Shaquille O'Neal finally used the "R" word Wednesday.
He told the world he was retiring. But in typical Shaq form, it wasn't at some normal press conference. It was on something called "Tout" and then it was on Twitter. Soon everyone knew that the time to celebrate one of the greatest careers in the NBA was here.
Four rings. 28,596 points. One of the dominant and recognizable figures in the game, even today after 19 years.
But I have the pleasure of remembering "when."
The "when" was when O'Neal was turning heads at LSU as the signee everyone was waiting for. You know the story, how Coach Dale Brown met O'Neal in Germany when the then LSU coach was giving a clinic. O'Neal asked for some exercises to help his endurance and vertical jump. Brown wrote some things down and then asked how long the man had been in the service. Turned out Shaq was 13.
That was 1985. In the fall of 1989, Shaquille was at LSU and for the next three years national media had to talk about LSU when it came to the storylines of college basketball.
The media already had been keeping an eye on LSU because of the amazing season in 1989 of a freshman from Mississippi, Chris Jackson. Now the 1989-90 team had Jackson and Stanley Roberts and Maurice Williamson, and O'Neal. The sky was the limit or so everyone thought. It wouldn't be that easy.
Honest to goodness, Shaquille O'Neal wasn't the best seven-footer on the team during much of the first half of his freshman season. Roberts was. But Roberts also struggled to get in shape and that frustrated Brown and allowed O'Neal to move to the forefront.
For a few games early in his career, Shaq sat on the bench next to the LSU coaching staff, watching the game until the first TV timeout with Coach Brown hoping he would better see the flow of the game and avoid the foul trouble that plagued him early.
That first year had two amazing moments that caught the nation's fancy. First was a 107-105 victory on Super Bowl Sunday against Nevada-Las Vegas and then a game we wrote about recently on its 20th anniversary, the 148-141 overtime victory over Hank Gathers, Bo Kimball and Loyola Marymount. O'Neal blocked 12 shots, scored 20 points and grabbed 24 rebounds, one of his multiple triple-doubles at LSU.
But the game I remember that put him in the public consciousness as more than a basketball player, but a personality, was an early Saturday afternoon game at the PMAC in 1990 with Keith Jackson and Dick Vitale courtside for LSU and No. 2 Arizona. Not only did LSU win, 92-82, but it was the final moments dunk by O'Neal that had Vitale jumping out of his seat, the crowd going nuts and then came an impromptu dance he called the "Shaq-de-Shaq." The Tigers rankings rose while O'Neal's image rose.
After his freshman season, Roberts was gone, so was Jackson. Brown told O'Neal that he had to be the man. And after that Arizona game he was. National press came in from everywhere. O'Neal had crowds, autograph hounds and people who just wanted to adore him following him wherever he went.
And then there were the percentages.
Shaq had a way of giving himself and local reporters a laugh when he would start throwing out percentages for how the Tigers and how O'Neal played. Those numbers would come out especially when the national press was here and Shaq would look to the local writers and invariably there were a lot of people smiling who were in Shaq's joke.
After a sophomore season in which he averaged 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds to go with 140 blocks, O'Neal was named the 1991 National Player of the Year by AP, the World Amateur Athletic of the Year and the SEC Athlete of the Year. He would earn his second All-American honor in 1992 and against be the SEC Athlete of the Year. In 1992, he was the runner-up for both the Naismith Award and the John Wooden Award.
In 1991 he was the first player to lead the SEC in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots in the same season. He would be the first to lead the league in rebounding three straight years since Charles Barkley (1982-84).
The 1992 season may be more remembered for an SEC Tournament night when O'Neal and Carlos Groves of Tennessee got into it in Birmingham (that's another two or three columns in itself), and that may have ultimately led to the decision by Shaquille and his family to go ahead after his junior year and turn pro. Who knows? I personally don't think Shaquille could have better himself by staying at LSU for a fourth year. We hated to see him go, but it was probably time.
One of my few regrets was something I'm sure Shaq had no control over. Shaquille had repeatedly said to local writers that he would hold his announcement in Baton Rouge. But on April 1, 1992, Coach Brown's office received a fax from Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio that Shaquille O'Neal was holding a press conference to announce his decision and the people there were running it and controlling it.
It was no April Fool's joke. Some of our beat writers and I hustled to San Antonio to see for ourselves. It was nice to be able to make the announcement with family and friends present (and also a couple of agent types who were more than a little conspicuous), I have just always wished we could have made the announcement at our arena.
It was time for Shaquille to go to the NBA. He was the first pick of the Orlando Magic and the rest is history.
Shaq continued to visit LSU, especially during the off-season and word would spread through the city that the big man was in town. He would usually make an appearance on our floor to see our television crew and to check out his (I hope) SID.
In 2000, he returned to LSU for a special weekend, keeping his promise of finishing his degree and graduating and LSU kept theirs, to retire his number and hang it from the roof of the Maravich Center. O'Neal was the featured speaker of the main graduation ceremony, wearing his XXXL black gown and a handmade scarf reading: "Shaq Is Finished." He declared to the crowd that LSU was "Love Shaq University" and then walked across the stage with his class to actually receive his diploma.
The next night, prior to the LSU-UNO game, Shaquille and his mother, Lucille, walked on the court for the formal ceremony to retire O'Neal's jersey. It was a weekend to remember.
Shaq is still a fixture each year in Baton Rouge for his golf tournament that carries his name and supports the Shaquille O'Neal CHAMPS Life Skills Program at LSU. It's an organization that does so much good for so many people and teaches student-athletes so many good things. Shaq hitting a golf club is something to see by the way.
I'm remembered of the time Shaq came to speak to the student body the night before his tournament at the Cox Academic Center. There's a picture in my office of me and Shaq, with the big star wearing my glasses before he went out to speak. He danced out into the auditorium wearing my glasses which I didn't get back for several minutes. He looked distinguished so I've been told since I pretty much couldn't see a thing.
There's so much to remember about Shaquille and his LSU days. I think he's made the right decision to retire after such a wonderful career in the NBA. I hope he still has special memories of his time in Baton Rouge.