all that matters, man. That's all we're playing for. That's all."

O'Neal is playing for more than that, actually. You want to know what he's searching for in those midnight sessions at that high school gym? You want to know why he is listening so closely to Jackson and passing so much out of the post and protecting his basket like never before? You want to know what he is looking for when he pushes aside the endorsements and movies and all of Harper's other aforementioned bull? You'll find the answer on the cover of Shaq's last CD. It is the title, and it'll come if he wins a title. "Respect" is what it's called.