12/16/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
SHAQUILLE O'NEAL REMEMBERS HIS first, fateful encounter with coach Dale Brown of the Louisiana State University basketball team. It took place in 1985 in Wildflecken, West Germany, where Shaquille's dad, an Army sergeant, was stationed and Brown was giving a clinic. Afterward, O'Neal approached the LSU coach for advice. "I said, 'Coach Brown, I need a strength program to help me with my lower extremities, because I'm 6'8" and I can't jump.'
"He looked at me and he said, 'Uh, how long you been in the Army, soldier?'
"I said, 'I'm not in the Army. I'm only 13.'
" 'Thirteen!' " O'Neal remembers Brown exclaiming. " 'Where's your dad? Where's your dad?' "
Six years and a successful recruitment later, Shaquille O'Neal, now 19—and TV and 294 lbs.—is in fact an LSU junior and the center of attention in basketball. The young man with the mellifluous name—it rolls along the tongue the way a basketball rolls around the rim before dropping through the twine—is not simply the premier big man in college hoops, but arguably the fourth best center in the world, after National Basketball Association stars Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. A unanimous first-team All-America last year, O'Neal averaged 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds per game, and provoked University of Utah coach Rick Majerus to say that O'Neal "could be the first $100 million player."
Not anytime soon, however—at least not according to Shaquille's dad, Sgt. Phillip Harrison, 44, a lifer in the Army who generally gets things his way. It was he who insisted that Shaquille take his mother Lucille's maiden name (with which, not coincidentally, it rhymes) because there were no other O'Neals in the family to keep it going. And when Shaquille—who has a $2.7 million NCAA insurance policy—signed on at LSU, the sergeant told the coach his boy would be there all four years, no matter how fervently the pros beckoned. "If blacks are to get a piece of the American pie," said Harrison, "we should get an education." He also told Brown it was his dream "to see my son carry the American flag in Barcelona in the 1992 Olympics."
This is not to say Shaquille has always been a willing student. He and his two younger sisters and brother—Lateefah, 14, Ayesha, 13, and Jamal, 12—grew up on Army posts from New Jersey to West Germany. Shaquille was not a bad kid, just filled with mischief. "I used to be a class clown," he says.
Around 15, Shaquille decided to do things his dad's way. He began to get good grades, and during his junior and senior years at Cole High School in San Antonio, where his dad was transferred in 1987, Shaquille's teams went 68-1. More than 100 college recruiters came drooling to his door, but he picked LSU because Brown had written him regularly since they met.
When he can break away from the hoops and his business administration courses—he is close to making the dean's list this year, according to Brown—O'Neal takes the six-hour drive to San Antonio to pass the weekend with his folks. He makes a point of playing ball with younger brother Jamal, who is already 5'11". "Everything I learn, I teach him," says Shaquille. "He's going to be a good one."
As for his own game, Shaquille believes he has plenty to learn. "Last year," he says, "the only thing I was able to do was power stuff. But when I go into the NBA, I'll be playing against guys my size who are stronger than me and quicker. So I need to develop a hook shot or a 15-footer. Then I'll be ready."
RON RIDENHOUR in Baton Rouge