NATCHITOCHES — A state that has produced some of sports’ all-time greats — from Eddie Robinson to Pete Maravich and Bob Pettit, Y.A. Tittle, Terry Bradshaw and Karl Malone — welcomed back a giant this weekend.
Literally and figuratively, Shaquille O’Neal casts a giant shadow wherever he goes. This weekend was no different.
At the grand opening of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame museum Friday, O’Neal shed his suit coat and mingled with guests — especially the younger ones — shaking hands and posing for photos despite being shadowed for almost every minute of his three-hour appearance.
Just 12 hours later, it was a 90-minute autograph and photo session with hundreds of youngsters that featured ear-to-ear smiles and playful laughs from O’Neal, who was seated at the end of a long line of Hall of Famers.
In a day and age when celebrities and big-time athletes shun the limelight, especially around overzealous fans, this larger-than-life superstar has fun with it.
“Shaq just loves people,” said former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, who sat next to O’Neal during the autograph session. “Fame has not made him different.”
There’s a simple explanation for that.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” said O’Neal, who has an affinity for children of all ages, sizes and colors. “I’m still a little kid ... a little kid in a big body.”
It’s not at all surprising to former LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson and former University of New Orleans and NBA center Ervin Johnson, who also were part of the 2013 induction class.
“(Friday) night was something,” Hodson said. “I can’t imagine every day living your life like that. But he’s got the personality for it.
“He’s got his own brand, and everybody knows Shaq as a one-word name. That’s all you have to say, and people know who you’re talking about. He’s just a pleasant person to be around.”
“He’s a people person,” noted Johnson, who played several years against O’Neal during a 13-year NBA career. “He loves people even though he’s a superstar as a player and is an icon. He embraces people and makes them feel comfortable.”
Knowing him for more than two decades, Brown can attest to the popularity of O’Neal, who had more than 7.27 million Twitter followers as of Saturday.
“Kids usually gravitate to stardom, but he has more than stardom,” Brown said. “He has a genuine love for children and underdogs. But it’s a lot more than stardom. It’s sincerity — especially with kids.”
Which is why it wasn’t a shock for Brown to learn that O’Neal on Friday night announced plans to build the Shaquille O’Neal Children’s Hospital at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge that will treat patients free of charge.
“I’m not surprised,” Brown said. “Everybody knows his greatness on the court. But he’s one of the most benevolent — maybe the most benevolent — athlete I’ve ever met without the publicity. ... That’s his M.O. That’s just him.”