Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal in college basketball.
Quick: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen right in front of you? Was it’s a skyscraper, or maybe a mountain? Or maybe it was a waterfall or an ancient castle? But what if it was an 18-year-old kid in sneakers wearing a wide, toothy grin?
That’s what a lot of folks around the SEC saw back in 1989 when this… kid showed up. He wasn’t just big, he was huge. Never mind that he couldn’t yet spin in the lane like he eventually would or that his shot from more than four feet was not going to go in. He didn’t have to be there yet. LSU had other guys for that stuff, especially All-Everything guard Chris Jackson. Instead, the huge kid with the weird name was just supposed to do exactly what he did do: absolutely terrify opposing coaches away from the paint.
What kind of name was ‘Shaquille’ anyway? (Muslim, actually, for ‘little one’ … wait, little?). And where did he come from? (San Antonio, actually, well, by way of Germany, by way of New Jersey by… well, it doesn’t even really matter.) All those details, they didn’t help you shoot over him or grab a rebound when he was anywhere near the rim. That you knew who he was or where he was from didn’t make you any more likely to move him out of the paint. Most likely, nothing would have.
That Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal ended up arriving on campus at Baton Rouge is a fantastic story unto itself and, like everything with the kid who would soon go by ‘Shack,’ it’s ultimately a tale of the tape.
It was 1985 – smack dab in the center of the great era of college basketball big men. Patrick Ewing dominated college ball at Georgetown. Ralph Sampson was a four-time college All-American. Hakeem Olajuwon redefined the position at Houston. As LSU coach Dale Brown has told it many hundreds of times, he was a world away from all that, wrapping up a basketball clinic at a military base in West Germany in a town called Wildflecken, when this lean 6’8” guy in a white polo shirt, khakis and sneakers came up to ask Brown some advice on improving his conditioning.
“How long you been in the service, son?” Brown asked him.
He replied, “I’m too young for the service, sir. I’m only 13.”
Working his best poker face, Brown answered famously, “So you’re 13. I’d sure like to meet your dad.” Which the overwhelmed and giddy Brown eventually did.
But being 6’8” at 13 isn’t easy. There’s a reason even a basketball coach would do a triple-take. His lack of motor coordination at that age got O’Neal got cut from the basketball team his freshman year; told, in fact, that he might consider being a goalie in soccer as a better option. O’Neal instead pressed on. That is why he was asking this coach he didn’t know how to get stronger in his lower body. Which is how Dale Brown, coach of the LSU Tigers about to be on his way back from Germany, happened to meet the future face of his program by absolute happenstance.
Which isn’t to say that it was ever that easy. Maybe Brown had the first contact, but he still had to stay in touch regularly because O’Neal didn’t stay a secret stashed away in Germany for long. When his stepfather, the man O’Neal considered his real father, a military man, a drill instructor named Phillip Harrison, was re-assigned to Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, Shaquille and his family settled into San Antonio. By now, the big kid was even bigger – 6’10” and still growing. His shoes could just about hold a toddler each. He enrolled at Cole High School. One can only imagine the heart-stopping joy that Cole High School’s unsuspecting coach Ken Kuwamura must have felt the day the Goliath fall into his lap.