NEW YORK - Shaquille O'Neal took a circuitous route to becoming college basketball's most celebrated pivotman at Louisiana State.
The 7-foot-1, 295-pound manchild - O'Neal doesn't turn 19 until March - spent roughly two-thirds of his life in Newark and Jersey City, N.J., before leaving for Germany, San Antonio and finally Baton Rouge, La.
For that, O'Neal is grateful, perhaps aware of the specter of urban blight and its subsequent fallout. He believes fate has been kind in his case.
``It's kind of rough in Newark,'' O'Neal, LSU's sophomore center, said. ``I'm glad my father took me out of there. If I'd have stayed, I think I would have been a troublesome kid, hanging around, doing the wrong thing.''
These days, O'Neal's digs are comfortable - for everyone but his opponents. He has easily lived up to his billing, blocking nearly five shots per game while leading the Tigers in scoring (27.9 ppg) and rebounding (15.3).
In short, he's every 5-10 guard's worst nightmare within five feet of the basket. His physical presence and somewhat raw but imposing skills make him the NBA's hottest prospect at an age when most players are barely, if at all, into their college careers.
The Tigers' center of attention has everyone's attention. No longer is he the defensive specialist with a penchant for foul trouble. With the departure of Chris Jackson and Stanley Roberts to the pros, O'Neal is the bellwether.
``The way they set up allows O'Neal to do much more offensively,'' Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino said. ``They go inside to him on almost every play. He's so big (that) you've got to keep him out of the paint. He's so big and mobile. He's probably the best player in America.''
With an understanding of his role on the court. And an attitude.
``I'm a 7-footer. I like to block shots,'' O'Neal said in an impassive tone. ``I like to show opponents that it's my lane. I just like to dominate.''
O'Neal is renowned for his physical style and doesn't back down from possible altercations. It's part of the job description, in his estimation.
``When it heats up out there, I just tell 'em not to do anything stupid. If they hit one of my players, one of my brothers . . . me being the big brother, I'd have to stick up for my little brother. It'd get ugly.''
It hasn't happened, which is in part attributable to O'Neal's background. His father, Sgt. Philip Harrison, is a career military man. Discipline was a constant. So was O'Neal's remarkable size. He was 6-8 as a high-school sophomore, when he'd been playing organized basketball for only two years.
O'Neal was only 13 when he first met LSU Coach Dale Brown, who mistook the 6-6 youngster as a soldier in Germany. When Brown learned of O'Neal's age, he immediately sought out Harrison and began the recruiting process that brought O'Neal to LSU.
Brown doesn't expect O'Neal to leave for the NBA after an All-America sophomore season, which Jackson did last year. O'Neal acknowledges that the notion is enticing but insists that he isn't planning to bolt.
``I'm not going to lie. It's tough. But I'm going to decide to be a man or a mouse,'' O'Neal said. ``A mouse would take the money; a man would stay in school. Right now, my intentions are to be here for two more years, but I really don't think about that much now. It's kind of a distraction.''
A persistent one, at that.
If O'Neal ``came out right away, he'd definitely be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft,'' said Ed Badger, the Atlanta Hawks' chief scout. ``He's probably be the No. 1 pick, unless a team like Miami that had just made an investment in a center (Rony Seikaly) had the pick. He is definitely the kind of player you build a franchise around.''
Bill Walton once was touted as that kind of player while at UCLA in the early '70s, and he did win NBA championships with Portland and Boston. Brown brought Walton to LSU to serve as a personal tutor for O'Neal.
``He's unquestionably a stud,'' Walton said.
O'Neal tries to keep opponents' shots as well as his ego in check.
``I don't walk around the campus like a god. I'm cool with the fellas,'' O'Neal said. ``I say `hi' to everybody. Somebody asks me for my autograph, I'll sign it. Just be myself.''
Until game time.
``On the court, I just try to dominate,'' O'Neal said.
As routine as it has been of late, LSU guard Mike Hansen said, O'Neal recognizes his shortcomings. Experience heads the list.
``He always wants to be the best,'' Hansen said. ``He takes it really personal when he messes up. There's some things he wants to work on before he plays pro ball. He's huge and he's strong, and he takes care of us. He goes out and dominates.''
Others, meanwhile, muse on the possibilities in the NBA.
``If I (owned) an expansion team,'' a college referee told an acquaintance, ``I'd be positioning myself.''
For a centerpiece of O'Neal's stature, it would be a logical place to start.