SAN FRANCISCO -- Shaquille O'Neal has yet to play a professional basketball game, but his size 21 sneakers are fanning a firestorm in the nation's redhot trade war in athletic footwear.
O'Neal has signed a multi-year contract, reportedly paying him $3 million a season, to wear and promote Reebok basketball shoes and apparel. If the rumors about the size of the pact are correct, it would be the largest shoe contract ever paid to an NBA rookie, eclipsing even Michael Jordan's initial contract with NIKE.
The announcement marked the end of a bidding war between Reebok and NIKE for O'Neal. It also was a departure for Reebok from its previous efforts that were aimed at identifying young talent, signing them early and riding their success.
But officials say O'Neal, expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, is worth the price since there really has not been as exciting a player to enter the NBA since Lew Alcindor joined the Milwaukee Bucks after his career at UCLA.
'Shaquille excels in all phases of the game, and the overwhelming consensus around the league is that he will be an absolute great player, ' said Roberto Muller, president of Rebook Sports. 'There has not been this much excitement and sense of anticipation over a player coming into the NBA in many years.'
The company says it will fashion a 'creative' multimillion-dollar print and television ad campaign around the 7-1 center and use it to launch its Insta-Pump shoe -- the latest advancement in its pump technology.
'We really don't have a launch date yet for the shoe,' said Reebok spokesman Dave Fogelson. 'But we are moving forward as quickly as possible.'
Fogelson also characterized the 'Shak' campaign as an enhancement to the company's $90 million marketing efforts, not a post-Olympic replacement for the 'Dan and Dave' campaign, which features decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson.
'Shaquille is an addition to our marketing efforts, not a replacement for anyone else,' Fogelson said. 'We've had great success with the Dan and Dave campaign, but we have not made a decision about what direction we will go with it after the Olympics.'
The 'Dave and Dan' campaign typified Reebok's past efforts when it came to signing athletes to endorsement contracts. The company's scouts projected the battle between the two Americans for the nation's first gold in the Olympic decathlon since 1976 would be one of the highlights of the Barcelona Games.
The price also was right since Johnson and O'Brien compete away from the media glare of the more glorious sprints and long jump events.
Reebok has specialized in finding such bargains. In 1989, they signed two young players -- Michael Chang and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario -- to endorsement contracts and watched them both win their respective French Open titles.
Last year, Reebok signed Michael Stich, who had played in the shadow of fellow countryman Boris Becker, and saw him capture the Wimbledon title.
'You'd like to have a chrystal ball, but that's just not the case,' Fogelson said. 'What we have is an excellent staff of scouts who keep their eye out for rising young talent.'
The addition of O'Neal comes at a time when Reebok needs a boost in the raging shoe wars. The company announced last week that it expects per share earning for the second quarter to tumble by 20 percent. NIKE, likewise, has announced it's earnings may also be lower.
But the loses have not equated to a lowering of advertising budgets at either company ($90 million for Reebok and $115 for NIKE). There just is too much at stake in the $5.8 billion-a-year wholesale athletic footwear market.
'It's all a balancing act,' Fogelson said. 'Spending on media advertising is only a part of a marketing campaign. You also have to promote at the grass roots level. That all costs money.'