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SHAQ COULD END UP SHATTERING MORE THAN BACKBOARDS ADS RAPPED FOR NBA STAR'S VIOLENT DUNKS

By Published on .

Shoot it, pass it, do whatever you like with the basketball, Shaquille O'Neal-just think twice before you dunk it.

That's the advice being offered to the second-year National Basketball Association star by sports writers and even NBA marketingofficials, who have taken exception to the depiction of dunking in Mr. O'Neal's marketing efforts.

Critics fueling this Shaqlash are troubled by advertising from Pepsi-Cola Co. and Reebok International that glorifies Mr. O'Neal's very infrequent tendency to destroy basketball backboards with violent dunks. They fear the spots will promote backboard breaking among young fans.

That glorification reached a new high with a Reebok spot from Chiat/Day, New York, that broke during during the Super Bowl. Titled "Shoot Pass Slam," the commercial is a rap hymn to Shaq's awesome dunking power.

"Instead of dismissing [smashing backboards] as an unfortunate incident in which someone could have gotten hurt, they're celebrating it in these ads," said Harvey Araton, a sports columnist for The New York Times. "Why do they have to focus on this moronic aspect of his game?"

The NBA has similar qualms. Last year, the league adopted a policy to eliminate backboard-breaking images from its own marketing. NBA officials say Mr. O'Neal's marketing isn't helping their efforts.

"It's not part of the game, and we're not looking to encourage people to do that," said Rick Welts, president of NBA Properties, the league's marketing arm.

The NBA and sportswriters have cause for concern. In the past several years, an increasing number of backboards in New York playgrounds have been destroyed, and officials suspect dunking to be the cause.

And in January, the New York Post reported that a boy in Florida died last year from injuries he suffered from allegedly trying to imitate the dunking of one of his basketball heroes, Mr. O'Neal.

Yet Shaq's dunks are irresistibly marketable. A new NBC Sports ad sales promotional video, shown last month at the Sports Summit in New York, includes footage of Mr. O'Neal's most famous dunk against the Phoenix Suns last season, in which he brought down the backboard.

Mr. O'Neal's agent, Leonard Armato, defended his cli ent's image-building strategy and said there are no plans to alter the game plan.

"His image is based on reality, and everyone wants to see such a powerful player," Mr. Armato said. "And if the worst thing kids do is break down a backboard, then we'll be a much happier society."

A Pepsi spokesman said linking the issue to its one and only Shaq spot "would not do the commercial justice."

A Reebok spokesman called the controversy "ludicrous. It boils down to the individual's responsibility to realize, `This is a 7-foot-1-inch guy who can do this, and I can't."' In that spot, from BBDO Worldwide, Mr. O'Neal bends a metal rim.

Nonetheless, it would behoove Mr. O'Neal to start working on diversifying his game and image, many say, or else risk losing his estimated annual endorsement salary of $15 million.

"Perhaps, we were a little premature in dubbing him `the next Jordan,"' said David Burns, president of Chicago-based Burns Celebrity Service. "In the short term, the `dunk and rap' image has its advantages, but it's not the kind of image a company will want for the long term."

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