I want to thank Shaq and Village School basketball coach Don Harvey for giving me almost full access for a few days down in Houston last month. Here are some of my personal observations, and other leftovers, about Shaq:
I had just stepped off a bus with the team in Beaumont when Nick Petito, the varsity assistant coach, pulled out his iPad and showed me Shaq’s shot chart for the season. Yes, he was indeed shooting 83 percent from the field. I had already been impressed with Shaq’s game, having seen him play in June’s National Basketball Players Association Top 100 Camp in Virginia. I did not get to see him play much during my trip to Houston because he was nursing a sprained ankle.
Despite the injury, Shaq tried to play anyway in the road game in Beaumont. Word spread throughout the gymnasium that a nationally recognized player would be on the court. Some parents tried to guess his shoe size. One child on the other team told his mom, “Mom, I think we’re going to play a 7-footer!” One student said Shaq’s team would have scored well over 100 points had he played. But Shaq could limp up and down the floor only for four minutes. He could not jump, could not run. He threw a couple passes for assists. The next day, he grudgingly went for morning X-rays on the ankle (they were negative). Shaq just needed to rest the ankle.
One of the things that jumped out to me about Shaq’s personality was how grounded and humble he is. Over the last 15 years, I have dealt with most of the top so-called high school basketball phenoms in the country. Few appeared to have more of a sense of focus and less of an ego than Shaq. He knows where he has come from and where he wants to go. He appears to lack a sense of entitlement that you’ll find in some top players who have been flown around the country on shoe company money and looked at their national rankings in publications since they were 10 or 12. Shaq didn’t take that route, of course, because he grew up in the Bahamas and hardly played organized basketball, much less excel in it, when he first came here for the ninth grade.
He is also extremely polite. The Village School team manager is a girl who is barely 5 feet tall and who spent the first 14 years of her life in Vietnam. She told me Shaq was among the first to greet her last year and introduce himself. With Shaq being so tall, she got frightened and ran away, she said. But looking back now, she was really touched by the gesture and said he is very kind.
His teammates said he is a great teammate who is more outgoing than one would think, that he has a playful side and tells some wacky jokes. For the rest of the team, it became old hat for them when as many as 11 college coaches showed up to watch practices at the Village School last year. Still, some of the younger players remain in awe of Shaq. “I am going to get his signature,” 16-year-old Raza Syed said. “I played with Shaq Cleare in high school.”