LAST SUMMER, BASKETBALL MEGA-CENTER Shaquille O'Neal was pounding the boards in Toronto during a post-season tour with an NBA-USA all-star team when several people mentioned that they'd seen O'Neal's father on a television talk show. Surprised, O'Neal telephoned his father, Philip Harrison, in Florida. "Daddy, I heard you were on TV," he said. "No," replied Harrison, "I wasn't."

It didn't take long to find out that the mystery guest was Joe Toney, Shaquille's long-absent biological father who had abandoned the star's mother, Lucille, when O'Neal was just months old. Now, 22 years later, Toney, a New Jersey social worker, was making the rounds of the daytime talk shows talking about his paternity. "I had to clear it up," O'Neal says of his effort to set the record straight.

O'Neal's reply to Toney is a slam dunk, delivered via his new rap album, Shag Fu—Da Return. In a song called "Biological Didn't Bother," he dismisses Toney as the man who "left me in the cold, when a few months old." The song is dedicated to Philip Harrison, who met Lucille O'Neal when both were city workers in Newark, N.J., and married her when Shaquille was 2. "He took me from a boy to a man," O'Neal raps. "Phil is my father 'cause my biological didn't bother."

Toney, says O'Neal, was never a part of his life while he was growing up. "But now that I'm a rapper, movie star [as a top college recruit opposite Nick Nolte in Blue Chips] and a good basketball player—now he wants to go on Howard Stern and Ricki Lake and let people know. So I did the song."

Apart from settling a score of his own, O'Neal hopes to help a generation of young men sort out their values. Phil Harrison, he explains, stuck by his family, enlisting in the Army and rising to the rank of sergeant while working as many as three jobs to support Lucille, Shaquille and three younger children (Lateefah, now 17, Ayesha, 16, and Jamal, 15). Lucille told her son about Toney when he was 8, but O'Neal was content with his life. "I didn't have a lot," he says, "but I had what I needed."

The Sarge, as O'Neal sometimes calls Harrison, scolded his son over bad grades and told him not to give up when he was cut from his ninth grade basketball team in Germany (where Harrison was stationed)—but he also lent emotional support. "When I needed to talk about important things—about girls, about the birds and the bees—he was there," says O'Neal. "My father Phil is the one I looked up to."

Now much of the world of basketball is looking up to O'Neal. He's got not only a seven-year $40 million contract with the Orlando Magic but an additional $50 million in deals with Reebok, Pepsi and trading card companies. O'Neal enjoys the trappings of success; he owns a $5.5 million mansion in an Orlando suburb and drives a customized Mercedes. He has also bought houses for his parents and grandparents. Though he has a girlfriend, he isn't yet ready to settle down. "If I ever get married," he says, "it will be to somebody like my mother."

Last summer, O'Neal returned to Louisiana State University to work toward the business degree he cut short when he left to turn pro after his junior year. "Shaquille is instinctively levelheaded," says John Gabriel, an executive with the Magic. "He's displayed what we think is important in a best player, and that's to be the hardest worker. And he's still a kid at heart."

But a kid who has figured out what it means to be an adult. "There are many facets of being a father," says O'Neal. "You have to bring a child into the world first, but that's just the beginning. It's like a plant. When it grows, you have to take care of it. That's what responsibility is."

SUSAN REED
CINDY DAMPIER in Orlando

  • Contributors:
  • Cindy Dampier.