Back in 2000, LSU retired Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey. In 2011, they revealed a 900-pound statue in honor of Shaq. And last week, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inducted Shaq into the hall as part of the Class of 2013 list.
Shaq played three years at LSU and finished as the school’s fourth all-time leading scorer and second in rebounds. He had to share the ball with the nations’ deadliest scorer, Chris Jackson, and future NBA lottery pick Stanley Roberts in his early days at Louisiana, but when they left for the NBA, Shaq became one of the most dominant forces in college basketball history.
Often fouled and double and triple teamed, Shaq was still routinely putting up 25 and 15 with a couple of posters a night and an occasional backboard breaker or triple-double with blocks (how about the 17-year-old Shaq putting up 20 points, 24 rebounds and 12 blocks against Loyola Marymount).
But after a disappointing junior season where he failed to win an NCAA championship and grew tired of the “intentional beatings,” Shaq declared for the NBA draft so he could become the MDE in NBA.
“It an honor to be elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and join so many great athletes and coaches, including my head coach at LSU, Dale Brown. My career has taken my all over the country, and the world, but Louisiana has always been special for me. I love Louisiana,”
“I had the best time of my life from 1989-92 right here in Baton Rouge,” O’Neal said seriously. But in true Shaq fashion he also enjoyed the treatment.
“The first day I arrived here and went to TJ Ribs and had chimichangas. What the hell is a chimichanga? I fell in love with them. The second night I ate at Gino’s. Oh the spaghetti, the lasagna. The third night I go to a small town, Gonzales, to a jambalaya festival. What the hell is a jambalaya festival? These people were so nice to me.
“I went to a small (high) school and I was a local superstar. But when I got (to Baton Rouge), everyone knew who I was. People just treated me with so much honor and so much respect. That’s why I come back every year. It’s not just to show up and show off. I miss Baton Rouge,” he said earnestly.
“That’s why I jump on the highway from Orlando in my RV and we drive 14 hours to come to Baton Rouge every first football weekend. It’s beautiful. LSU will remain one of the top universities in athletics. If any of the parents want their kids to attend a nice clean college, LSU is where to come, baby.”
After three years of dominating the league in blocks, rebounds, showmanship and the nights of physical contacts, a decision had to be made by O’Neal and his family. Was this the right time to leave LSU to go to the NBA to lead the league in blocks, rebounds, showmanship and the nights of physical contact?
“A lot of people don’t know this,” the big center said, “But when I had to call Coach Brown and tell him I didn’t think I wanted to come back (after his junior season), that was one of the hardest days of my life because if I leave Coach Brown there will be no more Tiger Town, no more Sports on Thursday, no more football games, no more tailgating, no more crawfish. There would be no more fun. Now I’ve got to go to work. I really got to take this accounting class I fooled around in and go to work. That was a very, very difficult phone call. That was a very difficult decision.
“I don’t really believe in the ‘ifs’ but I’m watching TV one day and I hear Dick Vitale say that if this guy (Shaq) decides to come out he’ll probably make about $50 million and a couple of minutes later he says that if I hurt my knee, I’ll probably only get a million dollars from insurance. So I’m sitting there 50 million here, a million over here. I think I’m going to go ahead and go. It was tough because I loved being at LSU.”
But in leaving for millions he promised his mother that there would eventually be a diploma from LSU that would say Shaquille O’Neal on it. That came seven years later in one of the most famous graduation ceremonies in school history when O’Neal was the commencement speaker and as then Chancellor Mark Emmert said in his introduction, O’Neal “raised the median average income of the 2000 graduation class.”
O’Neal would for the first time proclaim what has become a common note when he is speaking to large crowds, declaring LSU “Love Shaq University” and “Can You Dig It?”
But there was more to the graduation on that weekend for O’Neal.
“The great Joe Dean always told me that when I came back to graduate that he would retire my jersey. Joe, thank you very much. You have always been a man of your word and I appreciate you. I appreciate your honestly and I respect that,” O’Neal said about the man who made the decision.
“I kind of didn’t really believe it when he said it, but at graduation he put my hand on my shoulder and said ‘Shaq!’ I went ‘Mr. Dean how are you?’ He said, ‘I told you I’m going to retire your jersey and we are going to do it tomorrow night.’ I saw my jersey in the rafters and that right there, humbled me because there are a lot of players that could be in the rafters. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
So many games and so many memories.
“My favorite memory is coming out of the tunnel and hearing those horns. Looking up and seeing the whole city behind us win or lose. The only thing I regret is not being able to give LSU a national championship because Baton Rouge has given me so much.”
When you ask fans about favorite games O’Neal played in, one they always mention is a 148-141 overtime win over Loyola Marymount when LSU’s Brown elected to play the same style as LMU’s Coach Paul Westhead.
“They had Bo Kimble and the great Hank Gathers. Rest in peace Hank,” O’Neal recalled. “Coach Brown came to me and said, ‘Big fella, can you play?’ I said, ‘I like running, you make us run every day in practice.’ Coach said, ‘This guy you are playing against is a pro player but he’s still in college. This guy won’t quit.’ So I’m like who is it? I’m looking at Hank Gathers and he’s 6-7 and I’m going to be all right. I kind of had my way with him but he’s the only player that kept coming back. I think I blocked his shot like 10 or 12 times, he kept coming back. I think he ended up with 40-something points. Bo Kimble shot the lights out. Even though it was a tiring game, it was a fun game. But after I hit the shower, I went home and I think I slept for about two days.”
O’Neal’s College Records and Highlights:
- Two-time consensus Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and first-team All-American, 1991-1992. Most Valuable Player on SEC Coaches Defensive Team, 1991-1992.
- National Player of the Year as chosen by the Associated Press (Rupp Award), United Press International, L. A. Gear and Sports Illustrated, 1991. Winner of the Tanqueray World Amateur Athlete of the Year Award, 1991.
- Southeastern Conference Athlete of the Year, 1991-1992. National Player of the Year as chosen by L. A. Gear, 1992 and runner-up for the Naismith Award and the John Wooden Award, 1992.
- Set SEC record for most blocks in a season three consecutive years (115-1990, 140-1991, 157-1992). Set SEC record for career blocks with 412. Blocked five or more shots in a game 45 times in 90 career games.
- Set SEC single game record with 12 blocks against Loyola Marymount in Feb. 1990. Blocked 11 shots against Brigham Young in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, setting a then-tournament standard for a single game, 1992.
- Averaged a national sophomore-record 5.0 blocked shots a game, 1991. National leader in blocked shots (5.2 average), 1992.
- National leader in rebounding (14.7 average), 1991. Second nationally in rebounding (14.0 average), 1992.
- First player to lead the Southeastern Conference in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots in the same season, 1991. Led SEC in rebounding, field goal percentage, blocked shots and second in scoring, 1992. First player to lead the SEC in rebounding three straight seasons since Charles Barkley of Auburn, 1982-84.
- Finished with 1,217 rebounds, seventh all-time in the Southeastern Conference, second all-time at LSU.
- Finished with 1,941 points, fourth all-time at LSU behind only Pete Maravich (3,667-1967-70), Durand Macklin (2,080-1976-78; 79-81) and Howard Carter (1,942-1979-83).
- Career field goal percentage of 61.0 percent is second all-time at LSU and in the SEC (minimum 1,000 attempts).
- Had six career triple-doubles (points, rebounds and blocks in same game).
- Was the third LSU player (Pete Maravich and Chris Jackson) to have at least two 700-plus point seasons at LSU.
- Was the first LSU player to record back-to-back 400-plus rebound seasons.