In his latest Reebok commercials, Shaquille O'Neal faces himself on the court. More precisely, it's a team of O'Neals versus another team of O'Neals.
After seven overtimes, the fictitious game is tied and an exhausted O'Neal _ presumably the real one _ looks up incredulously when the announcer says: "Looks like we're gonna shoot free throws to settle this one."
That line reveals something about O'Neal.
He can acknowledge in a humorous, self-deprecating way that the one weakness in his ever-improving game is his free-throw shooting. And one reason he can joke is that he's working hard to rectify it.
Through the first 11 games of the season, O'Neal was shooting 63.6 percent from the line, up from his career mark of 57.2. But in the next 13 games, in a grueling 22-day span, his percentage plummeted to 53.6.
His movements resembled those of the Tin Man before he was oiled. Worse still, you could tell he was thinking about each movement and not focusing on the target.
Once back home late last month, O'Neal began working with Buzz Braman, a team consultant called "Shot Doctor." Braman altered O'Neal's technique, having him start with his right arm cocked _ ready to shoot _ instead of down at his waist.
"The idea is to simplify the motion," Braman said.
In his past 16 games, O'Neal has made 56.8 percent of his free throws, but even on his misses he has looked better. Braman, who traveled for the first time this season on last week's three-game Western swing to spend more time with his student, said O'Neal probably will need fine-tuning but is committed to improving.
"I'm almost there," O'Neal said recently. "I'm going to start hitting 'em. I swear. And then as soon as they foul me I'm going to start laughing."
What game is he watching? Disgruntled Chicago star Scottie Pippen said last week that the Magic may win 60 games but does not look like a championship team.
"They need a lot of improvement," Pippen said. "I see a lot of selfishness on the court. They've got all the tools and they have a lot of talent, but their chemistry hasn't mixed yet."
What's the basis for this assessment?
Well, it isn't statistics. The Magic players consistently look for one another and make that extra pass, which explains why the team is first in assists and second in field-goal percentage and scoring.
Maybe a gut feeling from a guy who has won three championships?
Well, another guy with three rings disagrees.
"They have a center at the door of greatness and a guard (Anfernee Hardaway) who's very tough and when he wants to take over a game can do it himself," said former Boston great Dennis Johnson, an assistant with the Celtics, who play at Orlando tonight. "They have unselfish players. They have the total package. They have the makings of a very, very, very good team. You don't knock a team like that."
Drawn together: If you believe in fate, then it was fitting that Sunday's thriller come down to a last-second one-on-one between Hardaway and Phoenix point guard Elliot Perry.
Hardaway was a freshman on the varsity when Perry was the senior star at Treadwell High in Memphis.
"Everyone wanted to be Elliot Perry," Hardaway told the Orlando Sentinel. "Everyone looked up to him; he was great. I idolized him."
At Memphis State, Perry again was the senior leader when Hardaway arrived. The two didn't get a chance to play or even practice together that season, when Hardaway failed to meet Prop 48 requirements. Since then, the two have worked out together regularly during the summer.
"You always like to play against the top players, and when it's someone you went to high school and college with, well, it's fun," Perry said.
He said it: O'Neal says he doesn't "worry about what people say," but he did have a answer to San Antonio forward Dennis Rodman's comments that he doesn't rebound as well as he should given his size and strength.
"Me responding to Rodman is like talking to a Bugs Bunny doll. I don't like to talk to Looney Tunes."
_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.