The shameless selling and shilling of Shaquille O'Neal by the NBA is the clearest indication of panic I have yet seen by the men who run professional sports.

Phineas Taylor Barnum at the peak of his promotional powers did not blow as many horns nor crash as many cymbals to attract attention to his myriad of circus giants, Wild Men of Borneo and sundry gorillas as Commissioner David Stern did last weekend in Salt Lake City.

Suddenly, it is as though the entire league must be propped up by this 20-year-old rookie from hell. Even though Shaquille stands better than seven feet tall and weighs 300 pounds, he still hasn't learned very much about how the game is played.

His idea of basketball subtlety, now being fostered freely by the powers that run the NBA, is to roam about from city to city smashing backboards. Shaquille is being marketed as a modern Visigoth on the loose in the population centers of North America.

Barnum was a showman because he had a genius as to what would startle, amaze, astonish, titillate or thrill the spectators. Maybe Stern has it right, too. Everyone seems to be buying into "The Shaq Attack."

But I wish someone would tell me what he has shown that would make it worthwhile to pay the enormous prices now being charged to see an NBA game in the flesh. For that matter, what would make his autographed All-Star jersey worth $55,000? And this must be compared to the $20,000 paid just a year ago for Magic Johnson's jersey.

So far, by my count, Shaquille has destroyed two backboards. Judging from all the hoopla, you would think he took part in the destruction of Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shaq smashed the first backboard during a one-on-one confrontation done for a television promotion. Forgive my cynicism, but given the results of NBC's famous fire drill with the GM pickups, one must wonder if that backboard was rigged to explode.

The second backboard incident occurred right here in Phoenix on February 7. As luck would have it, it was on national television, and Shaq appeared to pull down the entire backboard just by hanging on the rim and shaking it a bit.

If you watch the replay more than once, the event loses its power to amaze. The mugging occurred in the opening minutes of the game. There is no sudden upheaval of the backboard. It merely sinks to its knees like a wounded elephant. I suspect that a thorough investigation would show that that backboard was ready to collapse if even the Suns' Gorilla, a middleweight, had hung on the rim at that moment.

The proof of Shaquille O'Neal's real position as a force in the league, rather, must stand on his team's won-and-lost record.

In O'Neal's two appearances against the Suns, Charles Barkley has had a field day against him, reducing O'Neal to the status of the inexperienced rookie that he is.

If you have any doubt about Barkley's ability to dominate Shaquille in a one-on-one confrontation, do something for yourself. Watch a tape of the fourth quarter of the last Suns-Magic game after Jerry Colangelo had found a new backboard to put in place.

Barkley, with Shaquille guarding him, held a pure clinic for a full house of Phoenix Suns fans. No matter how much natural talent Shaquille possesses, he may never develop the guile nor the hand-eye coordination it takes to play the game on the level that Barkley has played it for years.

It makes you wonder what Stern and the money men have in mind for the future of the league.

They have seen the sudden disappearance of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Perhaps they have grown tired of Miscall Jordan, who may have become too independent for them.

Could it be that Jordan's decision to take a back seat at the All-Star Game had something to do with his realization that the NBA marketing machine is trying to diminish his status?

The Stern gang has the power to call any shot they desire. They can canonize Shaquille, but they can't put him on a basketball court in a tight situation and have him perform the wonders that are second nature to Jordan.

I predict those heavy-handed, overly produced commercials showing Shaq breaking backboards will turn off more fans than they will attract.

Stern and his gang of moneychangers will, as a man wrote in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine about Barnum in 1851, "take their stand in the social rank among the swindlers, blacklegs, pickpockets and thimble-riggers of their day.