Before Shaquille O’Neal became a dominant force in the NBA, he was a can’t-miss star at LSU. But even before that, he was a sensational high school prospect with tons of interest from big-time programs.
The decision to play in Baton Rouge was hardly an easy one for O’Neal. The closest competitor ended up being Jim Valvano and North Carolina State, who ironically already just had a Shaq of its own.
Shaquille O’Neal had five college finalists
Although he was a Los Angeles Lakers legend, Shaq’s basketball journey really started in San Antonio. O’Neal became a star at Robert G. Cole High School, leading the Cougars to a 68-1 record in two years and a state championship his senior season. While there, the big man scored 52 points in a tournament game and pulled down a record 791 rebounds in 1989.
Along with dominant production, O’Neal had enviable size. Shaq was 6-foot-10 and 250 lbs by age 16, already displaying an NBA body as a teenager. Naturally, it made him one of the most coveted prospects for blue blood college programs.
On Knuckleheads with Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles, O’Neal revealed he visited five schools during his recruitment process: LSU, NC State, North Carolina, Illinois, and UNLV. O’Neal disliked UNC because “it wasn’t hood enough”, Illinois because “it was too cold”, and UNLV because the Vegas lifestyle was “too scary.”
That left LSU and NC State, with Shaq seriously considering the latter.
NC State had its own ‘Shack’
Shaq joined The Dan Patrick Show during Super Bowl week in 2019. In the interview, Patrick asked the Hall of Famer if there was any one particular school he almost went to instead of LSU.
“North Carolina State,” O’Neal responded. “I really, really respected Jim Valvano.”
Valvano wasn’t the only intriguing part of going to school in Raleigh. There was another Shaq before him, or more specifically, a “Shack”.
“They had the original ‘Shack’, Charles Shackleford. And that’s who I got my name and my identity from. So I was actually wanting to play behind him. But I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be my own Shaq and I’m going to just take it down to Baton Rouge.'”Shaquille O’Neal
Shackleford, aka “Shack”, was a three-year starter for Valvano’s Wolfpack. From 1985 through 1988, the 6-foot-10 center averaged 13.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He was named All-ACC his junior year and was selected 32nd overall pick by the New Jersey Nets in the 1988 NBA Draft. He spent six on-and-off seasons in the NBA but found the majority of his success overseas in Europe.
“Yes,” O’Neal confirmed when asked if Shackleford is the origin of his famous four-letter nickname. “I took his kneepads. I took everything.”
O’Neal dominated at LSU
As tough as it was to say no to becoming the next Shaq for the ‘Pack, O’Neal committed to LSU. From there, it wasn’t long before the Tigers were glad they landed their man.
O’Neal spent three glorious seasons in Baton Rouge between 1989 and 1992. At 7-foot-1, the big man averaged 21.6 points per game, including 27.6 his sophomore season. He also pulled down 13.5 rebounds and swatted 4.6 shots per game.
Shaq earned All-SEC honors all three years in school, twice being named SEC Player of the Year. He was also a two-time consensus All-American and AP Player of the Year in 1991. His college production made him the no-doubt first selection of the Orlando Magic in the 1992 NBA Draft.
O’Neal’s NBA career ultimately flourished, while Shackleford’s never took off. But it’s interesting to see how a lesser-known Shack indirectly influenced the Shaq we all know today.
All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference.