They were making their way out of LaGuardia Airport, in New York to collect another Shaquille O’Neal award, when the fellow lugging the luggage made a face at the tip. So Staff Sgt. Phil Harrison added another $2.
And got another sneer. “Is there something wrong?” Harrison said, and was told, “You want it back?”
So Staff Sgt. Phil Harrison snatched the bills out of the man’s hand. It had been enough tip for both the haulage and the courtesy.
Sgt. Harrison is Shaquille O’Neal’s father, which explains how in this era of run for the money, his son will be back at LSU next season instead of going for the NBA -- and maybe for his senior year, too. Riches will be delayed.
There is a little trace here of Robert Duvall, the aviator-father in “The Great Santini,” a trace of the best. “Yeah, I’m hard,” the father said, “but the right way.”
He coached his son in football and basketball at the post in Germany during the formative years. That was when Shaquille was growing and growing and growing to his present 7-1 and 285, broad enough to fill a squad tent by himself. The sky was the limit. “We’d buy him pants on the post on Saturday and the next Friday they wouldn’t fit,” the father said.
Sneakers they could get, real shoes were out of the question. Ultimately they had to get custom-made clothes sent from the States. One time, by the time the clothes reached Germany, they were too small and the concessionaire said he wouldn’t take the order any more.
Staff Sgt. Harrison -- that’s three chevrons and a rocker, or three up and one down to old Army people -- is 6-6 himself and wears size-14 shoes. Shaquille wears size 19. Jamal, the brother, wears 10 1/2, but he’s 11 years old.
Tuesday, when Shaquille received the Tanqueray Amateur Athlete Achievement Award, there were 10 family members at the table for the moment. The father wore his Class A uniform; Jamal wore a tuxedo.
There was this time back at the post in Wildflecher in Germany when the father and the mother dropped in unannounced at school and saw through the window their son dancing in class.
Why? Other kids were doing it.
“You got to be a leader, not a clown,” the sergeant-father told him. “We got enough clowns.”
About that time Dale Brown, the LSU coach, was giving a clinic on the post and this young man asked for some lower-body drills. “I looked and saw his feet -- 17 1/2,” Brown said. “I said, ‘How long you been in service?’ And he said, ‘Coach Brown, I’m 13 years old.”’
Brown searched out the father and told him, if the son developed into a basketball player to get in touch. “Excuse me,” Sgt. Harrison said, as Brown related the moment. “Basketball is nice, but it’s time black people started developing intellectualism -- being presidents of companies instead of salesmen, being generals instead of sergeants, being head coaches instead of assistants.”
It was the lesson the father was trying to implant in the son. “I didn’t listen to my father,” Phil Harrison said. “I was running wild and playing ball. I didn’t realize what he was saying until I had my children.”
He went into the Army from Newark at 26 after brushes with basketball and college at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh, N.C., and Essex County Community College in New Jersey. The $5,000 from the award was designated for the Boys and Girls Club of Newark. “The playgrounds where I used to play are rubble, destroyed,” he said. “The schools look like jails.”
He was sent to Europe the first time and married the girl back home; O’Neal is Shaquille’s mother’s maiden name. There were no riches, nothing to suggest what Shaquille could take from the NBA beginning with the draft this month. He could have been a lottery winner.
“How can you miss something you never had?” the father said. “It seems to me we’re missing something.”
The day before he had responded to a radio interviewer telling him that Shaquille could always go back and finish school. “I’m getting confused signals,” the father said. “You’ve been telling us that the secret was education: If we’re to get a piece of the American Dream, if we’re to get out of the ghetto, get an education. Now you’re telling us to get the money and run.” Instead, they prudently took $3 million insurance through the NCAA.
Some basketball types have been saying that Shaquille has nothing to learn in college -- a conspiracy in Brown’s mind. After LSU was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Connecticut, Shaquille -- hurt and sub-par -- asked his father’s advice. “He wants me to be the first of the O’Neal-Harrison family to graduate,” Shaquille said. “If you don’t have an education, how can you manage that money?”
But first, he told his father he wanted the NBA. “I asked him why,” the father said. “He said, ‘I want to take care of you and Mom, buy a Nintendo for the van, buy a car and some nice clothes.’
“I told him that would be only for materialistic reasons. I want you to go ahead and do something, so you can be something other than a basketball player.
“Of course he thinks he’s ready for the NBA; he’s 19 years old: ‘I can do anything, run and jump and scream and holler.’ Let him be a kid. Did you watch the Chicago-Detroit series? I want him to live his life, not go to work yet.”
Shaquille speaks the part of a 19-year-old. He says there are things still to learn on and off the court. He talks about learning “entrepreneurship” in his junior and senior years.
“It’s my dream to see him walk across that stage,” Sgt. Phil Harrison said. “Some people said we made a bad decision. I don’t think so. The money will be there.”
Sounds like a good decision.