Can't Stop Growing
As a child O'Neal was not a natural athlete. He was in reality an eternal mischief-maker, hot-tempered, and quick to create altercations. Around the time that he entered junior high school, he began to grow very rapidly, and his parents encouraged him to become involved in sports in order to channel his youthful energy and to keep him out of trouble. While attending a youth basketball clinic in Germany, O'Neal—because of his height—caught the eye of Louisiana State University (LSU) Coach Dale Brown. Brown was pleasantly surprised to learn that O'Neal, at more than 6-feet-6-inches tall, was not an adult member of the military (as appeared to be the case). The coach was even more pleased to discover that O'Neal was merely a freshman in high school—and still growing. Brown contacted O'Neal's father and urged him to keep in touch and to consider sending O'Neal to LSU.
As it happened, O'Neal was cut from his ninth grade basketball team because of his clumsiness. He was nonetheless already determined to become a professional basketball player. By the time the Harrison family returned to the United States, O'Neal was already 6-feet-10-inches tall and his size 17 shoes were too small. He was an imposing presence for a high school athlete.
Upon the family's return in 1987, Sgt. Harrison was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, and the family moved to San Antonio where O'Neal enrolled as a sophomore at Robert G. Cole High School. There he nurtured his dreams of fame and even practiced signing his name, as if doling out autographs for imaginary fans.
At 250 pounds, O'Neal was a formidable center for his high school team. During his junior year the school recorded only one loss for the season as they went 32-1. The following year the team was undefeated, at 36-0. O'Neal averaged 32 points per game, 22 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots for his last two years of high school. By high school graduation in 1989 O'Neal was fully grown. He stood 7-feet-1-inch tall, wore a size 22 shoe, and was recruited intensively by coaches from major colleges. O'Neal opted to play with Coach Brown and the Tigers at LSU in Baton Rouge.
O'Neal, playing at center, was named to the All-American first team during his freshman year at LSU. He averaged more than 12 rebounds per game and set a conference record of 115 blocked shots. Although not the strongest among shooters, his game matured with practice, and he perfected his jump and hook shots. His feats were largely overshadowed that year by the talents of LSU power forward Stanley Roberts. Also a seven-footer, Roberts was faster, more experienced, and more confident.
During the summer of 1990 O'Neal went to the National Sports Festival where he represented the South. At the festival he averaged 24.5 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. Also during the summer break, through intensive conditioning he increased his vertical jump from 16 to 42 inches, which enabled him to reach more than two feet beyond the rim of the basket.
When O'Neal returned to LSU as a sophomore in the fall of 1990, the forward Roberts had left school to play professional ball. He spent the rest of the decade in the NBA playing for the Magic in 1991, and later for the Clippers, Timberwolves, Rockets, and Spurs. O'Neal easily inherited Roberts' reputation as the premiere varsity player at LSU, earning recognition as the biggest of the big men in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) of that era.
O'Neal doubled his scoring average that season to 27 points per game, and in one contest against Arizona O'Neal scored 29 points—including 16 points in the final six minutes. Contemporary Black Biography cited Sports Illustrated in quoting Georgia coach Hugh Durham's remark at that time, that "'Shack' [ O'Neal] may be unguardable." O'Neal furthermore increased his rebound average to 14.6 per game. He led the NCAA and earned the College Player of the Year distinction from Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press, and United Press International respectively.