HE'S BACK HIS THUMB HEALED, ORLANDO'S SHAQUILLE O'NEAL RETURNED TO ACTION AND IMMEDIATELY BEGAN THROWING HIS WEIGHT AROUND

December 25, 1995

It's not like he was ever really gone. His television
commercials, magazine ads, videos, books, compact discs and
appearances at celebrity functions ensure that the public is
never more than moments away from its next Shaq sighting. But
son of a gun, we missed the big lug anyway. And it wasn't until
Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal returned last Friday from
the thumb injury that caused him to miss the first 22 games of
the season that we realized just how much his absence had been
felt. Shaq is back, and the NBA just became a lot more fun.

There he was against the Utah Jazz in his first game of the
1995-96 season, knocking the basket support loose with a
ferocious rebound-dunk and threatening to do the same with some
of his free throws. It was, to borrow the title of O'Neal's
second rap recording, Shaq Fu: Da Return. And even though point
guard Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway had been brilliant in O'Neal's
absence, leading the Magic to a 17-5 record, second best in the
league to the Chicago Bulls' 18-2, O'Neal's performance reminded
everyone that he remains Orlando's rapmaster. "We got used to
playing without Shaq, and it's great that we proved we can do
that," says Orlando power forward Horace Grant. "But it's a
little bit like when you're reading and you think the light's
fine, and then somebody comes along and turns on a big, bright
lamp. You say to yourself, Wow, that's much better, isn't it?"

That's not what the rest of the league is saying. As if it
wasn't disheartening enough to the other teams that the Magic
adjusted so smoothly to life without O'Neal, it now appears that
Shaq will be easily sliding back into the Orlando offense, as
his efficient performance in the 111-99 victory over the Jazz
indicates. He came off the bench and played only 24 minutes yet
finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds. (He followed that up on
Sunday in Toronto with 32 points and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes
even though, in one of those weird regular-season NBA role
reversals, the potent Magic was drubbed by the expansion Raptors
110-93.) "The rest of the league is scared," says Orlando
forward Dennis Scott. "Got to be."

O'Neal's triumphant return makes it even harder to believe that
there were those who had the absurd notion that he would be a
7'1" speed bump slowing down the streaking Magic. Without Shaq,
the thinking went, Orlando was a fast-breaking, free-flowing
team. With him in the lineup, there was supposedly the danger
that the offense would become bogged down trying to feed him the
ball in the low post. After the Magic beat the Bulls 94-88 on
Nov. 14 in Orlando, local talk-show callers began debating in
earnest whether the Magic might actually take a step backward
when Shaq returned. And even Chicago forward Scottie Pippen said
he was disappointed that O'Neal didn't play when the Bulls
gained revenge on Dec. 13 with a 112-103 win over the Magic in
Chicago. "I was kind of hoping he would play, because I figured
they might have a little trouble working him in again," Pippen
said.

O'Neal seemed amused by that thinking, and with tongue tucked
firmly in cheek he indicated that he was coming back to be
little more than a caddie for Jon Koncak, who was the starter
last Friday night, as he had been when O'Neal was on the shelf.
"I'm just a role player," Shaq said before the Utah game. "I'm
going for the Sixth Man award." He no doubt will cherish the
first Subway Sub of the Game award of his career, an honor
bestowed after each Magic game and which he earned with his
performance against Utah.

Actually, it looked as if O'Neal might have sampled the Subway
menu a bit too often while he was recovering from the Oct. 26
surgery that reattached a ligament and repaired a fracture to
his right thumb. His 332-pound body, partly bulked up through
off-season weightlifting and 22 pounds heavier than it was at
the end of last season, seemed a trifle thicker around the
middle than it had been during the exhibition season. That
probably resulted from his routine while on the injured list,
which he jokingly described as "eating steak, going to movies,
waking up and not doing anything."

The Magic offense didn't change its focus to accommodate
O'Neal--"We only ran about two or three plays for him all night,"
Orlando coach Brian Hill said--so he picked up most of his points
on offensive rebounds (five in all) and free throws, which, as
always with O'Neal, were an adventure. After making his first
four foul shots, he finished with eight of 16, which was roughly
in keeping with his career 55.8 percentage. But with O'Neal the
raw numbers are almost secondary. Shaq at the foul line is
reminiscent of Reggie Jackson in the batter's box; he can be
more entertaining when he misses than when he doesn't. And
O'Neal didn't even offer the alibi that the splint he employed
to protect his thumb had affected his touch. "I was thinking it
might even help," he said.

O'Neal's absence may not have caused a decline in the Magic's
record, but it did have an impact on fan enthusiasm. That
changed with 7:16 to play in the first quarter Friday night,
after Koncak picked up his second foul, when O'Neal entered the
game to a raucous standing ovation. "The big fella has
something, I don't know what it is, but he gives the place a
shot of electricity," said Scott after the game against Utah.

The injury was the first serious one of O'Neal's career, and,
despite the Superman tattoo he displays on his arm, it
discouraged the view that he is an invulnerable,
larger-than-life figure. That could be a blessing in disguise
when it comes to his treatment by referees. Hill and Magic vice
president of basketball operations John Gabriel have long
complained about what O'Neal's opponents are allowed to get away
with, and their objections took on new vehemence after the game
in which O'Neal injured the thumb, an Oct. 24 exhibition against
the Miami Heat. Miami center Matt Geiger, since traded to the
Charlotte Hornets, caused the injury with a karate chop of a
foul against O'Neal. Many Magic players insist that officials
previously did not protect O'Neal because the refs believed that
his immense strength enabled him to play through excessive
contact. But the sight of him on the bench wearing a cast and
street clothes may have done more to erase that notion than a
year's worth of complaining to the league office.

The other enduring benefit of O'Neal's absence is that it
forced some of Orlando's secondary players to step into the
foreground, including Scott, who is slowly developing from a
strictly long-range gunner into an all-around player. While
O'Neal was hurt, Scott was second to Hardaway in scoring, with
20.7 points per game (he averaged 12.9 in 1994-95). And he even
worked on his defense, which he previously seemed to think was
just an opportunity to rest his shooting arm.

Hardaway's performance during O'Neal's absence was nothing
short of spectacular, the kind of effort that should be
remembered next spring when the Most Valuable Player ballots are
filled out. "Asking Penny to take on this burden [of leading the
team without O'Neal] two years ago would have been too much to
ask," says Hill of his third-year star. "Right now he's playing
veteran basketball. The emotional part of his game has caught up
with the physical part."

Hardaway's averages in the 22 games before O'Neal's return were
26.4 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds, but even those
numbers don't measure his impact, nor do they describe the
effortless grace with which he performs. Against Utah he caught
an alley-oop pass going away from the basket, spun in the air
and shot, and then, when his shot rolled off the rim, recovered
quickly enough to be the first player back in the air for a
tip-in. A remarkable play, but it happened so fast that it
barely caused a ripple among the crowd.

This year the 6'7", 207-pound Hardaway has power to accompany
the grace. An off-season weightlifting program added about 20
pounds, which makes him a more imposing figure around the
basket. On one baseline drive last Friday against the Jazz, Karl
Malone, Utah's 256-pound power forward with biceps the size of
bowling balls, moved over to challenge him, then thought better
of it and pulled his arm back as Hardaway dunked.

O'Neal's absence allowed Hardaway to move to an even higher
station among the NBA's elite. He even got the better of the
Bulls' Michael Jordan, outscoring him 36 points to 23, in
Orlando's November win. When the Magic came to Chicago last week
for the rematch, Jordan responded with 36 points--Hardaway had
26--in the Bulls' victory. It's hard to miss the signs that
Hardaway is poised to assume Jordan's mantle. Nike's Air Penny
basketball shoe is the first the company has named after an NBA
player since, you guessed it, the Air Jordan. Even Hardaway's
latest Nike commercial, in which he talks with a puppetlike
character named Little Penny, seems like an updated version of
Jordan's ads with Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon.

As Hardaway's star continues to rise, a close watch is being
kept on the egos of the two Magic superstars. But no one seemed
happier to see O'Neal's return than Hardaway. "I can go out and
play my normal game," he said.

As for the Magic's normal game, they haven't played it yet.
That won't happen until O'Neal is less rusty. But his injury
helped Orlando prove that it does not have to play its normal
game to win. "I know," says O'Neal. "Scary, huh?"

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES The splint was splendid for O'Neal, who bulled over Oliver Miller for two of his 32 points in 35 minutes against the Raptors. [Splint on hand of Shaquille O'Neal] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN[See caption above--Shaquille O'Neal shooting basketball over Oliver Miller]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESUtah's John Stockton found Shaq as immovable as ever.[Shaquille O'Neal guarding John Stockton] COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In O'Neal's absence, Hardaway rose not only to the challenge but also to a level above virtually all foes. [Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway shooting basketball over New JerseyNet]

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