Shaquille O’Neal said he only half-believed Trent Johnson when the LSU basketball coach told him he wanted to see a statue of Shaq at the big fella’s alma mater.
As he checked his email in recent months, O’Neal learned Johnson wasn’t kidding.
But whenever he pulled up renderings of the statue Johnson had in mind, Shaq kept looking at miniature versions of the life-sized sculpture.
The enormity of the honor never hit him.
Not until O’Neal stood in front of LSU basketball’s practice facility and helped pull the white curtain off his 900-pound bronze likeness.
“I almost cried when I saw how big it was,” O’Neal said. “I had to man up.”
The size of the sculpture represents more than the 7-foot-1, 325-pound basketball star who inspired the first on-campus statue of a former LSU student-athlete; it also represents the impact O’Neal had on the school he picked as an All-American prep star from San Antonio, Texas.
The 1991 National Player of the Year at LSU, O’Neal launched himself into a worldwide icon during 19 seasons as an NBA star.
He retired from basketball in June as one of the best big men to ever play the game.
Personable, witty and innovative, Shaq used his success in the NBA’s low post as a platform for rapping, acting and various other ventures.
Through it all, O’Neal said he never forgot where he came from.
“Besides my parents raising me well, it’s really the people of Louisiana who made me who I am today,” he said. “The only thing that I regret is not being able to give LSU a national championship.”
The statue of Shaq was designed by Brian P. Hanlon, a Toms River, N.J.-based master sculptor who previously designed a Bob Cousy statue at the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts. It features a dunking Shaq in an LSU uniform with the court exploding beneath his feet.
At the unveiling ceremony Thursday, hundreds of fans gathered at the front entrance of the $14 million practice facility that opened last fall.
Mike the Tiger, the LSU band and cheerleaders gave the event a game-day atmosphere.
“This statue will inspire future LSU basketball players to reach for the stars,” Athletic Director Joe Alleva said.
When he spoke, O’Neal kept it in the family.
He called all LSU basketball players in attendance - past and present - to the stage where he stood.
“As many great players that played at LSU, this statue could have been for a lot of people,” O’Neal said.
He rattled off the names of Pete Maravich, Bob Pettit and several others.
Lucille O’Neal recalled crying when she and her husband dropped their son off at LSU his freshman year. She wasn’t sure what would become of the 17-year-old man-child.
“Make a true investment in your children,” Lucille O’Neal said. “One day you will surely get a return.”
A dunk-filled video highlighted Shaq’s college career.
Finally, O’Neal joined Johnson, former LSU coach Dale Brown and three cheerleaders in uncovering the statue. Then, he stood with his hands in his pockets staring up at the big bronze figure.
The band played.
“I’m not just saying this because it’s me,” O’Neal said, “but that right there is probably the best sculpture in the country. It’s fabulous.”