Basketball: O'Neal glitter spices slice of Americana: Basketball's big guns open fire in London in battle to sell the game. Ian Ridley reports

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The Independent Online
THE lights dimmed and through the dry ice he emerged, this bald entertainer in a starry suit and black boots. Gary Glitter, wig and all, then went through a cameo rock 'n' roll routine before leaving the court to Shaquille O'Neal.

The capacity crowd of 9,483 at Wembley Arena last night had come to see American basketball's latest prodigy as the US National Basketball Association came to London for the first time in the shape of Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks this weekend.

They came to see him and spend their money on the merchandise, the selling of which is as much the aim as trying to bring the game to Britain. For once the Americans had something wrong: there were not enough 'sales points' around the concourse even though they were six deep.

Shaq did his best to show why he is being paid dollars 40m ( pounds 27m) over seven years. On Saturday night he had contributed 23 points as Orlando ran out comfortable 120-95 winners; last night 31 as Orlando fought back from 30 points down to hold a re-motivated Atlanta 113-101.

The morning after as punishment for the night before Atlanta's coach, Lenny Wilkens, had his team training instead of sleeping in and it paid off. At half-time they led by 22 points, the number contributed by Dominique Wilkins, second top scorer only to Michael Jordan in the league last season, and pride clearly hurt after being upstaged the previous night.

O'Neal, after taking a battering from the Atlanta defence, dragged himself and Orlando back into the game until they trailed by only one in the final quarter. They could not sustain the effort, however, to the disappointment of a crowd appreciative to the last, or at least until O'Neal fouled out 40 seconds from the end.

The weight of expectation is high on O'Neal, a young man who even wears the No 32, which was also carried by Magic Johnson. Some were disappointed that he does not have the same mobility.

But O'Neal is a centre whose job is mainly to win rebounds, 15 last night, and score points from close range. He is still maturing, as his poor foul shooting shows, but added signs to indicate that he is developing as a team leader.

Atlanta's Kevin Willis, the weekend's top scorer with 29 points and last night's 33, may have given the polished performance of a seasoned professional but O'Neal had shown the raw talent. 'He's the man. He'll be good for a long time,' said Wilkins, who last night was top scorer with 36 points.

It was a neat slice of Americana, which, probably more than the game, was the appeal for many. Whether it returns to a Wembley Arena whose capacity it exceeds and whose condition is in need of some refurbishment is open to question.

As are the issues of whether it does anything for the game in this country, and whether the NBA rules are modified to produce a quicker, slicker game. Officials of the governing body certainly worked hard in handing out promotional leaflets all weekend asking, as the great man - Gary Glitter, that is - almost does, if you want to be in their gang. Many wanted to be in Shaq's.

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