Basketball took Dale Brown around the world, filling a need in a fatherless lad with boundless energy that couldn’t be satisfied by staying home in frosty Minot, North Dakota.
Without knowing it, maybe what the globetrotting Brown was looking for was Shaquille O’Neal.
They met in a U.S. Army base in Wildflecken, West Germany in 1985. Brown was there giving a basketball clinic for the troops — and no doubt delivering a few lines from his bottomless reservoir of positive pronouncements — when O’Neal came to him.
“Coach Brown, I need a strength program to help me with my lower extremities, because I’m 6-foot-8, and I can’t jump,” O’Neal once told People magazine.
“Uh, how long you been in the Army, soldier?” Brown asked
“I’m not in the Army,” Teen Shaq replied. “I’m only 13.”
“Thirteen!” Brown shot back. “Where’s your dad?”
It had to be something like that scene from “The Scout,” when Albert Brooks’ major league and world weary scout finds Brendan Fraser’s power-hitting and power-pitching uber talent Steve Nebraska in a dusty Mexican ballpark.
“I’ve found King Kong!” Brooks’ Al Percolo exclaims.
For Brown, meeting O’Neal in a West German gymnasium was more than that. For both of them.
By the time they met, Brown had already known success.
Barnstorming into Louisiana in 1972 as the last of the once red-hot embers of LSU basketball stoked by Pete Maravich lay dying, Brown transformed the sport in this state.
Before Brown, and to a large sense after O’Neal left the Tigers for the NBA in 1992, LSU basketball was a feast or famine operation. It was either the highest of highs, like Pistol Pete shooting up basketball arenas with his record-breaking offense, or Bob Pettit leading the Tigers to the Final Four. Or it was a program so woebegone the packed house at the Parker Coliseum that came to watch Maravich play on the freshman team cleared out like someone yelled “Fire!” when the varsity took the court.
Brown turned LSU into a consistent winner. From 1979-93, 15 straight years, the Tigers made it to the NCAA or NIT tournament, a steady level of success LSU hadn’t enjoyed before — and hasn’t returned to since. In a string of four successive years starting in 1978, his Tigers took down No. 1-ranked Kentucky, won the Southeastern Conference regular season in 1979, the SEC tournament in 1980 and went all the way to the Final Four in 1981.
So, Brown had established himself and LSU.
But fame, as in Brown’s and O’Neal’s joint induction Sunday in the College Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Kansas City, Missouri? Well, neither may have gotten there without the other.
O’Neal gave LSU basketball, and Brown, something even the great Maravich couldn’t give. Maravich was a brilliant scorer and passer. O’Neal was a slam-dunking, backboard-breaking, ball-swatting-into-the-ground-level-portals-of-the-Pete Maravich Assembly Center freak of nature. When O’Neal played for LSU from 1989-92, earning national player of the year honors his sophomore season, he was more than the Tigers center. He was the center of his own environment, his own universe.
It was a universe practically engineered by Brown. Like Press Maravich gave his son Pete the green light to shoot any time he wanted, Brown allowed Shaq to be Shaq, to romp through the game with his childlike abandon.
It was Brown who created the monster that in the early 1990s took a big ol’ bite out of basketball, and followed the path Brown blazed to cover the world with, ahem, random acts of Shaqness.
Without each other, Brown and O’Neal might not have gotten to this induction ceremony. It’s the College Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s about rebound, and renown. And both allowed the other to flourish.
Think about it. Do you think Brown would be here with a buttoned-down talent like John Stockton? And could Shaq have been Shaq if he’s played for — Gasp! — Bob Knight?
Hardly. When it comes to Dale Brown and Shaquille O’Neal, their good fortune was also their lasting fame. ... And our good fortune, too. We got to tag along for the ride.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.