KANSAS CITY, Mo. — By now, the story of how longtime LSU coach Dale Brown discovered Shaquille O’Neal has been told many times: Brown happened upon a massive 13-year-old at an army base in Germany, stayed in touch with him and eventually became like a second father.
What is often forgotten is just how far fate stretched for it to happen.
It wasn’t a large army base — Wildflecken was so remote that the nearest large city in what was then West Germany was several hours away. There was one gym, one commissary. Soldiers despised the high altitude and lousy weather.
“For him to show up,” O’Neal said, “that meant everything to me.”
Brown would ultimately give O’Neal the confidence he needed to attend college, something he had never dreamed possible, and make it into the NBA, back then not even a dream. So it made sense — maybe fate intervened again — that O’Neal and Brown would be inducted together into the College Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday night in Kansas City.
They were joined by six other luminaries, including former Duke star Grant Hill, Louisville standout Darrell Griffith, longtime Maryland coach Gary Williams, Stetson’s Glenn Wilkes Sr., Five-Star Basketball Camp founder Howard Garfinkel and the late Prairie View A&M star Zelmo Beaty.
“I’m most excited to be here next to the guy who gave me the opportunity,” O’Neal said, “because at 13, 6-foot-9, I had zero confidence. I wasn’t even thinking about going to college, going to the NBA. And Coach Brown sent me letters every week, ‘How are you doing?’
“One letter was my favorite letter,” O’Neal recalled. ” ‘Even if you never become a basketball player, I want to offer you a scholarship to LSU.’ “
O’Neal went on to win two national player of the year awards, average 22 points and 14 rebounds and set school records for blocks in a game, season and career. While he never made it to the Final Four — one of his biggest regrets — he still accomplished plenty in just three years.
— Shaquille O’Neal
Drafted first overall by Orlando in 1992, O’Neal would embark on an NBA career that would include four championships, 15 All-Star appearances and a league MVP award. He would score more than 25,000 points and tally more than 19,000 rebounds in 19 seasons.
This year’s class joins dozens of other players, coaches and contributors who have been enshrined in Kansas City since the inaugural 2006 class, headlined by John Wooden and Oscar Robertson. The annual induction takes place on the eve of the CBE Classic at the nearby Sprint Center. Thirteenth-ranked Iowa State plays Alabama and Maryland faces Arizona State in Monday’s semifinals. The championship and consolation games are Tuesday night.
The Terrapins were synonymous with Williams during his coaching tenure from 1989-2011, during which Maryland won 461 games and the 2002 national title. He recalled ruefully the 2007 CBE Classic, saying “we did not play well.” His return to Kansas City was much more enjoyable.
“It’s just been a big thrill, the whole thing,” Williams said. “I really appreciate this opportunity to be here tonight because this is really special.”
Williams also cherished the chance to face Hill’s teams all those years, even if Duke often came out on top.
The Blue Devils won two national titles with Hill and lost the championship to Arkansas in his senior season. While he had a long NBA career that included seven All-Star appearances, Hill always will be remembered for playing alongside Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.
“I grew up in college,” Hill said. “I grew up, and certainly it prepared me for 19 years in the NBA, and certainly life after basketball. But really, I’m just so grateful.”
Hill may be the tie that binds so many of the inductees. He played against Shaq in the NBA, faced Wilkes’ Stetson teams and attended Garfinkel’s camp. And he remembers watching Griffith — Dr. Dunkenstein, as he was known — flying high at Louisville.
On Sunday night, the Hall of Fame brought them all of them — O’Neal and Brown, too — together.