Sport and culture are sometimes intertwined. For many the achievements in sport are a prelude to social good work. So it is with the basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal, a USA superstar. Read on and discover this extraordinary man’s connection to the Creoles of Louisiana. While creole people have a number of high profile individuals to look up to as stewards of their culture, there are very few adopted sons and daughters that can claim a profile larger than Shaquille O’Neal. Literally and figur atively, Shaquille O’Neal (known simply as Shaq by Americans) is a larger than life persona with a surprising connection the creole people of Louisiana that many people do not realize.
From the Jersey Shore to the Bayou
Shaq was born in Newark, New Jersey to parents Joseph Toney and Lucille O’Neal. Although his father was a talented basketball player in his own right, a drug addiction derailed Toney’s basketball career and by 1973 he was imprisoned while Shaq was just an infant. Shaq never developed a relationship with his biological father, who upon his release from prison relinquished his parental rights to Shaq’s stepfather Phillip Harrison. Harrison served as a Sergeant in the United States Army Reserve, a career path which would take Shaq and his mother around the world and eventually lead to the bayous of Louisiana. While living on a U.S. military installation in Wildflecken, West Germany, Shaq met Louisiana State University (LSU) head basketball coach Dale Brown, a fortuitous meeting that would help bring the big man to LSU later on. After attending high school in San Antonio, where his stepfather was now stationed, Shaq decided to attend LSU and play basketball for Coach Brown. It was an easy move for Shaq from his high school days in San Antonio, where his team went 68-1 in two seasons, to Baton Rouge. His time at LSU would forever leave an imprint on his life and continue to bring him back to Louisiana throughout his life.
A Higher Calling
One would be foolish to gloss over Shaq’s accomplishments as an athlete to focus entirely on his life off the court. Although the sport of basketball is arguably far from the venue in which Shaq has made his greatest contributions to society, his skill and longevity provided him the financial means to give back and a profile to attract attention to worthy causes. While playing for LSU, Shaq was a two-time All-American and two-time All-SEC player. He even managed to win the Adolph Rupp Trophy as the NCAA men’ s basketball player of the year in 1991. He was drafted number one overall by the Orlando Magic where he would play for four seasons and begin to establish himself as one of the greatest big men of all time in the NBA. From there his career took him to the Los Angeles Lakers where he won three consecutive NBA titles, numerous scoring titles, MVP, and NBA Finals MVP awards. His last championship came with the Miami Heat in 2006 before his career wound down playing for the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Boston Celtics. But Shaq’s life has become much more than the game he played. Although he left LSU early to enter the NBA, he made a promise to his mother that he would earn a college degree. Shaq did that and more when he earned a Bachelor of Arts in General Studies in 2000. From there Shaq went on to earn an online Master in Business Administration from the University of Phoenix in 2005 and a Doctor of Education in Human Resource Development (Ed.D) from Barry University in 2012. With vast financial resources and a desire to give back, Shaq embarked on a life of crime fighting and youth development. While playing for the Lakers he completed the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Reserve academy and become a reserve officer with the Los Angeles Port Police. After his trade to the Miami Heat, he took on a similar role with the Miami Beach Police.
Returning “Home” to the Bayou
In 2005 Shaq was named an honor ary U.S. Deputy Marshal and acted as a spokesman and member of the Safe Surfin’F oundation which acts to protect children from online predators. Throughout his career though, at times with little fanfare and media attention, Shaq has returned to the Bayous of Louisiana to visit sick children in need at the Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge. The CEO of the Our Lady of the Lake Foundation, John Paul Funes, first met Shaq when the two were attending LSU in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Funes and Shaq have toured the halls of Our Lady of Lake on an annual basis to meet with young children battling various illnesses and receiving treatment at the facility. O’Neal takes time out of his busy life, even in retirement, to make it to Baton Rouge each year and spend a day touring the halls of Our Lady of the Lake. He makes sure to stop in each room to meet with every young patient and is capable of engaging with a two-year old as easily as a 17 year old. But it appears Shaq was not content to stop there. In late 2011, when O’Neal was in town to attend the unveiling of a statue honoring him at the LSU basketball training facility, he became aware of Our Lady of the Lake’s plans to develop a specialized children’s hospital. While back in Baton Rouge in July 2013 to take part in his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Shaq announced that Baton Rouge would soon be home to the Shaquille O’Neal Children’s Hospital. Although he wasn’t actually authorized to unveil the plans, Shaq told the crowd and media in attendance that the hospital was “a go.”
His Greatest Act
The hospital will be named the Shaquille O’Neal Children’s Hospital not out of hubris, but out of thanks from a creole community proud of an adopted son. The hospital will take up 66 acres of land and feature 125-150 beds with room for expansion to 200 beds. With a price tag of $250 million, it was Shaq’ s “significant monetary donation” that helped get the project moving and earned him the honor of having the hospital named after him. Shaq’s persona on the court in his NBA career was larger than life, impressive for a man who stands 7’1” and weighs 325 lbs. But it is his life off the court and the manner in which he continually gives back to his adopted community in Louisiana that earns him the distinction of being one of the best adopted sons of the creole culture.