'TIS THE SEASON CHRISTMAS WILL COME EARLY FOR SHAQ AND FRIENDS WHEN NBA TEAMS SHOP FOR FREE AGENTS

July 07, 1996

The dump truck filled with gold arrives at Shaquille O'Neal's
front door at exactly noon (EDT) on July 9, 1996. The dump
trucks filled with frankincense and myrrh follow. I point at the
procession with pride.

"For you," I say to the great man. "Something to show the
measure of our commitment."

"What's myrrh?" Shaquille asks, screwing up his nose.

"I am not sure," I admit. "But it's good. Trust me."

I have been hired to represent a certain NBA team from a certain
NBA city on this momentous NBA day. No names, please. So many
free agents are hitting the market at the same time, 140 of the
most famous names in professional basketball, that teams had to
hire extra personnel to try to secure talent that will ensure a
golden NBA future.

There never has been a day quite like this in the history of
American sports. Not close. This is a combination of The Day of
the Locust, the start of the Oklahoma land rush and one of those
supermarket sweepstakes in which contestants are given a certain
amount of time to fill up their shopping carts with as many
groceries as possible. I have been sent straight to the meat
department in search of the largest rump roast available.

"So, where's the team president, little man?" Shaq asks.

"Uh, he is at Michael Jordan's house," I must admit. "You would
understand that. I would bet that any team president in his
right mind would be at Michael's house. Remember the thing
everyone would always say: 'What would Babe Ruth be worth in
today's market?' Well, this will be the answer to that."

"What about the coach? Where is he?"

"At Reggie Miller's. Coach thinks he needs a shooting guard."

"The assistant coaches?"

"Dikembe Mutombo. Alonzo Mourning."

"Mutombo? Mourning? Instead of me?"

"It is nothing personal, Shaq. There were only so many bodies to
go around. A former Encyclopaedia Britannica salesman is
representing our team at Kenny Anderson's house. A talk show
host is with Juwan Howard. Your friend Horace Grant? A team ball
boy is putting millions of dollars on the kitchen table at this
moment. Call if you don't believe me. This simply is a strange
day."

I have been told to feel as if I am Humphrey Bogart and this
meeting is taking place in the Sierra Madre. I am supposed to do
anything to enlist my man. Ethics and economics are not to be
considered. Shaq on our team! Better to have him in our city in
this sports-crazed time than the Eiffel Tower or the Bolshoi
Theater Ballet or a new computer plant providing 5,000 jobs. He
will give us a focus for our dreams. He will give dignity to
each and every citizen. He will make us a contender!

"A small token of our esteem," I say. "It is called the Hope
diamond. We have purchased it from the Smithsonian. For you."

"Uh-huh."

"A house, Shaq. Here are the pictures. It once was owned by a
Vanderbilt. Or an Astor. Can't remember. It's yours now. Cars?
Name the models. Name the colors. Boats? We are talking with the
owners of the Queen Mary in Long Beach. We think that sucker can
sail again. Under your flag!"

I am talking fast, I must admit. Saying whatever I think will
help. Practice? The great man will not have to practice. Of
course not. Endorsements? I have a signed document from our
mayor that 96.5% of the residents of the city have promised to
wear whatever shoes Shaq wears, drink whatever he drinks, watch
whatever movies he appears in. There is a good chance that a
local ordinance will be passed to make this law.

The arena, let's see, will be named Shaqtopia. The team will be
renamed the Shaqs. The uniforms will be designed whatever way he
wants them. A special sales tax will provide him with 10 cents
of every dollar spent at every game.

"And this is only the beginning, Shaq," I tell the great man.
"If you're really interested, we can become creative."

"Uh-huh."

"Think about it. Don't make a decision now. Think."

"Uh-huh."

"We will talk again. Right?"

"Next," the great man says.

I move through the crowd that has gathered at the door.
Pandemonium. I see the Orlando representative holding the hand
of Mickey Mouse. The rep looks nervous. Mickey looks nervous. I
see the Lakers' representative holding the hand of Steven
Spielberg. A movie deal, no doubt. I see the rep of another
team--I am not sure which--holding the Mona Lisa.

I am not worried. I feel good about our meeting. Damn good. We
are in the ballpark. I think that when the great man has a
chance to reflect, he will see that our offer was fair, more
than fair. Innovative, to be sure. I think, in the end, the
myrrh--whatever it is--will be a factor.

I wonder how the negotiations are going at Michael's house.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of man laying money and other items at feet of basketball player]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)