Shaquille O’Neal to enter La. Hall of Fame

Where do you start when trying to put your arms around the very large life and career of Shaquille O’Neal?

No one really has the arms that are big enough — literally and figuratively.

Let’s see, there’s national college Player of the Year. No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Multi-time NBA champion and multi-time regular season and postseason MVP. Olympic gold medalist. One of basketball’s all-time greats.

Then there is everything else: Recording artist, business owner, movie star, college graduate, a “big” man with a doctorate, NBA studio analyst, a man with a statue on the campus he graduated from — and so much more.

Now add one more to the list — Saturday’s induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, which will be held in conjunction with the opening of a new building in historic Natchitoches to house the state’s all-time athletic greats.

“It’s 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,” O’Neal said. “My career has taken me all over the country, and the world, but Louisiana has always been special for me. I love Louisiana.”

While O’Neal has been on the stage nationally and internationally for years and it’s been 21 years since his last dunk at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, it’s those three years at LSU that defines why he is so treasured in Louisiana.

It’s a feeling that goes both ways and that’s why he was an easy first-year inductee in one of the most special years for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

“We all have the same goals and aspirations,” O’Neal said. “We all get here some type of way, whether it’s a scholarship or our parents pay for college. The great thing about Baton Rouge is that the people here are so friendly. The campus is so lively and the night life is so great. Everyone is just together.

“Baton Rouge is one of the best cities in the world. I had people who were like my extended family. ... Besides my parents who raised me well, it is the people of Louisiana who really made me.”

O’Neal was a big fish when he came to LSU. But the spotlight was white-hot at LSU and people made him quickly feel at home. It didn’t take long once Shaq’s parents moved him from San Antonio to Baton Rouge.

“I had the best time of my life from 1989-92 right here in Baton Rouge,” O’Neal said.

But in true Shaq fashion he also enjoyed the treatment.

“The first day here, I went to TJ Ribs and had chimichangas,” he said. “What the hell is a chimichanga? I fell in love with them. The second night I ate at Gino’s. 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.”

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,” O’Neal 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.

“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. It was tough because I loved being at LSU,” he said.

But in leaving for millions, he promised his mother 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 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,” O’Neal said of the then-LSU athletic director who made the decision. “Joe, thank you very much. You have always been a man of your word, and I appreciate you. I appreciate your honesty, and I respect that.”

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 Brown elected to play the same style as LMU coach Paul Westhead.

“They had Bo Kimble and the great Hank Gathers,” O’Neal said. “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.’

“Even though it was a tiring game, it was a fun game.”

Now, O’Neal’s playing days are over, and while much of his public time around basketball is spent as an NBA analyst in the TNT studios, he can think back to his days in Baton Rouge when he planned the post-basketball part of his future life.

“Baton Rouge was a peaceful town, and in my off time I was a thinker,” he said. “My father, coach Brown and all the people (at LSU) told me to think outside the box.

“Even though I was drafted, I was smart enough to go to class and get this business degree in case things didn’t work out. So I was always thinking. I’m playing, but I’m setting up stuff. I own businesses, so I had enough things to step back to when basketball was over.”