One by one they kept filing by, player after player, coach after coach, extolling the virtues of Shaquille O’Neal.
As each one took a stroll down memory lane, one thing became constant about the stories they told about the man known as Shaq.
“Actually, he’s pretty much the same way he is now,” Eric Baker said. “He’s pretty much a big kid. He hasn’t changed yet. And I like that about him.”
O’Neal and Baker were teammates on the 1989 San Antonio Cole High School squad, which went 36-0 and won the Class 3A state title. The University Interscholastic League honored that team Saturday morning at the Frank Erwin Center, and O’Neal was right there in the middle of the pack with his former teammates.
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And O’Neal wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. While he might have been the star of the show and gotten his name on the billboards and in the headlines, his supporting cast wasn’t bad, either.
“A lot of people, when they look at the Golden Gate Bridge, they always talk about the structure of the Golden Gate Bridge,” O’Neal said. “Nobody talks about the legs of the Golden Gate Bridge — the legs that stand in the water.
“Well, these guys were my legs in high school and they helped me become the guy that everyone knows to be Shaq.”
It’s been a whirlwind three days for O’Neal, the basketball legend who turned 42 on Thursday. He returned to Cole and had his No. 33 jersey retired Friday, and then received a standing ovation Saturday after UIL executive director Charles Breithaupt announced his numerous accomplishments.
“I’ve never seen honored teams be recognized that way, to have the whole crowd standing up when he came in,” Breithaupt said. “It just meant a lot to all of us, but it showed, what I believe, is that he is truly the face of basketball for Texas.
“He is the greatest player to ever have played in our state, he is absolutely the most phenomenal talent we’ve had at this tournament, and the things that he’s done after that is proving that fact true. He’s been all-NBA, he’s been MVP, he’s been an All-Star, gold medal winner, and with all that together he is the most gracious man.”
O’Neal’s graciousness was felt by many who knew him going back to his teenage years.
“He’s just like he is now,” said David Madura, who was O’Neal’s high school coach. “He was a great player, a good person and a good kid. I figured he would be a pro player. I was kind of surprised that he did score as much as he did [in the NBA]. I knew he’d rebound and play defense, but his scoring did surprise me.”
Sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 28,596 points, O’Neal credits Cole’s backup center, Andy Armando, for physically challenging him in practice all the time and preparing him for the next opponent.
“Andy Armando was the guy that beat me up in practice every day, but it prepared me to get beat up in college and it prepared me to get beat up in the NBA,” O’Neal said. “It also taught me how to control my temper, because I wanted to kick his [butt] every day in practice.”
Armando recalls O’Neal being a 7-foot terror on the court, but a polite and gentle giant off the floor.
“He was very generous; he’s always very jovial and always very considerate of his teammates,” Armando said. “It was never about Shaq — it was about the whole team.
“It was very evident [Friday] when they retired his number that he still felt that way, because it was really a day about him, but he made it a day about us. So that’s the kind of person Shaquille was back then and he is now.”
Herb Moore, an assistant coach on the 1989 Cole team, recalls how O’Neal loved to try to convince him that he had some hidden point guard skills.
“As the assistant coach I had to play against him every day, so it was a lot of fun just doing that all the time,” Moore said. “I actually have a pretty good relationship with him because of that.
“We stay in touch a little bit, but he was the consummate teammate. He probably took more pride in his ball-handling and his passing than he did in his scoring and rebounding — he loved to make the no-look passes.”
Even back at the NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans last month, O’Neal said he was cherishing the moment when could be at the Erwin Center and share old stories with his Cole teammates.
When asked where Saturday’s honor stacks up among his four NBA world titles, his 15 All-Star appearances, his three NBA Finals Most Valuable Player awards and his countless other mementos, movies, commercials and musical accolades, O’Neal didn’t stutter when he said:
“For now this will be No. 1, because when I came in as a junior I was unrecognized and I wasn’t really that good. So it was always some doubt in my mind if I was really good or not.”
There’s certainly no doubt now. And O’Neal plans to make sure it won’t be another 25 years before he and his buddies from Cole get back together again.
“I don’t keep a lot of contact with them, but a couple of guys cursed me out and I just gave them my email and my number,” O’Neal said. “I am going to probably put something together at my house once a year and they can bring their family down and go to Disney [World].
“It was actually good to see them — to get a lot of flashbacks. Everything that I’ve learned I attribute it to playing with the guys at Cole, and I attribute it to growing up on a military base.”