Every so often an athlete bursts onto the sporting scene and completely transcends super star status, evolving into a figure known around the world for his exploits on his chosen field of play. Golf's Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, basketball's Michael Jordan and Julius Erving, football's Joe Montana and Jim Brown, and baseball's Jackie Robinson are just a few of the performers who have made the quantum leap from star of their sport to mega-world-wide celebrity.
Most often the reason for the athletes' rise to mega-stardom is related to professional accomplishments. Whether it be Woods' otherworldly ability to perfectly strike a golf ball, placing the dimpled orb exactly where he wants it; or Jordan and Erving's unfathomable on-court acrobatics; or Montana's skillful placement of a football; or Brown's talent for running over would-be tacklers; or Robinson's enviable ability to ignore the taunts and racial epithets thrown his way, and perform like few before or after him, all of these athletes have set themselves miles apart from the thousands of players who have ever called themselves professionals.
Shaquille O'Neal is a deserving member of this most exclusive of clubs.
Shaq the Player
We all know of Shaq's on-court triumphs -- from the 28,596 points he scored in his incredible 19-year NBA career (5th all-time), to the 13,099 rebounds he corralled (12th all-time), to the 2,732 shots he swatted (7th all-time), to the four NBA Championships he won (2000-2002, 2006), to the 15 times he made the NBA All-Star team, to the 14 All-NBA selections he achieved, to the three NBA Finals MVP Awards he garnered (2000-2002), to the three NBA All-Star game MVP's he won (2000, 2004, 2009), to his two NBA scoring titles (1995, 2000), to his career 58.2% field goal accuracy (2nd all-time in NBA history), to the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal he helped the USA win in basketball, Shaq's list of superlatives is nearly endless.
Of course, Kentucky fans remember several epic Wildcat battles with Shaq and his LSU Tigers, fought as O'Neal rose to prominence while playing three seasons for coach Dale Brown in Baton Rouge (1989-1992). In his LSU career, O'Neal played against Kentucky five times, posting a 2-3 mark, while averaging a double-double: 21.8 points and 17.8 rebounds per contest. There are still UK fans who say Rupp Arena was never louder and more raucous than when Pitino's Bambinos bested the No. 9 ranked Tigers 100-95 in February of 1990, a victory which laid the groundwork for the return of the Wildcats to national prominence. And the reason the win was so meaningful to UK and the Big Blue faithful, is because it came against a player many considered the best to don a collegiate uniform in many years.
Shaquille the Person
My motivation for recognizing Shaq as he retires from the sport he so dominated for over a decade, isn't the big fella's on-court achievements, rather, it is the manner in which he used his fame and wealth to positively affect those less fortunate, those less blessed, and those in desperate need of hope. Stories of benevolence which have never been reported because O'Neal isn't interested in accolades for his off-court handiwork.
Dale Brown, Shaq's mentor, though, isn't shy about illuminating the world to at least a few of O'Neal's good works, and in a recent phone conversation, Brown shared his thoughts on his most prized pupil's love of people: "What you have to understand about Shaquille is that he's such a good person, very disciplined, and he's never been in an ounce of trouble," Brown said. "His benevolence, no one knows his giving. He goes to schools, just on his own, for the fun of it, and asks if he can read to the kids. He loves kids, he has such a big heart."
Brown continued, " A while back the Lakers were playing Indiana, and it was a big game. Well, on the day of the game, I get a call from a lady whose son was very ill, they didn't know if he was going to make it or not, and the kid idolized Shaquille. She asked if there was any way Shaquille could come by the hospital to visit her son. I told her 'I don't know, it's game day, but I'll see what I can do.' So I call him (Shaq), and he went to the hospital, that day, game day, and just sat there holding the boys hand for an hour. The boy's mother said the visit gave her son hope."
"After (hurricanes) Katrina and Rita, Shaquille loaded up trucks with all types of supplies, diapers, medicine, food, you name it, and got it into Louisiana when the federal government couldn't, but no one knew about it at the time, because that's not why he does things like that. He's just a kind person. He's for the little guy, he loves down-and-outers. There's just so many things he's done to help so many people."
The Seeds of Benevolence
So, where does this come from? Where, along life's journey, did Shaquille O'Neal learn to love "the little guy, the down-and-outer?" Well, it had to start with his mother, Lucille, and his step-father, Phillip Harrison, a sergeant in the US Army. While the couple instilled discipline and a strong work ethic into young Shaquille, at the same time, they taught their son that kindness and caring about others is what determines what type of person one is. And then, at age 18, they handed Shaquille over to one of the kindest, most philanthropic people on the planet, coach Dale Brown.
Brown had Shaq for three years, and he's the first to tell anyone who will listen that "Shaq should be the beacon light (an example for others to follow), and he should go down as one of the best players ever, but he's a better person." One gets the feeling, when talking with Brown about Shaq, that he would run through a wall for O'Neal, he genuinely cares about him that much, and that fact alone speaks volumes about the type of person Shaquille is.
After Shaq's first year in the NBA, a year in which he won the league's Rookie of Year Award, Brown, wisely seeing the impending world-wide stardom which awaited O'Neal, sat down and penned a letter to the budding superstar. A letter he shared with me, and has graciously allowed me to use for this piece. In it, Brown is offering up sage advice to his young star player, here is an excerpt:
"Be a good listener. One of the most consistent qualities of those that are lauded as extraordinary athletes is they have been coachable. There have been very few exceptions."
"Stay away from all the distractions, because concentration is imperative for ultimate success. It is a supreme art very few ever master.
"Make your dignity as tall as your body. Never, ever drop it or sell it or become complimented out of it. Respect others, even the most humble, and remember that above all else, you are a member of a group called mankind.
"Be a role model. A lot of kids have absolutely no one in whom to turn, and what you do and say will be more than mere words or actions for the game plan that is their life.
"Affect mankind. Affect your fellow man, and always for the good. Shaquille, leave a legacy beyond trophies and statistics, because, and I hate to say this, but your time will also pass and the glory you enjoy will only be a memory.
"So be your brother's keeper. Lift him up when he has fallen; bandage him up when he is wounded. In body, he may not be as big as you, but in spirit, he is."
The first words out of Brown's mouth when we recently spoke were, "Remember that letter to Shaquille I sent you? Well, he's really fulfilled that letter in every way."
Surely Shaq is one of the greatest basketball players to ever lace 'em up -- his remarkable record speaks for itself --but the most indelible mark Shaquille has left on the world isn't his points scored, rebounds grabbed, or titles won, it is the lives he's touched, and the everlasting affect his kindness will have on all who've benefited from his benevolent nature.
Coach Brown encouraged O'Neal to be a role model, something many of today's athletes find a foreign concept, but Shaquille grasped the ideals of his parents and coach with a vengeance, and ensured his great success wasn't empty. By sharing what he has been blessed with -- a big personality, a big body, and an even bigger spirit -- Shaquille has ensured his legacy will endure, not only on ESPN, but more importantly, in the hearts, minds, and memories of those he has touched off the court. I'm not sure anyone can do more than that.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!