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The setting: a Reebok International cocktail party early this month at Atlanta's Super Show. The conversation: a heated discussion between Reebok Chairman Paul Fireman and a young apparel designer, Chris Christmas.

The subject: Mr. Fireman wanted Mr. Christmas to deliver a message to a mutual acquaintance, the rapper, actor, National Basketball Association superstar and Reebok endorser Shaquille O'Neal.

The message: the Reebok-Shaq partnership was in trouble.

"I need to associate Shaquille with Reebok," the Reebok chairman told Mr. Christmas. "I need his input upfront. I need him to talk to the ad agencies, I need him to sit down with our designers, twice, even once a year."

And Mr. Fireman was blunt about the consequences for Mr. O'Neal should their working relationship not improve.

"He doesn't have to take my money," Mr. Fireman said. "I'll rip up the contract."

Whether Mr. Christmas delivered the message to the 7-foot-1-inch, potential brand-building powerhouse is unknown. Mr. O'Neal's agent, Leonard Armato, says he hasn't received it, while Reebok marketing executives say their chairman was merely expressing in his colorful manner complicated difficulties that have been simmering for some time.

Reebok and Mr. Armato and his client admit their two-year history has been fraught with too many trials and errors. While the partners say their marriage is not in jeopardy, it is apparent they have suffered through a relationship-threatening crisis, and it will take a great deal of rethinking and effort to repair it.

What Reebok and Mr. O'Neal will do to patch things up will be closely scrutinized by the sports marketing and ad communities.

For Mr. O'Neal is just the first in what's bound to be a long line of new pro basketball stars whose dreams have been shaped by the Michael Jordan era of the NBA, their aspirations defined by not only scoring titles and "three-peats" but also by image-making sneaker commercials, fast-food endorsement deals, and wanting to be in all ways just like Mike.

"Shaquille is not a child of the NBA but a child of NBA marketing," said David Ropes, marketing services director for Reebok. "He is the first superstar to grow up in a sport that drives entertainment values as much as the athletics of the sport."

It is unclear if Mr. O'Neal's other off-the-court pursuits actually have caused conflicts for Reebok, though Mr. Fireman suggested that to Mr. Christmas.

Whether that is perception or reality may not matter. What does matter is that Mr. Fireman obviously feels that Reebok isn't getting its estimated $5 million worth out of Mr. O'Neal, whose rapping and acting have made him not just another basketball player but a megabrand.

Mr. Armato admitted the relationship between Reebok and his client has been rocky. But he defends his client, contending Mr. O'Neal has been involved at the crucial stages of advertising and product development.

For his part, Reebok's Mr. Ropes maintained: "We are burdened by the fact he is engaged with a lot of other people he wants to be affiliated with, so we have to fight through that morass."

But to some degree, he added, Mr. O'Neal's lack of participation in the creative process can be blamed on Reebok for not getting him involved sooner.

"I think Reebok and all his other licensees recognize now we need to get him more integrated in how we're going to market him, in terms of personality development, creative development and design," said Mr. Ropes, noting that Mr. O'Neal is the first athlete Reebok has ever attempted to market as a superstar.

The need for Mr. O'Neal's increased participation was evident at last month's "Shaq Summit" that brought together Mr. Armato and representatives from Mr. O'Neal's licensees.

At the meeting, Reebok executives were alarmed that many other companies were developing conflicting marketing concepts and logos for their Shaq ventures.

"If we're all not careful with Shaq, and he becomes all these things and he becomes too diffused, Shaq will lose his identity, his brand will stand for nothing, and the kids are going to get sick of him real fast," Mr. Ropes said.

But he agreed that until now, Reebok's advertising has pushed Mr. O'Neal more than shoes. The most blatant example was Reebok's Super Bowl spot from Chiat/Day, New York, which featured Mr. O'Neal rapping and ripping down backboards.

That was the first time Reebok attempted to integrate the basketball and entertainment components of his personality. Don't expect to see such an effort again.

"While we liked the spot ... we thought it kind of mixed the metaphor," Mr. Ropes said. "We will continue to push the envelope with Shaq, but in a clever and imaginative way born out of his athletic prowess."

That is said to be one reason why Reebok switched from Chiat to Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

"Reebok hired Burnett to help it get its act together in a lot of areas-merchandising, global advertising and promotion. Shaq is one very visible thing that has to be made to work better," said one executive.

Pending approval by Mr. Armato is a concept Reebok has developed with Mr. Christmas called "Shaq Daddy," encompassing every aspect of Mr. O'Neal's off-the-court image. Reebok would like other marketers to use the concept in their marketing.

Reebok hopes this will mark the beginning of a new phase of its relationship with Mr. O'Neal.

"I think we owe it to him," Mr. Ropes said. "He's got a lot invested in us and we in him. We have a ways to go, but the good news is we're on the right track."

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