Perhaps no basketball player instigated and drew more contact than Shaquille O’Neal. He overpowered opponents on offense, could send them toppling like bowling pins and was rarely budged on defense.
But once as a collegian, O’Neal lost a battle. He was feeling sick and decided to sleep in, missing a class.
“The next morning, about 4:30, I felt this hand on my chest,” O’Neal said. “I looked up and it was Dale Brown.”
“He had a no-missing-class policy,” O’Neal said. “I had to run that day. But I always went to class after that.”
O’Neal and Brown are together again, in Kansas City, part of the eight-member class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is Sunday at 7:30 p.m., at Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland.
“Going in with Coach Brown, it’s perfect, because he saw the potential in me when nobody else did,” O’Neal said.
It’s difficult to imagine today given O’Neal’s path. He was the overall No. 1 selection of the Orlando Magic in the 1992 NBA Draft went on to a spectacular NBA career. His teams won four NBA championships, and he was the MVP in three NBA Finals with the Lakers.
All-NBA first-team eight times, 15-time All-Star and the league’s MVP in 2000, not to mention the rapping, acting and analyzing he does today for TBS’ “Inside the NBA.”
But yes, there was a time when O’Neal didn’t seem destined for stardom, and college helped shape his game.
“I was big but I wasn’t anything special when I got there,” O’Neal said. “I was told I’d be coming off the bench. I wasn’t sad about that at all. My role was going to be to block shots, rebounds, start the fast break. I was cool with that.”
Brown remembered thinking his other big freshman, Stanley Roberts, was more advanced, even though O’Neal had come out of San Antonio’s Robert G. Cole High, where his teams went 68-1 with a state championship.
“Stanley was better than Shaq,” Brown said. “He was a better shooter, had a better game. Shaq was basically a dunker. At the start of the season, Shaq came off the bench.”
Not for long. By the fifth game of O’Neal’s freshman year, he was introduced with the starters. On his way to becoming one of the most dominant players in the college game, leading the nation in rebounding and blocked shots and recording six career triple-doubles, O’Neal learned how to score.
He averaged 21.6 points for his career and as a sophomore averaged 27.6. As a freshman, O’Neal had played with a scoring machine, guard Chris Jackson, who had set the NCAA record for average by a freshmen with 30.2.
Jackson played with O’Neal and Roberts in 1989-90 then moved on to the NBA and soon changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. O’Neal became a scorer.
“The next think I know, it’s up to me to score,” O’Neal said. “That’s when things started to change.”
Actually, the biggest pivot in O’Neal’s basketball life occurred about five years earlier, and involved his future coach.
Brown was working a clinic on U.S. Army base at Wildflecken, West Germany. He had finished when he got a tap on the shoulder.
“Here’s this kid, 6-6, 250 pounds, dressed well, stuttering, telling me he’ll be trying out for a basketball team the next year but he can’t dunk,” Brown said. “Could I show him some exercises that will help him?
“I ask him how long have you been in the service, soldier? He tells me he’s not in the service and he’s 13 years old.”
Brown asked to meet O’Neal’s father and was introduced to Phillip A. Harrison, a career Army Reserve sergeant, who was O’Neal’s stepfather. Coach and dad spoke, and it moved in a non-hoop direction. Education, not sports, was to be the emphasis.
That looked like it might be Shaq’s path when he was cut as a freshman from his high school team. The coach suggested soccer goal keeper as a sporting endeavor better suited for O’Neal, who wrote Brown to give him the news.
“What can you say to a kid who was heart-broken?” Brown said. “I just told him to work as hard as he could and to never give up under any condition.”
Brown had sent O’Neal a weight program, and as his body developed so did his game. He made official visits to five schools but there was no doubt where O’Neal was headed.
In his book, “Shaq Uncut,” O’Neal calls his LSU days “the best three years of my life.”
There was plenty of success on the floor. The Tigers went 64-29 and reached the NCAA Tournament in all three years. They finished with the second or third best SEC record in each season.
But O’Neal has one regret about his college days.
“It’s the only stop where I didn’t win a championship,” he said. “This weekend will be happy and sad because we didn’t get to a Final Four.”