Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shaq and Dale: It's not just about basketball

      "Shaq and Dale is a film about basketball, but it's a film about a relationship, a really special relationship between a huge megastar that we all know now in Shaquille O'Neal and his college head coach, Dale Brown, that dates back to when Shaq was quote/unquote a nobody in Germany on an Army base struggling with the decision to whether or not to even play basketball.
      "It's a story about love. It was a relationship that proved to Shaq there was one person who would always stand up for him regardless of what happened on the court and also off the court. And it gave this young man so much confidence. Shaq says that he wouldn't have become the player he did without Dale Brown. And I believe that wholeheartedly."
      -- ESPN anchor Hannah Storm, on the film she directed
      I have watched Shaq and Dale twice now, once to make notes for this piece. I have been thoroughly entertained.
      I recommend this film -- an hour, with commercials -- to anyone who likes a feel-good story. Sure, it's better if you are a basketball fan and/or an LSU fan. But if you are a fan of human beings with character, this fits.
      This is one of the newest in the ESPN Films Presents productions, an extension of the excellent  30 for 30 series, now developed for the SEC Network's SEC Storied features. I've seen a half dozen -- all wonderful, but none better than It's Time -- Chucky Mullins (of Ole Miss). That one, poignant and sad, brought many tears.
      Shaq and Dale is poignant, too, but joyful.
      Oh, there's controversy. Wouldn't be Dale Brown if there wasn't. Or Shaq, for that matter.
      Both are outspoken and honest (maybe to a fault). Part of the celebrity status they've had for decades is that the description controversial comes with it.
      I'm sure their critics will find something to knock in this film. Sorry, I can't find it.
      What I did find was a lot of humor; that's what Shaq is known for. Telling his stories, acting them out, talking about life on campus, finding his old dorm room and, after slowly opening the door, barging in and diving on his old bed, yelling, "It's still here; it's still here." Yes, 7-foot-1 and 350 pounds (or so) diving on this bed.
      And Dale, repeatedly, is seen laughing at the Shaq antics/stories. You will, too.
      What also comes through is Dale's earnestness and the fatherly guidance he gave to Shaq and so many others. Daddy Dale, indeed.
      And his motivational methods -- in so many ways. As Shaq points out early on, from right after he met Dale at age 13, he received a letter (or more) a week from the coach and still receives an e-mail regularly.
      I know; I've been on the mailing list for years. As I was writing this Tuesday night, an e-mail from Dale hit my inbox. From the time he became the LSU coach in 1972, those of us around the state received the messages from Dale -- notes complimenting a story he liked, encouragement on non-sports matters, the printouts such as "The Man in the Mirror" (I still have that one).
      My opinions:
      (1) Other than Charlie McClendon and Les Miles, Dale Brown is the most criticized coach in LSU history. Charlie Mac and Les, because it came with their position as the longest tenured Tigers football coaches of the past 70 years; Dale, because he was being Dale.
      (2) Dale Brown is the most interesting coach in LSU history, a man of the world. Maybe Skip Bertman (baseball guru) was in the ballpark and maybe Miles, the often hard-to-figure-out guy, will be his equal given another 10 years of news conferences and sound bytes and social media posts.
      But if you dealt with Dale, if you interviewed him, you weren't always sure where it was going.
He might talk about world hunger, or visiting the Taj Mahal or the rain forests in South America or the Himalayas; he's concerned about Middle East politics; and I can assure you that he is very much an American patriot.
      He was always willing to criticize the NCAA's investigative methods and its archaic rules concerning humane needs for players. He wanted to recruit Arvydas Sabonis from behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-1970s; he knew a great player when he saw one.
      OK, so maybe it's eccentric, maybe it's unlike how most coaches think and act. How many times have I heard Dale criticized (by my friends, coaches and sportswriters) for that?
      Plus, how much criticism have I heard of his coaching? Plenty.
      Couldn't coach really talented teams; did better with undermanned, underrated teams. Wasn't a good in-game coach. Couldn't get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament with the 1990 Shaq-Chris Jackson-Stanley Roberts team (a focal point early in this film). Couldn't beat Indiana and Bob Knight (0-3 in the NCAA Tournament).
      Lost a 31-point lead (with 15 1/2 minutes to play) and the game to Kentucky in February 1994 -- the biggest blown lead in NCAA Division I history to that point.
      I have to be honest -- I was among the early critics. My wife will tell you that. She reminds me of it often.
      It took Dale six seasons at LSU (1972-78) before one of his teams had a better-than-.500 record in the Southeastern Conference. And when I met Bea in the mid-1970s, I was not enamored with the LSU basketball program. Few people were.
      But she had worked with some LSU boosters, and Dale boosters, and she kept telling me how much those people respected Dale and his program.
      So when many thought he was on the verge of being told to leave this coaching job, his program turned for good. In 1979, LSU made the NCAA Tournament (as SEC champion) for the first time in 25 seasons. Two years later, LSU made the Final Four.
      Here is opinion No. 3: Dale Brown is the main reason people care about LSU basketball.
      Yes, Bob Pettit is a legend, and those 1952-53, 1953-54 teams he led to a combined 27-0 SEC record (and one Final Four) are legends. Yes, Pete Maravich is a legend -- the greatest scoring machine many of us have seen -- and the Assembly Center is named for him.
      But Dale lasted 25 years in the job, he coached more games (749) than any LSU basketball coach, he took 13 teams to the NCAA Tournament, he coached four SEC regular-season and one SEC Tournament champions; he took two teams to the Final Four; and -- although it didn't happen -- he set a goal: LSU winning the national championship.
      Some of us -- not going along with the thought that LSU doesn't care about basketball -- have always thought that should be an achievable goal.
      Anyway, LSU won 448 times with Dale coaching, and consider this -- 18 of those victories came against Kentucky. How significant is that?
      LSU was 0-19 all-time vs. Kentucky before a 1961 victory. Then it was 1-35 before a 1973 victory -- the last victory of Press Maravich's coaching stint at LSU. It took Dale only three games to beat Kentucky. OK, so his teams were 1-10 vs. Kentucky before they won six of eight from the Wildcats.
      And then his Tigers beat them 11 more times, including that memorable 1986 Elite Eight (NCAA Regional final) in Atlanta -- maybe the greatest victory of the Dale era. After that one, Dale was shown leaping in the air and racing off the floor toward the dressing room -- similar to his sprint off the Superdome floor when his team's first Final Four trip was assured in 1981.
      In '86, that was a totally surprising LSU Final Four team. Think about how many great coaches never took even one team to a Final Four? This so-so coach took two.
      So, yes, the 1989-90 team -- which Dale on this film said had "unlimited potential" -- didn't get it done. One reason: Shaq really wasn't the force he would become the next two years. Chris Jackson, as exciting a shooter as LSU ever had other than Maravich, wasn't enough. Stanley Roberts wasn't a good enough all-around player. There wasn't enough cohesion, or quality depth to overcome the shortcomings.
      "Great expectations ... maybe too great," says the film narrator, country-music star Tim McGraw (who grew up in Northeast Louisiana).
      "Disappointing. I could have recruited better. I could have motivated them better. I could have done this; I could have done that," Dale said of the season and the second-round NCAA loss to Georgia Tech on Tennessee's home floor. (Tech made the Final Four).
      No excuses. You wouldn't expect that from Dale.
      The film covers the many highlight (and lowlight) games of Shaq's three years at LSU. It was a spectacular era, not all it could have been, but it's worth seeing the clips from the games, and for the LSU faithful, there are many scenic shots of the campus ... including Tiger Stadium and the PMAC.
       For those of us with Shreveport ties, there's the play-by-play sounds of Jim Hawthorne and a couple of quick shots of longtime LSU basketball sports information man Kent Lowe. Those are from 25 years ago; we go back with those guys for 40-plus years.
      Shaq and Dale aren't the only controversial people in this film. Jerry Tarkanian is in there as the UNLV coach, but even he pales in comparison to ... David Duke and Bob Knight.
       The less I write about David Duke, the better.
       He makes even Bob Knight look decent. But I don't want to write much about Knight, either. Did not approve of his coaching style -- or any coach that thrives on intimidation --  and detest his mean-spirited public presence. Especially didn't like his criticisms of Dale Brown.
         Sure, he was a great coach; few have been better in terms of defense and motion offense, and knowledge. He has many devoted followers; he's been giving to the game in many ways and to people he considers loyal and friends. But few top him in arrogance, self-importance.
         I can tell you that I would rather deal with Dale more than Bob Knight 101 times out of 100.
         Enough negativity. Dale would not approve of it. But just for the record, there you have it.
         When we were at the Shreveport newspapers, we knew that if we called Dale, he would return the call. Maybe if he was busy, or off to practice or not in the office, it might take 24 hours for the callback, but you could count on it.
          Some big-name coaches, it was impossible. Eddie Sutton at Arkansas was either too busy or did not deem the Shreveport Journal important enough to talk to by phone; the return call several times came from his assistant, James Dickey.
          But Dale would give you something. When I was in Shreveport, in the '70s and '80s, we did not cover LSU daily; we didn't have a Glenn Guilbeau type on the scene. We would -- to use one of Dale's favorite expressions -- "parachute in" to cover games (and do interviews).
          Personally, I rarely covered LSU basketball. In fact, I never attended a game Shaquille O'Neal played for LSU. The only game I saw him play was his rookie year in the NBA for the Orlando Magic, the first time he faced the Boston Celtics and Robert Parish. And I wasn't there to see or talk to Shaq.
          I always thought Shaq was a man-child, an often silly, goofy guy who was serious only about winning basketball games. He was good at that at LSU, but much better in the NBA.
          When he joined the Inside the NBA panel on TBS (and other networks), I thought at first he wasn't a good fit; working with the irrepressible Charles Barkley and sidekick Kenny Smith is a formidable task. But, as Shaq points out in the film, he isn't one to be intimidated -- not since he was an LSU freshman -- and so he has (pun here) grown into the role. He's a big man on the show now.
          With this film, my admiration for him has grown. And while others can still be critical of Dale Brown, I'm not going there. The man proved long ago that there's much more depth there than just being eccentric and outspoken.
         Watch the film. You might agree.


  1. We loved this....watched it twice. It is a sweet story, an honest story and story about character-building. A good one for young people to see.

  2. From Tim Looney: I saw that. Really enjoyed it!

  3. From Patrick Locke Sr.: You own it.

  4. From Brian McNicoll So much good stuff in this post. The only time I saw Shaquille was his last year at LSU when they whipped the Bob Wade-coached [Maryland] Terps at Cole Field House. Ggreat piece, and I agree on Shaq, Dale and Bobby Knight.

  5. From Dale Brown: When I looked back at my 44-year coaching career I vividly saw my limitations, mistakes, and my distance from the ideal. The most important thing in life is not to capitalize on your gains; any fool can do that. The really important thing is to profit from your losses. A person can fail many times, but is not a failure until he begins to blame someone else. Also, I have found that the most extraordinary people on earth are the most ordinary.