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But he still can't buy a free throw

Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal, who last week signed a seven-year, $123-million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, can afford to buy almost anything imaginable.

O'Neal, all of 24 years old, left the Orlando Magic after four seasons to sign the richest contract in sports history. In addition, O'Neal earned $17-million in endorsements in 1995, on top of the $4.9-million he was paid by the Magic. He also made a few bucks from his rap albums and film appearances.

His newfound wealth could bump him up from his fifth-place spot on last year's Forbes Top Earning Athletes list. But maybe not past Michael Jordan, last year's No. 1 at $43.9-million.

The contract wasn't without its critics, of course. This is the guy who didn't hit 50 percent of his free-throws last year. And though the Magic were playoff regulars, he hasn't won the Big One.

O'Neal won't receive every penny upfront. And, he must pay taxes on his earnings. Still, he can consider all sorts of purchases and investments.

To fortify himself against an invasion, Shaq can buy six Lockheed Martin Corp. F-16 fighter planes, which cost $20-million apiece, or five McDonnell Douglas Corp. F-18 fighters. If Air Shaq decides he needs 20 General Dynamics Corp. Abrams tanks or four Trident nuclear missiles? No problem.

If Shaq wanted to become a very active investor, he could amass about 3,800 shares of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the most expensive stock on the entire New York Stock Exchange. Each Class A share trades for about $32,200. In fact, he could buy all Berkshire shares that change hands in three weeks of average trading.

In this presidential year, Shaq could easily sponsor Ross Perot, who spent $69-million of his own money to run for the White House four years ago, and have plenty of money left over for candidates Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Richard Lamm.

When the 7-foot 2-inch, 300-pound Shaq gets the munchies, he could buy 189-million packages of M&Ms (at 65 cents apiece). If he wanted something more substantial than candy, he could buy about 250 McDonald's restaurants, which cost about $500,000 each.

Of course, O'Neal would have to meet the Oak Park, Illinois-based fast-food company's requirement that would-be owners put in two years behind the counter before it would agree to sell him a franchise _ a counter that would certainly have to be redesigned for his not inconsiderable dimensions.

If Shaq wanted to go global, he could take control of Telcor, Nicaragua's phone company, since a 40 percent controlling stake now goes for about what the Lakers will be paying him.

In case O'Neal develops an eye for fine art, he could dominate the auction market just like he bullies bodies under the backboards. The highest price ever fetched for an item at a Sotheby's auction occurred May 17, 1990, when Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette painting was scooped up for $78.1-million by the Kobayashi Gallery. Pocket change for Shaq.

If Shaq wanted to capitalize on the sports boom, he could practically pay cash for Denver's new Pepsi Arena, which is being built for $130-million for the Nuggets basketball team. Shaq could even pay Michael Jordan's 1996-97 salary of $25-million each year till the turn of the 21st century.

He could also purchase the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball franchise, gobbled up by publishing tycoon Kevin McClatchy in February for $90-million, and still have enough left over for a whole new outfield.

If Shaq tires of high-profile sports, he could kick back in Big Sky country. In Montana, he could buy 20 miles of riverfront property with houses on both sides, said Ted Toploski, owner of Mountain Properties Inc. in Helena.

Or he could buy all the land actor Kim Basinger and her partners bought in Braselton, Ga., in 1990. And he'd get it at a bargain. The Basinger/Braselton Limited Partnership bought their property for $20-million, but 11 months ago sold all 1,720 acres for a puny $4.3-million.

Shaq would have no trouble becoming a Hollywood mogul, either. He could, for instance, join as equal partner the Japanese trading house Marubeni Corp and movie distributor Toho-Towa Co., producers of the Godzilla monster movies. They've said they're plunking down $123-million to join a consortium to fund film-making by Paramount, a U.S. film producer which is a unit of Viacom Inc.

O'Neal, it seems, has a special interest in the movie industry. After making his debut in Blue Chips with Nick Nolte, he stars in Kazaam this summer. The movie will give Shaq even more exposure and _ as if he needs it _ money.