December 30, 2010
January 4, 2011
January 2, 2011
January 3, 2011
December 31, 2010
The holiday had nothing to do with it, although the timing was exquisite. The gesture by Shaquille O'Neal happened to be announced on Thanksgiving, and that gave greater meaning to a unique act of kindness.
We are too familiar with the manner some athletes have gained headlines away from their games. So many have been arrested, whether for serious offenses, Plaxico Burress pleading guilty to criminal possession of a weapon, or lesser ones.
If Shaq is guilty of anything, however, it's sensitivity. Others may have shamed sports, made us ask "What's the matter with these guys? Don't they have a brain in their head?''
O'Neal provided a large percentage of pride. He did what's right. Without being asked or coaxed.
Shaq is far from perfect. He is being sued for divorce. But he always has been a caring individual, raised in a military family by a stepfather who demanded discipline and respect.
Shaq may play a mean game of basketball, although now at age 37, he is too often injured, including currently, having not been in uniform for the Cleveland Cavaliers since mid-November because of a shoulder ailment.
In the game of life, as so many big men, O'Neal rarely is mean.
Perhaps he does not fit the mythical category of Gentle Giant. So we label him the Considerate Competitor. Or employ the description he often has used on himself, the Big Socrates.
Touched by the tragedy of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis, who police say was kidnapped and killed, and whose body was found a week and a half ago beside a rural road in North Carolina, O'Neal paid for the child's funeral.
"I was sitting at home watching it on the news,'' O'Neal told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "and the story brought a tear to my eye.''
He saw what we all saw, hate, pain, tragedy, tales told repeatedly in modern society. A girl he didn't know. A story we all know. Shaquille O'Neal was not content merely to step away.
He never has been.
"The greatest leader is the greatest servant,'' O'Neal posted recently on Twitter, then added meaningfully, if grammatically incorrect - intentionally most likely -- "I don't want no enemies. Love you all.''
His enemies are few. Shaq and Kobe Bryant had ego problems when teammates on the Lakers, but now, on different teams, they have reconciled. His admirers are many.
Having left LSU after his sophomore year to become the No. 1 pick in the 1992 NBA draft, O'Neal returned at times and did enough work, in correspondence or on campus, to earn his degree in 2000.
"LSU is where I created Shaq,'' said O'Neal in September, hosting a program to prepare student-athletes for post-college life by focusing on academic and athletic excellence, community service and career development.
"I used to be in the dorms wishing I would be good enough to make the NBA.''
He was good enough. Also good enough to make a difference in other's lives.
As a boy, Shaq was a problem not easily corrected. Separated from his biological father as an infant, O'Neal came under the guidance of his stepdad, a U.S. Army sergeant, Philip Harrison, who was shipped to a base in Bavaria.
According to Sports Illustrated and his separate autobiography, once overseas, young Shaq became a troublemaker, breaking into cars, hitting teachers, hoping to be sent home to the U.S.
Harrison, who would join the FBI after retiring from the military, told the boy, "Look son. No matter what you do, I'm not letting them send you back. And if you don't listen to me, I'm going to beat your butt every single day.''
Shaq listened. Shaq grew. Literally, to 6-fooot-6 at age 13 on his way to 7-1, 325 pounds. Also culturally. The Army is a place of trust, sharing and responsibility. You're as dependent for survival on the soldier next to you as he is dependent on you.
O'Neal has a perverse if delightful sense of humor. Paid millions a year, Shaq said his income and wealth are miniscule compared to, say, Larry Ellison, the billionaire chief of Oracle. "Now,'' said Shaq, "there's a rich man.''
Shaq has released four rap albums, appeared in several films, been in commercials and even starred in his own reality show, albeit one the critics didn't find particularly enthralling.
When playing for the Heat, O'Neal, who often talked about going into law enforcement, was made a U.S. Marshal and Miami reserve police officer and assisted in arrests. Dare we say none involving another athlete?
"My (step)father was my hero,'' said Shaq, "I am not a hero.''
For stepping up to make sure Shaniya Davis had "a funeral as beautiful as she was,'' Shaquille O'Neal is a hero to us all.