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HE'S NO SNOOTY CELEBRITY.

Byline: Karen Crouse

The newly crowned King of basketball honed his game last summer on the outdoor courts in Manhattan Beach alongside bankers and techies and soft-bellied attorneys.

He'd appear without fanfare at Live Oak Park, wait his turn to play and then work up his wind, as he put it, while showing off a wicked crossover dribble and a dagger of a 3-pointer as well as his usual array of low-post moves.

And then the 7-footer would sign a few autographs, fold himself into his Bentley or his souped-up sports utility vehicle and drive off, leaving behind a group of gaping rank-and-file players.

A few days before he was named the league's MVP in a near-unanimous vote, Shaquille O'Neal joked about being ``a park legend,'' and the sheer idea of it made us smile.

The celebrity culture has conditioned us to expect stars to drop out of the sky before one drops in on the commonalty. We don't expect Julia Roberts to prepare for her next role by playing Emily Webb in our community's production of ``Our Town.'' We don't wonder if we'll find Britney Spears warming up her pipes at the local karaoke bar.

And so it's wonderful in a winsome way to know O'Neal laid the groundwork for his greatest season as a pro not in the comfort of the basketball court in his spacious home or in some elitist gym or among his privileged peers, but right there in public.

It's consistent with the way O'Neal leads his life, behaving much more like Everyman than Superman - or like Everyman would if he hit today's $325 million Big Game jackpot.

He works in a building constructed so the obscenely rich never have to share Chardonnay with the merely wealthy. And yet O'Neal moves freely among all people, isolating himself from no one.

He lives in a city that manufactures celebrity the way Detroit does cars. But fame hasn't driven O'Neal behind the tinted windows of a stretch limousine. Heavens, no. O'Neal rides our roads on a custom motorcycle, or in a convertible with the top down and the music way, way up, and he takes a childlike delight in confirming the obvious. Yep, it's me. Whassup? Beautiful day, wouldn't you agree?

The Lakers' eighth-year center was easing out of the team's practice facility the other day. Just past the security gate, where fans gather like dandelions, is where a couple of his teammates, departing minutes earlier, had chosen to speed up. O'Neal slowed to a stop, hopped out of the car and signed autographs and posed for pictures.

Before leaving, he cranked up his car stereo system to tinnitus-inducing levels and smiled impishly as the music's bass sent a soda bottle hurtling off the hood to its demise.

Off the court as well as on it, O'Neal clearly aims to entertain.

O'Neal is such a joy to watch that Hollywood flocks to Staples Center to pay him homage. On game nights, people who are entertainers in their own right are content for a couple of hours to bask in the reflected glow of somebody's spotlight, not their own.

Of course, there also are the famous faces who come not to applaud but to be applauded. They are the ones for whom the Staples Center is but an extension of The Ivy.

You see them at every game, celebrities who turn the simple act of sitting into a kind of performance art. They're usually spotted at courtside, feigning indifference to the cameras even as they superciliously play to them.

We wish they'd watch O'Neal with the same intensity they do their own reflections, these luminaries so caught up in playing a superstar it wouldn't seem at all out of character for them to demand that the Laker Girls promise not to make eye contact with them while performing their dance routines.

What they'd see is a superstar who beguiles us with his gift but doesn't act like he's God's gift to the planet. He has plenty of weight to throw around, but he saves it all for opposing forwards and centers.

O'Neal has, in the words of his coach, Phil Jackson, ``the biggest physical presence, the biggest athletic presence in the game.''

His presence off the court is just as immense. But he manages not to step on a lot of toes with those size-22 feet of his. The closest O'Neal comes to causing a commotion is when he blasts his car stereo.

Lakers forward Robert Horry said of O'Neal, ``I just think he lives his life like a normal person.''

Of all the tributes O'Neal received Tuesday, that just might have been the greatest.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 10, 2000
Words:777
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