Sometimes, even Superman needs a bodyguard. Meet Jerome Crawford, security coordinator for one of the most intimidating men in sports, Shaquille O'Neal.

Wherever O'Neal goes, there's Crawford.

Watch a Los Angeles Lakers' game on television, and you're bound to see him, the husky 6-foot-3, 250-pounder with the shaved head behind the team's bench.

Even at that size, Crawford looks positively tiny next to his 7-1, 330-pound client.

O'Neal calls him Uncle Jerome, even though they aren't related.

"He keeps me going, he keeps me out of trouble," O'Neal said. "And he's family.

"Not really family, but he's family."

Despite a most pleasant smile, the 42-year-old Crawford definitely is someone not to be crossed.

O'Neal met him 12 years ago when Crawford worked for the Newark, N.J., Police department.

"Jerome was a police officer in one of the toughest cities in the world," O'Neal said. "I've also seen him box, he's got a mean 1-2.

"There's only two right hands I fear, Butchie's and Uncle Jerome's. Butchie's my father.

"You don't want to mess with this cat."

Crawford's police partner happened to be O'Neal's real Uncle Mike.

"He was just a big kid," Crawford said with a chuckle.

When O'Neal signed with the Lakers in July 1996 after playing four years with the Orlando Magic, he convinced Crawford to work for him full-time.

"I told him, 'Quit working, we're going to LA,"' O'Neal said. Nearly five years later, Crawford remains on departmental leave.

"It became personal to take care of the guy, I was very close to his Uncle Mike," Crawford said. "It's more than a job.

"It wasn't a hard decision."

The only negative, Crawford said, is not seeing enough of his wife and four children, who live in Princeton, N.J.

"I had been with him all over the world in the off-season, all over Europe, Asia," Crawford said. "You name it, my passport has it."

O'Neal said the two plan to own and operate one of the biggest security companies in the world someday, for people like him.

"When I think of security, I think of someone mean, strong, Mr. T-looking guys," O'Neal said. "We want to do real security; ex-cops, agents, guys like that."

Crawford said his security plan is relatively simple, although it's difficult to imagine anyone wanting to challenge O'Neal.

"You don't need a lot, it's all preventive stuff," Crawford said. "The more people around, the greater the chances are of something happening.

"The whole objective is to stay away from trouble, see trouble before it happens. I know what I'm doing.

"We try to stay out of physical confrontations. Mike Tyson could have saved millions of dollars with this system - keep it simple.

"You have to have people around who have a security background."

O'Neal isn't a reckless person, despite an occasional midnight car ride.

"I'm a client that doesn't put himself in jeopardy by being harassed," he said. "I don't spend time in places I'm not supposed to.

"Uncle Jerome is the first to walk away. We don't want to put ourselves in that position."

Crawford said both he and O'Neal know the limits of their relationship.

"There are times when he needs his own space," Crawford said. "He knows what I expect of him.

"When I first took the job, I didn't come to LA to be a go-fer. "He always complied. He knew if he didn't listen to my advice, I might as well go back to the police department. He's been great."

Crawford provides another function for O'Neal.

"My father is a '10' when it comes to criticism, Jerome is an 'eight,"' O'Neal said. "When I'm not playing hard, Jerome will tell me.

"He wakes me up at times." "I look for things that might tick him off," Crawford said. "I'm the bearer of bad news."

Perhaps that explains O'Neal's harsh words for Dikembe Mutombo earlier this week, when he called the 76ers' centre a flopper after O'Neal fouled out of Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

Whatever, it got O'Neal fired up.

By John Nadel