KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the 2014 inductees into the College Basketball Hall of Fame one by one took the stage and then departed Sunday, college basketball analyst Seth Davis turned to co-host Clark Kellogg of CBS to talk about the evening’s closing act.
“We’re coming to the LSU portion of the show,” Davis said.
As was usually the case during their careers, Dale Brown and Shaquille O’Neal held court like no one else.
The former LSU men’s basketball coach and his most famous player shared the stage at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, Brown’s words as powerful and incisive as ever, the 7-foot-1 O’Neal casting the biggest shadow and amusing the crowd as he has throughout his career.
“When Jim Haney (president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches) called me to tell me I was being inducted, for the first time in my life I couldn’t speak,” the loquacious Brown said.
“I never planned to be here.”
O’Neal said he was shocked to be inducted as well, saying he regarded himself as the third-best player on his freshman team in 1989-90 behind All-American guard Chris Jackson and fellow 7-footer Stanley Roberts.
“I’m honored and shocked at the same time. But,” he said, gesturing toward Brown, “I’m most happy to be sitting next to this man.”
Both retold the tale of how O’Neal met Brown when he went to speak at an Army base in West Germany in 1985, Brown mistaking the then-6-9, 13-year-old for a soldier.
O’Neal recalled how his father, the late Sgt. Phillip Harrison, “encouraged” him to go hear Brown talk.
“I was a medium-level juvenile delinquent,” O’Neal said. “My father came in the house with a paper and said, ‘We’ve got this college coach coming (to the base) to speak. Maybe we can get your big (behind) a scholarship.’”
Twice cut from teams while his family was stationed in West Germany, O’Neal also spoke of how Brown inspired him and kept in touch with him throughout the years.
“People ask me why I came to LSU,” O’Neal said.
“Dale used to write to me all the time. I came back from Germany and wasn’t highly recruited (in high school in San Antonio). I was a kid who didn’t believe in myself.
“Coach Brown believed in me.”
Brown talked about letters he sent out long before he became O’Neal’s coach.
A high school coach in Palm Springs, California, Brown aspired to break into the college game and sent 100 letters to head coaches across the country.
Only two replied, the coach at Michigan State and LaDell Andersen at Utah State, the man who gave Brown his break.
Andersen was among dozens of Brown supporters in attendance, including a vocal contingent from his hometown of Minot, North Dakota.
Brown coached at LSU from 1972-97, compiling a record of 448-301 that still makes him the third-winningest coach in Southeastern Conference history behind Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Florida’s Billy Donovan.
Brown led LSU to the 1981 and 1986 Final Fours, four SEC regular season and one SEC tournament title, was four times named SEC coach of the year, and was national coach of the year in 1981.
Through it all, Brown championed numerous causes, including the one he said he still fights: pushing the NCAA to “change some archaic rules.”
“Coaching is what I did,” the 79-year-old Brown said. “I hope it didn’t define who I was. I had a passion to return to others what I was given.”
Brown coached six All-Americans at LSU, but none more famous than O’Neal.
A three-year starter from 1989-92, O’Neal averaged 22 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks per game as a Tiger, setting a school record for blocks in a game, season and career. He was an intimidating presence around the basket, either slamming balls through the hoop or swatting them literally off the court.
O’Neal went on to win four NBA titles — three with the Los Angeles Lakers, one with the Miami Heat — was the association’s MVP in 2000 and played on the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team in 1996 in Atlanta.
Through it all, the outsized O’Neal earned a reputation as one of the game’s oversized personalities, starring in movies and on television, where he’s currently an NBA analyst on TNT.
“My mom told me you’re either going to get into a lot of trouble or make a lot of money being the class clown,” O’Neal said. Peering out into the audience for his mother, Lucille, he added, “Thanks, mom.”
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.