It's hardly astonishing that Louisiana State center Shaquille Rashan O'Neal, an Army brat who has suddenly turned into a one-man basketball battalion, is so young, so big, so good or even so mature, composed and polite. The surprise is that he's all of those things at once.
Staff Sergeant Philip Harrison, a convert to Islam, and the former Lucille O'Neal have raised a young man gifted enough on the court and sufficiently personable off it to rival not just other athletes but his adopted state's effervescent party city as well: The Big Easy come to joyous, uninhibited life. Moreover, only a few months into his sophomore season, O'Neal no longer merely plays basketball at LSU, he is basketball's future. And for those salivating agents and NBA scouts eager to whisk away The Shack, which is just one of the monikers he has given himself, to untold millions—be still, your hearts and wallets—he is also, as King Lear said of Cordelia, "so young, and so untender?"
Forget O'Neal's points and his rebounds, his blocked shots and his field goal percentage—categories, by the way, in which he led the Southeastern Conference at week's end. Three times this season the 7'1", 295-pound O'Neal has come a breath away from his ultimate goal of ripping a basketball goal asunder. It's not just shattering the glass backboard that he has in mind—that's child's play, although he hasn't actually broken one yet. We're talking bringing down the whole works—the net, the rim, the backboard, the basket stanchion—everything! He almost did it in mid-November in an exhibition game against the Newcastle (Australia) Falcons. On that occasion everyone in LSU's Maravich Assembly Center gave thanks that, after O'Neal's two-handed dunk not only moved the base of the basket support a good five inches but also broke the chain anchoring it to the floor, he wisely let go of the rim so the entire structure wouldn't topple over. "The night I get one, you'll really see some dancin'," O'Neal says.
It's not that The Shack suffers from an identity crisis: A Baton Rouge family named Long recently christened its newborn Shaquille O'Neal Long, and O'Neal soon turned up at the front door of these total strangers to pose for pictures with the baby. But he does have this thing about names.
O'Neal names everything, including his victory dances. Who can forget the Shaq-de-Shaq, the hip-hop step he segued into following the outrageous breakaway jam that clinched Louisiana State's 92-82 December upset of then second-ranked Arizona? O'Neal made sure the assembled media in Baton Rouge spelled that one with a q rather than the more mundane ck. In that victory O'Neal destroyed what was presumed to be the best front line in college basketball with 29 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in 28 minutes of play. While surviving the final 12 minutes with four fouls, O'Neal blocked 6'11" forward Sean Rooks three times, dominated 6'11" center/forward Brian Williams and did everything but eat the visitors' bus. "The tapes don't do him justice," Wildcat forward Chris Mills said afterward. "It's kind of amazing to see him in person."
"Fouling him out of here would be like fouling Kareem out of the Forum," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who had undoubtedly noticed Abdul-Jabbar in the Maravich Assembly Center crowd.
"Don't call Shaquille the next anybody," warned Abdul-Jabbar, who later that night taught O'Neal the basics of the sky hook, which he has yet to master. "Let him be the first Shaquille."
O'Neal names his studies, too. Not his classroom studies, where he has excelled; he led the LSU team with a 3.0 (out of 4.0) grade point average as a freshman business major but slipped to a 2.0 this fall. "Too much Nintendo," he says. O'Neal's preferred subject is something he calls "rimology," which consists of his detailed investigation of the rims and backboards and basket supports at each foreign court the Tigers visit. The first thing O'Neal does is peer at the basket hardware and its moorings. He took one look before LSU's Nov. 24 meeting with Villanova at the Springfield Civic Center in Springfield, Mass., in the Hall of Fame game, and knew there would be trouble. There was. Following an early Shack attack, the game had to be delayed for five minutes while a four-man crew realigned the basket support back into place.
"When Shaquille found out the rims at Illinois weren't breakaways, he got so excited I thought we'd have to give him a tranquilizer," says Madrid-born guard Mike Hansen, O'Neal's fellow co-captain of the Tigers. Alas, O'Neal got into early foul trouble at Champagne-Urbana—the free throws were 41 to 19 in favor of the home team—LSU lost 102-96, and the Illini buckets survived.
O'Neal even names his names. He favors a black baseball cap bearing the inscription I AM THE SHAQNIFICENT, which was made for him, he says, "by a homeboy back in San Antonio." Besides simply The Shack, his names include The Love Shack and various other Shacks. His favorite is Shaquille the Real Deal, a nonbasketball moniker he invented in high school while playing cards with his buddies at Fort Sam Houston, where his father is based. Surreal may be a truer description of a kid who, though he will be a teenager for another 14 months, is already the fifth or sixth best center on the planet.
Experts have unanimously named O'Neal as the heir apparent to the throne now shared by the ruling Olajuwon-Ewing-Robinson axis. Another great center, Bill Walton, who spent a week working with O'Neal in the preseason, likens him to a different-size NBA player. "Charles Barkley," says Walton. "Shaquille has that quick, unrestrainable explosion, like Barkley. It's a raw power you don't get in the weight room. It comes from somewhere else, deep in the soul. This guy may have the physical talent and personal discipline to be the best. But I told Shaquille, it's not the numbers or the stats. It's how he controls the flow of the game."
But O'Neal has had to stockpile some fairly auspicious digits to carry what is otherwise a mediocre LSU team. The Tigers went into the season missing 60 points and 24 rebounds a game from the 23-9 team of a year ago. As of Sunday, The Shack led the NCAA in rebounding, with 15.2 a game and was sixth in scoring (28.5 points), fourth in blocked shots (4.8) and 14th in shooting (63.9%). While O'Neal has cut down on his fouling from last year—he was disqualified nine times in 1989-90, even as the SEC tested the six-fouls rule (now abandoned)—he has been unable to stem the flow of fouls called against him on the road. In addition to the Illinois defeat, LSU lost while away from home to Villanova when O'Neal got into foul trouble; the Tigers' 96-84 victory over Auburn last Saturday—O'Neal grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked four shots but scored a very sub-Shack 14 points—was their first road win. LSU's record stood at 10-3 as the Tigers headed toward a midweek meeting at Alabama.
Surely it was a historical rarity when possibly the two best players of their generation at their positions met in Louisiana State's final game last season, the Tigers' 94-91 NCAA tournament loss to Georgia Tech and point guard Kenny Anderson, in which O'Neal had 19 points and 14 boards but committed four fouls. While that game offered a disappointing conclusion to O'Neal's fluctuating rookie season—he had 17 points and 14 rebounds against NCAA champion UNLV (which LSU beat during the regular season), but only 10 points and eight rebounds in an SEC tournament loss to Auburn—his breathtaking, unrefined skills were obvious to those NBA folks who vowed he would have been the first draft choice if he had left school last spring.
It was obvious that sharing the ball with spectacular little guard Chris Jackson and another 7-footer, Stanley Roberts, in a virtual no-pass offense restricted O'Neal's development as a freshman. But now Jackson has left school for the Denver Nuggets, and Roberts, who became academically ineligible last August, is starring in Spain for Real Madrid. That everybody in the arena knows to whom LSU is going these days and that The Shack still continues to run the table makes manifest his striking improvement.
Last summer O'Neal played pickup ball for three hours nearly every day and did calf-raises every night in his room until he fell asleep. The results include an eight-inch improvement in his vertical jump; from a standing position, The Shack can now touch a mark nearly 2½ feet above the rim. At the Olympic Festival in Minneapolis in July, O'Neal was not merely a man among boys; he was a monster. In four games he had 98 points, 55 rebounds and 27 blocks.
"There's no comparison to him as a freshman," said Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler after O'Neal had 34 points and 11 rebounds in an 87-70 LSU victory on Jan. 2. "Trying to stop Shack now is a joke." Georgia coach Hugh Durham was equally forlorn after O'Neal (34 and 16, with seven blocks) helped put away the Bulldogs 83-76 on Jan. 7. "Last year you could play behind him and know he wasn't going to get the ball from those other guys," Durham said. "Now you have to front or side him, and he muscles you out of the lane anyway. They just keep going to the mountain, going to the mountain. Shack may be unguardable."
About three years ago, another young center with a lyrical name, Alonzo Mourning, was proclaimed basketball's next great hope. Recently, however, Mourning has been the second-best center on his Georgetown team. Still, O'Neal didn't hesitate when asked what team he most wanted to play. "Georgetown," he said. "Alonzo was the guy I always heard about. I've always wanted to measure myself against the best."
That was why O'Neal got so excited about playing Arizona. "I'd heard stuff from out there that I was just another player, that I was too young. I wanted to show I could play with anybody," he says. Similarly, after Kentucky's gifted freshman forward Jamal Mashburn suggested before the Wildcats' Jan. 5 appointment with LSU that O'Neal was merely "all right" and could be "stopped," The Shack mumbled, "Yeah, with four guys," and proceeded to stick Mashburn for 28 points and 17 boards. Later, a stunned Mashburn corrected himself by saying O'Neal belonged "in a higher league."
Long before O'Neal, who was born in Newark, N.J., went to high school for two seasons in Texas, he was already prominent on LSU coach Dale Brown's wish list. Five years ago, during a European tour of coaching clinics, Brown came across the then 6'6" Shaquille at an Army base in Wildflecken, West Germany, where his father was then stationed.
"What rank are you, soldier?" Brown asked.
"No rank. I'm 13 years old," O'Neal answered.
"Uh, your dad around?" asked Brown.
Harrison, or The Sergeant, as Brown always refers to The Shack's 6'5", 280-pound drill instructor father, is from Newark and played some junior college ball before he "messed up and didn't take care of business." After joining the Army and getting married, he was posted back and forth overseas until the family—which includes daughters LaTeefah, 13, and Ayesha, 12, and son Jamal, 11 and already 5'2"—settled in San Antonio, where The Shack led Cole High to a 68-1 record over two years. As for The Shack's given names, Lucille O'Neal gave him her maiden name while Harrison picked the others. In Arabic, Shaquille means "little one" and Rashan means "warrior"; that leaves The Sergeant batting .500.
"All you have to do is see Shaquille around his dad—he's 'yes sir, no sir,' and that's it—to know how he got so tough and disciplined," says LSU forward Vernel Singleton.
"In junior high in Germany I fought kids all the time," says O'Neal. "I had such a bad temper, I almost got thrown out of school. A few lickings from my dad got me out of that scene. He wore me out with a paddle."
"I always told Shaquille the world has too many followers. What he needed to be was a leader," says Harrison. "He'd see guys hanging out on the corner, and he'd know they were followers. I told him I'd whup him rather than have the guys on the corner whup him. I told him there's no half-steppin' in this life."
Harrison once grabbed Shaquille at halftime of a high school game that the kid was dominating and ordered him to tuck in his uniform shirttail. And he once lectured an NCAA investigator who was snooping around Cole High and rebuked him for what Harrison called "unprofessionalism." Harrison says that his son will not leave school early, that he will finish his eligibility at LSU. "Money is materialistic," he says. "What Shaquille needs is spiritualistic. We want him to get an education so he doesn't need basketball."
Who do you take in the when-will-The-Shack-turn-pro tug of war? The Denver Nuggets or The Sergeant?
Merely grabbing a glimpse of this gargantuan Greek-god Goliath—beat that, Vitale!—is enough to forget for a moment that O'Neal is still a kid. "I don't ever want to grow up," he says. "I guess I'm like Peter Pan. Grown-ups have problems. I want to stay happy."
As a team comedian, The Shack shares a background and closeness with his new teammate, Hansen—a transfer from Tennessee-Martin and the son of a traveling P.E. instructor for the U.S. Defense Department. They work for the same construction company in Baton Rouge in the summer and drive the same kind of van.
O'Neal keeps his teammates up until the wee hours by mixing records on two turntables in his dorm room, usually playing Suzanne Vega's headache-inducing Tom's Diner as the backbeat for YZ's Who Is the Man With the Master Plan? He playfully mocks the local media with his postgame "ratings" of himself and his team. Or with his one-word responses, which he calls SHAM. "And that's in capitals," O'Neal says. "It's code talk for my Short-Answer Method."
Peter Pan? Or is this guy testing material for a guest shot on Arsenio Hall?
The other evening The Shack revealed to a totally suckered journalist that the cellular phone ringing in his van was actually a fake, a toy "cellular clone" that he had used to fool his coach and athletic director on an LSU team flight.
A short time later O'Neal downed a Blimpie sandwich-Hawaiian Punch dinner, the size of which would take out 14 Roseanne Barrs, not to mention her husband. The Shack says he skips training-table meals on game days for this very same nutrition at Blimpie.
"That personality profile you signed before the season?" the journalist said to O'Neal. "It asked for your most humbling experience, and you answered, 'I've never had one.' You weren't serious, were you?"
"Notf Fyet," O'Neal said in a Blimpie-muffled version of a blocked shot.