It was a dare, and Shaquille O'Neal had never been the type to back down from a dare. He was 11 years old, and there was this fire alarm at school, and there were these other kids around him, and, well, it was a dare. Bet you won't pull it, Shaquille. He did, of course, and he was caught, of course. This was a school for children of Army personnel at the Military Ocean Terminal, the New Jersey base where his father was stationed, so instead of receiving a stern lecture in the principal's office, Shaquille was picked up by the military police and taken to the station house.
The MPs called his father, Sgt. Philip Harrison, who arrived at the station house clutching a Ping-Pong paddle and was prepared to practice his forehand as soon as he got within swinging distance of his son's backside. But the MPs reminded Harrison that corporal punishment was against Army regulations. If he struck Shaquille in front of them, he would be put on report. This was no small consideration for the sergeant, a career Army man for whom respect for authority was a treasured value. He had to decide whether to follow the rules or his instincts.
"I told them they had better go ahead and write me up," Harrison says. "Then I went ahead and paddled Shaquille's butt right then and there. I believe there are times when a man has to listen to himself instead of other people, no matter who the other people are."
O'Neal, who is now a 7'1", 295-pound 20-year-old, certainly subscribes to that doctrine, as he demonstrated in early April when he decided to skip his senior year of basketball at LSU and make himself eligible for the 1992 NBA draft—against the wishes of his parents.
With the announcements last week that All-Americas Jim Jackson of Ohio State and Harold Miner of USC, along with Tracy Murray of UCLA, will also forgo their senior seasons, the June 24 draft looms as one of the deepest in history. But it is O'Neal's decision that gives the draft lottery, to be held on May 17, its biggest jackpot since Patrick Ewing fell into the laps of the New York Knicks in 1985. O'Neal, in turn, has a jackpot of his own to ponder. Last season's top pick, former UNLV forward Larry Johnson, signed a six-year, $19.8 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. It will take a lot more than that to sign O'Neal.
There is little if any argument in NBA circles that O'Neal will be worth every cent he ultimately receives. "I can't imagine there's anybody in the league who doesn't think he'll be an absolutely great player," says Jerry Reynolds, director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings, who will be making their annual lottery appearance. "There hasn't been anybody coming into the league who has caused this kind of stir in a long time, maybe since [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar. Even when [David] Robinson came in, not everybody was completely sold on him. With O'Neal, people are sold."
O'Neal is clearly sold on himself. His voice is remarkably soft for a man of his size, but there is steel in it when he says, "I will be a force in the pros. There are only a few players who can dominate games, and I intend to be one of those players. I will be a force."
O'Neal could wind up not only the richest rookie in NBA history, but also the highest-paid player in the league, an honor that currently belongs to Cleveland Cavalier forward John (Hot Rod) Williams, whose 1992-93 salary will be $4 million. Most conservative estimates of O'Neal's asking price are in the five-year, $30 million range. "Let's just say there is the likelihood that he'll wind up among the highest-paid individuals in sports," says O'Neal's agent, Los Angeles attorney Leonard Armato.
With all those figures floating around, it would seem that Harrison and his wife, Lucille, would also be floating. But while they support their oldest son's decision, it broke a small piece of their hearts, because the Harrisons have always dreamed more of graduation day than payday. Had O'Neal—he uses his mother's maiden name because he was born before his parents were married—remained at LSU and earned his degree, he would have been the first person on either side of the family to graduate from college. When Lucille sat down in the dining room of the family's house at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio a few nights before O'Neal announced his decision to leave school, she spoke of diplomas, not paychecks.
"You have to understand how important that is for us," she said. "You want your children to go a little farther than you did. If Shaquille woke up tomorrow and said he'd changed his mind and was going back to LSU, Phil and I would be very happy. Shaquille says he will get his degree later, and what he says he'll do, he usually does, but I know that later has never come for me. When I got out of high school, I told myself I would go to college, but I got married young and I chose to stay home with the children. I enjoyed that, but I've always regretted not getting that college degree. I know there's all that money out there, but I want him to have that diploma so he'll have something real to depend on."