June 05, 2000 12:00 PM

It’s snack time at the O’Neal house, a three-story, 15,000-sq.-ft. edifice in the mountains above Beverly Hills, and Shaquille O’Neal—himself a 7’1″, 330-lb. edifice—lumbers into the kitchen. “What d’ya feel like?” asks Thomas Gosney, personal chef and assistant to the Los Angeles Lakers’ star center. “Want something to slam down?” Just back from a four-hour practice, the big man nods, and within seconds Gosney, 32, produces a roast-chicken Dagwood large enough to feed much of Rhode Island. “Give it to me,” says the boss, who eagerly consumes it without sitting down. “I cook,” says Gosney with a grin, “and his job is to get the ball in the hoop.”

Lately, O’Neal, 28, has been doing that so well—leading the National Basketball Association in scoring and shooting percentages—that he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and now stands poised to lead the Lakers, who are facing the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals, to their first NBA title in 12 years. After eight pro seasons, during which he augmented his NBA riches—he is now in the fourth year of a seven-year $120 million contract—with five rap CDs, movie roles and even a clothing-and-foot-wear line, O’Neal’s focus is finally where it ought to be. “This,” says teammate Ron Harper, “is his year.”

Yet he hasn’t lost his boyish charm. “He’s really 11 years old,” forward Rick Fox says of O’Neal, who spends much of his free time at home in his bedroom, which is full of electronic gadgets, downloading music from the Internet or fiddling with a video-editing machine. “But I’m not your typical tech head,” says O’Neal. Behind the house—which sits on a block shared by Loni Anderson and Tom Arnold—are more toys: a jungle gym and minibasketball hoop for Taahirah, his 3-year-old daughter by Arnetta Yardbourgh, O’Neal’s high school girlfriend, now of Houston. Unmarried, O’Neal does not discuss his love life. “He’s a good father,” says his mother, Lucille Harrison, 45. “That’s all anybody needs to know.”

Born in Newark, N.J., to Lucille, a city office worker, and a man who left them when O’Neal was 2, Shaq acquired the man he considers to be his real father in 1974, when Lucille married Philip Harrison, 52, a career Army soldier who moved the family (Shaq has two younger sisters and a younger brother) to bases in Georgia, Texas and Germany. “He hasn’t changed,” says Harrison of her son. “He’s always been happy-go-lucky.”

Already 6’7″ at 13, O’Neal led his San Antonio high school to a state basketball title in his senior year, starred at Louisiana State University and then joined the Orlando Magic in 1992 as the NBA’s top draftee. He signed with the Lakers in ’96 and benefited from the hiring last June of Michael Jordan’s old Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who brought stability to the underperforming team and has Shaq’s respect. “Phil knew I was a good listener,” says O’Neal. “It’s been a good marriage.”

Jackson has also made willing costars of O’Neal and guard Kobe Bryant, 21, who recently announced his engagement to an 18-year-old high school senior—a commitment that impressed O’Neal. “When I was his age, I wasn’t that mature,” says Shaq. “I used to party all the time.”

Hardly antisocial these days, the elder statesman cruises about town in one of two customized Bentleys, a Lincoln Navigator or on his Titan motorcycle. But he’s equally happy at home, where, postsnack, he steps outside and folds his hulking frame into a favorite toy: a gleaming Go-Kart. Shouting “Make way!” he speeds onto his tennis court, unused except as a minispeedway, zips around for a while, then disappears up the driveway, where the engine cuts off and his excited voice is heard. “Home, baby, home!” he cries happily. Shaquille O’Neal has arrived.

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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