- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Joy Davenport can’t recall the precise date, but she clearly remembers the instant she first set eyes on Shaquille O’Neal.

It was a high school basketball tournament in nearby Hondo in 1988. Davenport, Utopia High’s longtime scorekeeper, had accompanied the Utopia girls team to the tournament.

The 7-foot senior and his Cole teammates entered the gym.

“The kids had never seen anyone that tall,” she told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1pnf3oy).

Her other memory of O’Neal?

“His warm-up pants didn’t fit at all,” she said, laughing. “If he wore them around his waist like he was supposed to, they came up past his calves. If he tried to pull them down, the waist band was around his (uniform shorts) thighs. Every time he went in for a layup, his warm-up pants came off.”

Once the game started, O’Neal and the Cougars took the tournament en route to a 36-0 season and the 1988-89 Class 3A state championship. The team went 32-1 in the previous season, losing in the regional round.

Thirty years after that memorable season, the 1988-89 Cole Cougars and the team’s iconoclastic center - Shaq Fu, The Big Diesel, The Big Cactus, The Big Aristotle - has been inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame.

From O’Neal’s humble beginnings with ill-fitting pants, the biggest Army brat ever has transcended basketball and become a global, multimedia, multiplatform superstar.

From Cole, O’Neal went to LSU, where was a two-time All-American. The No. 1 draft pick in 1992, O’Neal was a 15-time NBA All-Star, an eight-time All-NBA first-team honoree and played in six NBA Finals (winning four) with three different teams. In 19 professional years, O’Neal dominated the sport. He’s considered one of the greatest centers to play the game. O’Neal is a shoo-in for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year, his first of eligibility.

Off the court, O’Neal made movies, video games and rap albums. No one has ever confused them with being good, but at least he made them.

At one point, O’Neal was the world’s most recognizable celebrity. Even today, five years after his retirement, he’s still among the 20 most popular athletes in the country.

But to everyone associated with that Cole state championship team, O’Neal was a well-adjusted, good-natured, highly competitive teammate.

And off the court, he was something of a goofball.

For reasons never fully explained, O’Neal would carry a sawed-off broomstick in his gym bag, former teammate Eric Baker said.

Then came a bus ride to the regional playoffs. A car pulled alongside the bus. The occupants screamed angrily at the bus. O’Neal went for the stick. Pretending to be enraged, O’Neal glared at the car, nodding his head up and down and tapping the broom handle in his other hand, like a police officer might handle a night stick.

The car slowed, Baker said, and ultimately disappeared in traffic.

While O’Neal torched and tortured opponents, former Cole coach Dave Madura said, he wasn’t Cole’s only threat.

“Shaq didn’t score all of those points himself,” Madura said. “He didn’t grab all of those rebounds or hand out all of those assists. It was a good team without him, too. (Jeff) Petress, Baker . and Joe Cavallero were all good players.”

Nor was Shaq the only joker on the team.

“Robbie Dunn, a kid on the team, was going down the court and had a wide-open layup on the other end,” Madura said. “Shaq was trailing him. Instead of making the shot, he passes the ball back to Shaq.

“Shaq scored, and he said ‘What did you do that for?’ Dunn said, ‘I’m not the one getting a scholarship.’”


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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