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Royal road goes long way around

Throughout his professional career, Orlando Magic forward Donald Royal has heard the whispers.

He's not a shooter.

He's not strong enough.

He's not an NBA player.

That kind of talk used to hurt and nearly provided his basketball epitaph. But first and foremost, the muffled barbs have motivated him.

"Every time I get out on the court, I always have something to prove," Royal said.

And as a key reserve for the Magic (34-23), which plays Denver today, he's getting more opportunities to make the point that he belongs in this league.

"Donald's done a fantastic job this year, and obviously we wouldn't be where we are if it weren't for his play coming off the bench," coach Brian Hill said.

Royal, 6 feet 8, 210 pounds, serves the same role as the boosters on the space shuttle: Lift.

"So much of their offense is coming down and looking into the post and they just sort of stand around a little bit," Charlotte coach Allan Bristow said. "He's so active, he gives them a different look."

Yeah, a blur up and down the court and, especially, to the basket.

"The guy has one of the quickest first steps in the league," said Bill Musselman, the former coach at Minnesota, Royal's first NBA stop. "And he's fearless attacking the basket. I remember one game for us, he went around his guy and attacked (Hakeem) Olajuwon and rammed it right through."

If a taller player is guarding Royal, the Magic will isolate him and parlay his speed into either a dunk or a trip to the free-throw line or both. If the opponent is smaller, Royal can post up.

Defensively, his quickness allows the Magic to press and trap, revving the pace. He's even filled in at power forward, a position usually reserved for players that outweigh him by 50 pounds.

"I'm sure I've surprised a lot of people," said Royal, who's averaging 8 points and 3.8 rebounds.

At least, that's what he's heard.

Royal, who helped lead Notre Dame to three NCAA Tournament appearances and a Sweet 16 finish in 1987, was a third-round pick of Cleveland. Yet he was released after a three-minute stint in an exhibition game, relegated to the Continental Basketball Association.

"The toughest part is not knowing if your talents were being appreciated or if you were going to get the opportunity to move up to this level," he said of the CBA. "The best part was that it gave me the drive and determination to get where I am today. I never took anything for granted from the time I got there until today."

He spent the 1987-88 season with Pensacola and the next in Cedar Rapids, but decided if the NBA didn't come calling within a year, he would quit. He had a job as a field manager/sales representative with Procter & Gamble and could live comfortably.

It didn't come to that.

Musselman signed him as a free agent in the fall of 1989. In 66 games for Minnesota, he averaged 5.9 points and 2.1 rebounds.

"He was just a great guy to have on the team," said Musselman, now coaching Rochester of the CBA. "He plays defense. He doesn't complain if he plays 20 minutes. He was tougher mentally than half the guys in the league . . . and he won games for us."

But the Timberwolves didn't give him a guaranteed contract for the next year, and a team in Israel offered him "six figures."

"My dream was to make the NBA and after I did that, it became secondary to becoming financially secure," he said.

For the first time as a pro, Royal was a star. He averaged 20 points and 8 rebounds for Macabbi Tel Aviv and led the team to third place in the European Championship. But Israel wasn't exactly Shangri-La. The Persian Gulf War broke out and no one knew if _ or when _ his home might be a target of a missile. Royal had the jarring experience of seeing 17-year-old soldiers patrolling the streets with machine guns.

"I really got educated in world affairs," he said.

Still, he would have stayed another season had it not been for an offer from Orlando. But much to his chagrin, he was cut just prior to the start of the 191-92 season.

"We liked Donald an awful lot; we really thought he would add some versatility to our roster," Hill said. "But at the time, we had too many guaranteed contracts."

Royal returned to the CBA, this time Tri-City, but only for 10 games. San Antonio called, and he finished the season with the Spurs. But when former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian came in, Royal knew he was on the way out.

"Tarkanian never even knew my name; he didn't know who I was," he said. "That shows you how much value I had to them."

For the second time in as many years, the Magic called. Royal was skeptical, refusing to come to camp without a guaranteed contract. He got it and made the team. He averaged 9.2 points (fifth-highest on the team) and 3.8 rebounds.

"I've come a long way," he said. "It's been a roller-coaster ride, but I've finally gotten off. All you can ask is to get the opportunity on a consistent basis, and I have found the consistency I've been looking for.

"My whole career, I've listened to people say, "He can't shoot, he can't do this, he's not a typical three-player.' I look back now and laugh at the people who judge players."

TONIGHT

Who: Orlando Magic vs. Denver Nuggets.

When/where: 7:30, Orlando Arena.

TV/radio: Sunshine, WFNS-AM 910.

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