Maryland recruit Shaq Cleare was sold on Gary Williams first, Mark Turgeon second

For Shaquille Cleare, the subject of my profile that ran in Tuesday’s paper, the recruiting process intensified his junior year, with shadowy figures trying to influence Shaq and Don Harvey, his high school coach. It is a competitive business, to say the least. The Village School is now outfitted by Under Armour, and because of that the team was not accepted into some tournaments sponsored by Nike. The shoe wars are as nasty as ever.

As for favorite colleges, a lot of people in Shaq’s circle wanted him to go to Texas A&M because it was close to his Houston high school and Coach Mark Turgeon was there. Shaq’s father, Brian, was high on Miami because it was the closest to Shaq’s home in the Bahamas. But Shaq had an affinity for then-Maryland Coach Gary Williams, even though Harvey didn’t quite understand it because Harvey was not sure whether the program was on the rise anymore.

Shaq really liked Williams and Turgeon because he viewed them as authentic in a recruiting world of show and sales pitches. Shaq cried when Williams announced his retirement last May.

“He accomplished a lot of things,” Shaq said of Williams. “He knew how to develop players to get to the next level. With him leaving, it was kind of hard for me, because that is who I was expecting to be my coach. I feel that is where I would have been. When he retired, it was hard for me then. I basically thought I might have to go to a different school. But I really didn’t want to have to leave Maryland because I already had a feel for Maryland. Then Coach Turgeon got hired, and that just made everything better because A&M was my second option, so him going to Maryland really changed everything for me. I could trust them and what they are saying that they could do for me. I put a lot of trust in them. Coach Turgeon is a professional guy. Turgeon makes sure it is done right.”

Shaq encountered different recruiting pitches. While in Coach Scott Drew’s office at Baylor, assistant Jerome Tang all of the sudden said, “Lights off!” The room went dark. “TV up!” Tang hollered. A television emerged from seemingly nowhere. “Video on!” A Baylor highlight video started playing. Shaq liked Drew personally, and Baylor without question has recruited exceptionally well in recent years. But Shaq said he enjoys conversation more than glitz. During his unofficial visit to Maryland, he, Harvey and the Maryland coaches sat at long tables at center court of Comcast Center, talked and ate crabcakes.

Only recently, when Shaq started sending some clippings home to the Bahamas, has Shaq’s dad realized that his son is getting quite good and getting a lot of attention for being quite good. In late August, his dad asked Shaq why he wanted to play in the ACC, what was so special about the basketball league. Shaq explained the level of competition and said he was ready to commit to Maryland. So Harvey and Shaq called Turgeon in his office. After some small talk, the conversation went something like this:

“It’s a good day,” Turgeon said.

“No, I don’t think you understand, Coach,” Harvey said. “It is a really good day.”

“Nah, are you telling me . . . ,” Turgeon said.

Shaq came on and told Turgeon he was coming to Maryland. The basketball office in College Park erupted in cheers. Assistant Bino Ranson, whom Shaq credits with playing an integral role in the recruitment, started yelling, “Yeah, baby!”

And so Shaq is ready to depart for college soon with his priorities in place:

“I am here to graduate high school and I am here to get my degree after I go to college. If I am lucky enough to go pro, then I will probably take that and still come back to get my degree because my parents have always wanted me to be able to say, ‘Shaquille got his degree from college.’ When the ball doesn’t bounce anymore, when the nets don’t say swish, it’s always something to lean back on.”

I’ve called Shaq the most touted and most significant Maryland recruit in a decade. Others agree.

“Shaq could easily be viewed as the most impactful signee in the last decade for many reasons,” said Keith Cavanaugh of TerrapinTimes.com, “starting with the fact the prototypical, back-to-the-basket ‘five-man’ has seemingly eluded Maryland for years and years, going back to the ‘curse of Moses’ [Malone]. Not to mention he fills such a huge ‘need’ position for this team. He was Mark Turgeon’s first national recruit in his first Maryland class, and simply the fact he is a top 40 player from both high school and AAU powerhouse teams, both of which Maryland will recruit in the future. So Shaq covers a lot of bases, not to mention he is an eminently talented, low-post force with soft hands and good feet who can finish with the best of them.”

What does everyone think of Shaq? Are you excited about his arrival in the fall? I encourage everyone to e-mail me; I’m interested in your thoughts.

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