Strutting His Stuff

LOS ANGELES IS NO PLACE FOR THE shy, and Shaquille O'Neal feels right at home. Here he is one recent evening onstage at a Sunset Strip club, celebrating the launch of his new record label, T.W.IsM. (This World Is Mine). At 7 feet 1 and 300 pounds, he is decked out head to toe in turquoise leather--with a $120 million basketball contract under one arm and a MAN OF STEEL tattoo emblazoned on the other. The audience is a hip-hop who's who, including Warren G, Bobby Brown, Rick James, TLC and Dean Cain, the much smaller fellow who plays Superman on TV. Here is Shaq, hear him roar:

""Bow down when I come to your town / Bow down when I am westward bound / Bow down because I am not a hater like you / Bow down to a baller that's greater than you.''

If ever there were a perfect match for the synergistic '90s, it would appear to be Shaq and L.A., a city where the urge to be ""a baller'' (a basketball player), a rapper and a movie star seems a normal appetite. Liberated from Orlando, where Disney is the biggest show in town, O'Neal, who is still just 24 years old, has burst into L.A., where Disney is merely an option. ""This team and this city have always been personality- driven,'' says Lakers executive Jerry West, ""and Shaq has that personality.''

Shaq will open his biggest act Friday night at the Great Western Forum, having defied 50 years of NBA tradition. By taking the Lakers' loot to leave the Orlando Magic, O'Neal became the first ""franchise player'' to simply walk away from his franchise. ""They were bullcrapping around down there so I thought it was time to leave,'' said O'Neal after an exhibition game. ""I would rather be a big fish with a lot of other big fish--like Jack Nicholson and Magic--in the big pond.''

Back in Orlando, O'Neal played ball, hung out at his oversize mansion or cruised the local highways, blaring music. In L.A., Shaq, with a ready smile and a flirtatious way, is already a fixture on black Hollywood's party scene (and has thrown two of his own in the past month). Shaq is out on the town regularly, dining at Georgia, a hot spot owned by Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy, or catching a show. Occasionally he has 18-year-old rookie Kobe Bryant in tow. ""Jerry West asked me to look out for Kobe this season and keep him on the right track--keep him from the evil people in this business,'' he says. ""I can do that.''

It's not in loco parentis but as a real parent that O'Neal finds L.A. a blessing. In July, Shaq became the father of a daughter, Taheara, born to a longtime girlfriend with whom he sometimes shares an L.A. high-rise apartment. In Orlando, Shaq says, he sensed the city's disapproval--and resented it. ""In the big city they don't worry about stuff like that,'' he says. ""It's not against the norm to have a baby out of wedlock.'' But he bristles at any comparison to his own biological father. ""When I was born, he just took off,'' says Shaq. ""I will never take off. When my daughter gets older, she'll have a smile from ear to ear, and she'll say, "My daddy is Shaq'.''

She may even laugh out loud when he tells her how, after her birth, he tossed his gold jewelry into the Pacific. And how he turned down--at least at home--his legendary stereo system. ""I thought that was the wrong stuff to focus on,'' he says. He hasn't had to rethink his rap, which always avoided the glamorization of sex and violence endemic to the genre. ""I can't rap about killing people or selling drugs 'cause that's not my reality,'' says O'Neal. On his latest album, he raps, ""I know you're just jealous, but I'll spank on that ass like Monica Seles.''

L.A. will forgive him the arrogance (and the bad rhyme) if he delivers on the basketball court. The Lakers believe the combination of a superstar leader (Magic Johnson flopped in that role last season) with a talented supporting cast could win Shaq his first NBA gold ring. Shaq, however, seems equally concerned with gold records and Golden Globe awards. ""Shaquille is multimedia with many talents that he uses,'' says his agent, Leonard Armato. ""He's a part of a generation that feels you should try all options.'' Though lucrative, not all his careers have proved equal. His first two movies flopped (his third, ""Steel,'' in which he plays a superhero, comes out next summer). His third rap album, ""You Can't Stop the Reign,'' due out next month, includes a duet with big-time rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.

O'Neal is well aware that ""a lot of people think I should be practicing free throws instead of rapping. I could see it if it had hurt my playing, but it hasn't.'' But it's not clear it's helped, either. While Shaq is a prodigious scorer, his rebounding, shot-blocking and free-throw shooting numbers have all declined since his rookie year. And so have his relations with his Orlando teammates and coach. ""No one wanted to deal with their roles down there--everyone wanted the ball and their minute in the sun,'' says O'Neal. ""But that's not the way it is when you want to win.'' The Magic declined to comment.

O'Neal says Lakers coach Del Harris has made clear ""who has what role'' (read: Shaq's the Man). For now, the team, one of the youngest and most temperamental in the league, appears comfortable with Shaq, and the players have turned out for his parties. ""He's worked really hard at being part of us,'' says Laker forward Cedric Ceballos, who took an unauthorized midseason vacation last year. ""We're glad he's here.''

With Orlando, Shaq brashly predicted a string of championships. Though the team reached the NBA finals two years ago and the conference finals last season, it exited the playoffs both times via ignominious sweeps. Perhaps as a result, Shaq is now more circumspect. ""It took Jordan four years to win a championship and Kareem about the same,'' says O'Neal. (Actually, it took Jordan seven years, but Abdul-Jabbar only two, to win a title.) ""I am not predicting what's going to happen this season.'' But it's clearly put-up-or-shut-up time for Shaq. So here's a safe prediction: if the Lakers don't challenge the Bulls for NBA supremacy, it will be Shaq, his $120 million smile notwithstanding, who takes the rap.