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Story Archives: O'Neal brought smiles
|O'Neal brought smiles|
I remember the first time I saw Shaquille O'Neal.
It was on November 15, 1989, before "The Diesel," "Shaq Daddy," "The Big Aristotle," "The Big Conductor," "Shaq Fu,"
"Big Shaqtus," and the "Big Shamroq."
I was covering the LSU-Southern Mississippi basketball game in Baton Rouge.
Vernel Singleton of Natchez was dressed out in the purple and gold, while Russell Johnson of Natchez was a co-captain for the Eagles.
But it was hard to focus on either when LSU players casually strolled onto the floor for pre-game warm-ups.
Out walks Chris Jackson, as smooth of a basketball player as I have watched.
Then comes Shaquille O'Neal and Stanley Roberts. I seriously thought the court was going to tilt.
Both 7-footers seemed to block out the lights hanging above the hardwood floor.
USM had a talented team under legendary coach M.K. Turk, with Johnson and co-captain Darin Chancellor, along with Clarence Weatherspoon.
The Golden Eagles finished 20-12 that season and 9-5 in the rugged Metro Conference with Louisville, Memphis State and Cincinnati.
But after watching LSU defeat USM 91-80, I thought this was a Tiger team that would go all the way.
The Tigers finished 23-9 and 12-6 in the Southeastern Conference.
That team scored 100 points or more 10 times, including an unbelievable 148-141 overtime win over Loyola-Marymount in Baton Rouge, the original Cinderella story.
Shaq scored 44 against the Lions.
LMU was led by head coach Paul Westhead, who believed in his team getting off a shot in five seconds or less.
Loyola-Marymount became Cinderella after star player Hank Gathers died during a West Coast Conference tournament game against Portland, just after scoring on his trademark tomahawk dunk. He was declared dead on arrival at a nearby hospital at the age of 23. An autopsy found that he suffered from a heart-muscle disorder, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Teammate and best friend Bo Kimble shot his first free throw of the NCAA Tournament left-handed in honor of his late friend and made it.
LMU defeated New Mexico State, No. 3 seed Michigan and Alabama before losing to eventual national champion Nevada-Las Vegas in the Final Four.
LSU was upset by Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament, 78-76. They defeated Villanova in the first round before bowing out to Georiga Tech, 94-91.
In 1990-91, LSU went 20-10 overall and 13-5 in the SEC, winning the conference. Ferriday's Shawn Griggs joined the Tigers as a transfer from Southwestern Louisiana. That was Dale Brown's last SEC championship team.
The Tigers again lost to Auburn in the SEC Tournament first round before falling to Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA.
In Shaq's final season at LSU in 1991-92, the Tigers went 21-10 overall and 12-4 in the SEC.
With Singleton and Griggs on the team, Brown and Natchez High basketball coach Mike Martin set up a scrimmage for local fans.
Martin, a longtime friend of Brown's, grimaced as Shaq threw down a tremendous dunk on the Natchez High goal. He grimaced harder when Shaq came up limping a bit after another dunk. Fortunately, it was just a minor sprain. But leave it to Shaq to put on a show for the local folks even though it had no meaning. And he also passed the limelight to Singleton and Griggs.
I watched Shaq take on Christian Laettner of Duke in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The electricity before that game was like none other I have ever seen in the PMAC.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used back-up center Cherokee Parks to frustrate Shaq as Parks bumped, hounded and pounded O'Neal until the Tiger center finally had enough and gave freshman center that Shaq glare that had the entire place going crazy.
Duke won that game 77-67 and went on to the win the national championship.
LSU lost to Kentucky in the second round of the SEC Tournament before defeating Brigham Young 94-83 in an NCAA first round game in Boise before falling to Indiana 89-79 in the second round.
In three short seasons, the Tiger center scored 1,941 points, grabbed 1,217 rebounds, blocked 412 shots all while shooting a sizzling 61% for his career. If you like your numbers in average form, that's 21.6 points/game, 13.5 boards/game and 4.6 rejections/game.
O'Neal was the National Player of the Year in 1991, a two-time consensus SEC Player of the Year ('91 and '92) and Defensive MVP in the SEC ('92). He also became the first player in SEC history to lead the conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots in the same season ('91)
O'Neal bolted to the NBA, becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the Orlando Magic in the 1992 draft. He took them from the lottery to the playoffs in two years, and then led them to the NBA finals in his third year before they were swept by the Houston Rockets.
O'Neal signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 and had his greatest success there, winning three titles alongside Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson. But amid tension between O'Neal and Bryant over credit for the team's success, O'Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004, fresh off a loss to the Detroit Pistons in the finals.
After 3 1/2 years in Miami, a tenure that included his fourth NBA championship, O'Neal became a veteran-for-hire, moving to Phoenix and then Cleveland and finally Boston. But he couldn't deliver another title for Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire with the Suns, with LeBron James with the Cavaliers or with the Celtics' Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
At each stop, he endeared himself to the fans and his new teammates with his effervescent smile and playful attitude, including the habit of adopting a new nickname that he felt embodied his role with his new team. He also embraced social networking, amassing almost 4 million followers on his Twitter account, where fans could find out his next move or even the "random acts of Shaqness" - like sitting in Harvard Square, pretending to be a statue, or going out in drag on Halloween.
O'Neal has been a constant at LSU football games. He also holds a fund-raising golf tournament each year.
The gentle giant will now be remembered for all time at LSU with a bronze statue.
Some question whether Maravich or Brown should be the first statue outside the PMAC.
I have no problem with any of the above three. O'Neal may not have brought a national championship to LSU, but he brought a lot of great memories. And I don't know if they have enough bronze for that gigantic smile of his.
He certainly brought a lot of smiles to Tiger fans.
Happy trails "Shaqretireness."
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