Legends Lane can be a scary place. It is populated exclusively by
giants, and no one under 7 feet tall is advised to venture near.
Why, even Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal, who named the
place, talks about it in reverential tones. But young Shaq doesn't
need to be quite so circumspect, because after the fortuitous
quirk of scheduling that in a span of six days last week threw
together O'Neal and three other elite centers -- the New York
Knicks' Patrick Ewing, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon and
the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson -- it was more obvious than
ever that O'Neal not only deserves to reside on Legends Lane but
that he also will soon have the biggest house on the block.
If four almost-certain Hall of Fame centers have ever been matched
against one another in as short a period as the NBA's Big Four
were last week, no one could remember such an occasion. The
quartet's confrontations will certainly be remembered when Most
Valuable Player votes are cast in six weeks, because O'Neal,
Olajuwon (last season's MVP) and Robinson (the defending scoring
champion) are the front-runners for this season's award and were
also the league's three leading scorers through Sunday. Add Ewing
to the mix, and, with apologies to the Charlotte Hornets' Alonzo
Mourning and the Denver Nuggets' Dikembe Mutombo, the four best
centers in the sport were measuring their games, their egos and
their reputations against one another.
When it was over, very little had been settled, although O'Neal,
the MVP favorite, had only helped his cause. But we did learn a
few things, among them that although Ewing has many talents,
clairvoyance is not one of them; that Shaq may endorse Pepsi, but
he will really have arrived when he has his own brand of water
named after him, as Olajuwon does; that Robinson's motivational
video of choice is a Disney film; and, perhaps most important,
that before the MVP is conceded to anyone, a certain heavily
tattooed, blond/red/fuchsia/green/orange/purple-haired Spur
forward deserves serious consideration.
Ewing escaped the week relatively easily, having to play only
O'Neal. Robinson and Olajuwon had to face each other and O'Neal,
and Shaq drew the short straw, facing all three of the others,
including Olajuwon and Robinson on consecutive nights. ``All you
can do is take it day by day,'' said Shaq. So that's what we'll
Tuesday, Orlando: Ewing vs. O'Neal
The Knicks, who have lost two of their three games against the
Magic this season, arrive in Orlando six games behind the
first-place Magic in the Atlantic Division standings. ``This time,
we're going to win,'' Ewing had said after practice the day
before. Not surprisingly, a newspaper clipping with Ewing's
declaration has found its way to the bulletin board in the Magic
It isn't the first time that the normally taciturn Ewing has been
unable to hold his tongue on the subject of O'Neal and the Magic.
Although he and O'Neal are among the league leaders in
single-sentence answers, they somehow manage to convey the
intensity of their rivalry with their brief utterances. After a
Knick victory last season, O'Neal said that even though the Magic
had lost, ``Patrick knows who the Man is.'' Ewing responded,
``He's not the Man yet.''
That issue is at the heart of the Ewing-O'Neal matchup. Ewing,
32, is the veteran star, giving ground grudgingly in the face of
the relentless advance of the 23-year-old O'Neal. While Shaq meets
Robinson and Olajuwon only twice a year, he battles Ewing five
times. This is the 13th time the two centers have played each
other -- they split the first 12 -- and they know one another so
well that Tree Rollins, the Magic's backup center and assistant
coach, hardly needs to remind O'Neal how to guard Ewing, but he
does so anyway. Ewing likes to use pump fakes against opponents
who can block his shot, Rollins tells O'Neal. Don't let him fake
you into the air. Try to keep him from taking those giant steps
and rolling into the lane when he gets the ball in the low post,
because that's where he gets his three-point plays.
As for Ewing, he realizes he won't get a great deal of help while
playing defense against O'Neal, because the Knicks don't often
double-team opposing centers. ``It's possible for Shaq to get his
40 and for us to still win,'' says New York coach Pat Riley.
Perhaps it is possible, but it doesn't happen this night at the
Orlando Arena. O'Neal dominates, showing off his new repertoire of
jump hooks and turnaround jumpers, and he finishes with 41 points
and 10 rebounds in a 118-106 Orlando victory. Ewing plays well,
with 32 points (his fifth straight game of 30 points or more) and
15 rebounds but not well enough for the Knicks to live up to his
prediction. There is the feeling that the time is fast
approaching when even Ewing will have to agree that O'Neal is the
Thursday, Houston: O'Neal vs. Olajuwon
The two centers take the court at the Summit in Houston with a
great deal more seriousness than they showed the night before,
when they met for a magazine photo shoot at the arena.
The twosome struck a few playful poses during the shoot, and at
the end the 301-pound O'Neal scooped up the 255-pound Olajuwon in
his arms like a groom carrying his bride across the threshold.
That was appropriate, because Olajuwon and O'Neal have a
syrupy-sweet affection for each other, with none of the hidden
bitternesses or jealousies that mark O'Neal's relationships with
some other centers. ``Hakeem's the best center in the league,''
says Shaq. ``The best in the world. Don't compare me to anybody
else but him.''
The 32-year-old Olajuwon has told more than one friend that when
he looks at O'Neal, he's glad he won his MVP award and the NBA
championship ring last year because the next few could belong to
Shaq. ``He's the best,'' Olajuwon says. ``Just to see the way he's
developing is incredible.''
Even more incredible was how well Olajuwon played while observing
the 30-day Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which required him to
abstain from eating from sunrise to sunset each day. He lost 10
pounds before Ramadan ended today and admits that the fasting
weakened him for certain games -- but having averaged 29.5 points,
10.1 rebounds and 3.43 blocks, he still won the NBA Player of the
Month award for February. Apparently Olajuwon kept his strength up
with the gallon -- yes, gallon -- of water he estimates he drinks
daily. The Dream is such a water enthusiast that a day before his
battle with Shaq he announced the introduction of his own brand,
Hakeem Olajuwon H20 Natural Spring Water.
Olajuwon's strategy against O'Neal is basic. ``Stay behind him,''
he says. ``Let the other guys come to help. He usually requires
not just a double team but a triple team.'' In the past those
extra defenders might have drawn O'Neal into turnovers and perhaps
an offensive foul or two. But the new, improved Shaq refuses to
try to bull his way to the basket. Instead he patiently passes the
ball back out when he is swarmed.
O'Neal winds up with a relatively modest 19 points but dishes off
a career-high-tying six assists, grabs 20 rebounds and
contributes a crucial three- point play down the stretch in a
107-96 Orlando victory. Olajuwon finishes with 22 points and nine
rebounds but misses 14 of his 23 shots. ``It was a slow night for
both of us,'' O'Neal says. ``The people watching on [TBS] didn't
see the best of me or Hakeem.'' One viewer is fully aware of that.
His name is David Robinson.
Friday, San Antonio: O'Neal vs. Robinson
After having lavished praise on Olajuwon, O'Neal slips back into
his short-answer mode when queried about Robinson. Although he
called Olajuwon the best center in the NBA, when asked to rank
Robinson, he replies, ``I don't rate players.''
There is a coolness between O'Neal and the 29-year-old Robinson
that started in last season's All-Star Game, when Robinson and
other Western Conference big men double- and triple-teamed
O'Neal, holding him without a field goal for most of the game.
O'Neal chalked it up to jealousy, and Robinson later responded
during a conference call with reporters: ``He talks about people
being jealous of him, but he has nothing we want.'' O'Neal's
rejoinder: ``You tell David Robinson, the next time he plays me,
I'll be on his butt. If there's ever a day David dominates me,
it's because he has help.''
But what may irk O'Neal most is that he is 0-4 lifetime against
Robinson and the Spurs. And the circumstances tonight -- playing
his second road game in two nights, an early-morning arrival in
San Antonio, the hot Spurs (who have won six in a row) -- are not
in his favor. Early in the game it seems as though those factors
are having an effect, as Robinson beats O'Neal down the floor for
a few easy baskets.
The Magic throw a defensive wrinkle at the Spurs, having power
forward Horace Grant guard Robinson while O'Neal checks Spur power
forward Dennis Rodman. It is a logical move, since Robinson plays
like a forward, roaming out on the wing and facing the basket, and
Rodman camps near the backboard. Grant's quickness is effective
against Robinson, who makes only 7 of 24 shots, but San Antonio
still takes a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.
That's when O'Neal begins to lead the Magic back. He scores 12
points in the final quarter. On consecutive possessions he
provides a scary look at how good he may someday be. Getting the
ball in the low post, Shaq backs Robinson in a few steps, then
spins into the lane and hits a jump hook. The next time, he backs
Robinson into the same position, fakes the same spin move -- but
turns the other way for a baseline jump shot that ties the game at
109. ``If he's going to do that, he'll just be impossible to
defend,'' Robinson says later. O'Neal finishes with 36 points, 12
rebounds and two blocks to Robinson's 24 points, 14 rebounds and
But as if to remind everyone, including perhaps himself, that he
is still a work-in-progress, O'Neal has a crucial lapse when he
allows Rodman to grab an air ball by Spur guard Doc Rivers and lay
it in with 3.7 seconds left for the winning basket in the Spurs'
112-111 victory. ``Shaq was daydreaming,'' Rivers says. Says
O'Neal, ``I was expecting it to hit the rim. If it hits the rim, I
grab the rebound and we win the game.'' (This Sunday he gets
another crack at San Antonio when the Magic plays host to the
After coming so close to sweeping three elite centers in four
days, O'Neal can afford to be blase. ``I think I held my own,'' he
says after the game. ``If you guys want to put me up there with
them, fine. If you don't, it doesn't matter.''
Sunday, San Antonio: Olajuwon vs. Robinson
Robinson wakes up an hour earlier than usual, at 8 a.m., to watch
a video of Disney's The Lion King with his two-year-old son, David
Jr. ``Just to get myself psyched up,'' he says.
When Robinson and Olajuwon play each other, the similarities of
these two quick, agile big men are striking. ``They can both go
out on the floor and play,'' says Spur coach Bob Hill. Today
Robinson has a statistical edge over Olajuwon, with 31 points and
11 rebounds to Olajuwon's 25 and six, but the story, again, is
Rodman. He grabs 27 rebounds in the Spurs' 124-103 win (their
fifth in six games over slumping Midwest Division rival Houston
this season) and proves that while the individual matchups of the
centers may be intriguing, they're not necessarily decisive.
Robinson already understands that. ``Last year my stats were
better than Hakeem's, but big deal,'' he says. ``His team was
better than mine. He won the championship, and he deserved the
``You can't really tell who's best unless you play a seven-game
series against them,'' Olajuwon says. He was referring to Robinson
and the Spurs, but he could have been talking about all the
centers who live on Legends Lane.
HOW SHAQ STACKS UP
Here are Shaquille O'Neal's career statistics against Patrick
Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson (through games of
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