It's hardly astonishing that Louisiana State center Shaquille Rashan O'Neal, an Army brat who has suddenly turned into a one-man basketball battalion, is so young, so big, so good or even so mature, composed and polite. The surprise is that he's all of those things at once.
Staff Sergeant Philip Harrison, a convert to Islam, and the former Lucille O'Neal have raised a young man gifted enough on the court and sufficiently personable off it to rival not just other athletes but his adopted state's effervescent party city as well: The Big Easy come to joyous, uninhibited life. Moreover, only a few months into his sophomore season, O'Neal no longer merely plays basketball at LSU, he is basketball's future. And for those salivating agents and NBA scouts eager to whisk away The Shack, which is just one of the monikers he has given himself, to untold millions—be still, your hearts and wallets—he is also, as King Lear said of Cordelia, "so young, and so untender?"
Forget O'Neal's points and his rebounds, his blocked shots and his field goal percentage—categories, by the way, in which he led the Southeastern Conference at week's end. Three times this season the 7'1", 295-pound O'Neal has come a breath away from his ultimate goal of ripping a basketball goal asunder. It's not just shattering the glass backboard that he has in mind—that's child's play, although he hasn't actually broken one yet. We're talking bringing down the whole works—the net, the rim, the backboard, the basket stanchion—everything! He almost did it in mid-November in an exhibition game against the Newcastle (Australia) Falcons. On that occasion everyone in LSU's Maravich Assembly Center gave thanks that, after O'Neal's two-handed dunk not only moved the base of the basket support a good five inches but also broke the chain anchoring it to the floor, he wisely let go of the rim so the entire structure wouldn't topple over. "The night I get one, you'll really see some dancin'," O'Neal says.
It's not that The Shack suffers from an identity crisis: A Baton Rouge family named Long recently christened its newborn Shaquille O'Neal Long, and O'Neal soon turned up at the front door of these total strangers to pose for pictures with the baby. But he does have this thing about names.
O'Neal names everything, including his victory dances. Who can forget the Shaq-de-Shaq, the hip-hop step he segued into following the outrageous breakaway jam that clinched Louisiana State's 92-82 December upset of then second-ranked Arizona? O'Neal made sure the assembled media in Baton Rouge spelled that one with a q rather than the more mundane ck. In that victory O'Neal destroyed what was presumed to be the best front line in college basketball with 29 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in 28 minutes of play. While surviving the final 12 minutes with four fouls, O'Neal blocked 6'11" forward Sean Rooks three times, dominated 6'11" center/forward Brian Williams and did everything but eat the visitors' bus. "The tapes don't do him justice," Wildcat forward Chris Mills said afterward. "It's kind of amazing to see him in person."
"Fouling him out of here would be like fouling Kareem out of the Forum," said Arizona coach Lute Olson, who had undoubtedly noticed Abdul-Jabbar in the Maravich Assembly Center crowd.
"Don't call Shaquille the next anybody," warned Abdul-Jabbar, who later that night taught O'Neal the basics of the sky hook, which he has yet to master. "Let him be the first Shaquille."
O'Neal names his studies, too. Not his classroom studies, where he has excelled; he led the LSU team with a 3.0 (out of 4.0) grade point average as a freshman business major but slipped to a 2.0 this fall. "Too much Nintendo," he says. O'Neal's preferred subject is something he calls "rimology," which consists of his detailed investigation of the rims and backboards and basket supports at each foreign court the Tigers visit. The first thing O'Neal does is peer at the basket hardware and its moorings. He took one look before LSU's Nov. 24 meeting with Villanova at the Springfield Civic Center in Springfield, Mass., in the Hall of Fame game, and knew there would be trouble. There was. Following an early Shack attack, the game had to be delayed for five minutes while a four-man crew realigned the basket support back into place.
"When Shaquille found out the rims at Illinois weren't breakaways, he got so excited I thought we'd have to give him a tranquilizer," says Madrid-born guard Mike Hansen, O'Neal's fellow co-captain of the Tigers. Alas, O'Neal got into early foul trouble at Champagne-Urbana—the free throws were 41 to 19 in favor of the home team—LSU lost 102-96, and the Illini buckets survived.
O'Neal even names his names. He favors a black baseball cap bearing the inscription I AM THE SHAQNIFICENT, which was made for him, he says, "by a homeboy back in San Antonio." Besides simply The Shack, his names include The Love Shack and various other Shacks. His favorite is Shaquille the Real Deal, a nonbasketball moniker he invented in high school while playing cards with his buddies at Fort Sam Houston, where his father is based. Surreal may be a truer description of a kid who, though he will be a teenager for another 14 months, is already the fifth or sixth best center on the planet.