By Ron Opher
Originally posted at PhillyPhanatics.com
Back in February 1999, I had the pleasure of listening to a keynote address by former LSU coach Dale Brown, who had retired two years prior. Brown has long been a critic of the NCAA, mostly along the lines of disagreeing with rules that he felt discriminated against student athletes from impoverished backgrounds, making it nearly impossible for them to have spending money for things most college students take for granted -- like a prepaid phone card or cell phone, eating some meals out and other mundane necessities -- without breaking some sort of rule or at least giving ammunition for a "where did you get that money" type of investigation if a booster should dare arrange to try to find a part-time job for one of these kids.
I listened with interest, as I happen to share the same views, and have long believed that a scholarship athlete who qualifies for a work-study job should be compensated at the work-study pay rate for hours spent supporting the university's athletic program, up to the maximum hours cap.
What I remember most about the speech, though, was the story Brown told of the relationship he built with Shaquille O'Neal and his father (stepfather to be entirely accurate), which shed light for me on how O'Neal was a different sort of person than what you often see from prized middle-school and high-school athletes.
The story began on an army base in (West) Germany, in a town called Wildflecken, where Brown was on a basketball clinic-giving tour through Europe. At a certain point, Brown met a then 6 foot 8 O'Neal and thought that the young man was in the military. O'Neal told Brown that he was all of 13-years-old, to which a stunned Brown responded with a request to meet O'Neal's father -- a no-nonsense army sergeant named Phil Harrison. With the physically imposing Harrison (who stands 6'5 and not far off his son's weight) on the scene, and while being immersed military life, it's safe to surmise that O'Neal's upbringing and surroundings have a lot to do with his demeanor. And that demeanor often stands in stark contrast to his counterparts who often had a posse of 'well-wishers' chasing them around in their teen years.
Brown stayed in touch with the family and while O'Neal was attending high school in Texas, he committed to LSU. Brown and O'Neal forged a strong bond through O'Neal's school-age years, and the loyalty was rewarded. Even when O'Neal left LSU early for the NBA, he returned in 2000 to complete his undergraduate degree. Today, O'Neal also holds an MBA and is reportedly working on his doctorate, with a dissertation topic entitled "The Duality of Humor and Aggression in Leadership Styles."
That topic sums up Shaquille O'Neal quite well. While other NBA stars take themselves far too seriously, O'Neal has often poked fun at himself on the screen -- even at his post-retirement press conference, he joked that he did not get to 30,000 career points because of his notoriously bad free-throw shooting, and referred to his father admonishing him for not working on that aspect of his game more to try to counter the 'hack-a-Shaq' strategy. While O'Neal has appeared in commercials with Ben Stein and joked about retiring all of his nicknames along with his professional basketball career, he also has an intense desire to compete and win. While it's hard to tell where he stands with Kobe Bryant, who won titles in L.A. with and without 'Shaq,' O'Neal has made it clear that he has a running competition with Tim Duncan for NBA titles by big men, and that fire led him to his last NBA stop, in Boston, for one last try at a title on the best team that was interested in his services.
That nearly perfect (yes, there have been some minor run-ins along the way) balance of good humor and aggression likely explains why O'Neal is well-liked even in opposing cities and by opposing players. I found that refreshing enough -- in a time where many here in Philadelphia boo Kobe Bryant for going Hollywood and often behaving in a very self-centered manner, vilify the Miami Heat for their arrogance and are put off by the bizarre antics of Ron Artest -- to single Shaquille O'Neal out as one opposing player I enjoyed watching play, and I look forward to him making a successful transition to post-NBA life.