“Yo, man, run that dude over,” Army drill sergeant Phillip Harrison would yell at 6’4” tall, 10-year-old Shaquille O’Neal from courtside. The father figure who raised O’Neal taught him at an early age to stop being embarrassed by his size.
Even then, O’Neal remembers Harrison saying he would become the best big man in the world.
“Everything he said would happen in my life, from 2 years old on, happened,” O’Neal said. “Every time he told me was going to do something, Sarge did it.”
O’Neal had mixed emotions about Friday night’s ceremony where he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. “This was more his day than my day – this was his dream.”
When Harrison died on Sept. 10, 2013, “I actually felt it,” O’Neal said. “It hit me. I knew.”
After this weekend, O’Neal will take his Hall of Fame ring and place it on a shelf in a room at his Orlando mansion where all his trophies and accolades reside – The Phillip Arthur Harrison Memorial Room.
“Then I’ll walk out and close the door. And that’ll be it.”
O’Neal has been through the former-athlete gauntlet, slowly transitioning from king of the hill to making a living off his knowledge of the game and his sense of humor. He also went through a divorce, dated, and two years ago entered a committed relationship with Laticia Rolle. However, as a father of six himself, O’Neal knew he needed to talk to his estranged biological father, Joseph Toney. He knew that any healing from his abandonment, chronicled in his 1994 rap song “Biological Didn’t Bother,” would have to happen face to face.
The last time anyone asked O’Neal about reconciling with Toney, at the 2002 NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets in his hometown of Newark, O’Neal seemed to slam that door shut.
“That will probably never, ever happen,” O’Neal said then. “Nothing personal. Philip Harrison raised me, made me who I am today. It would be disrespectful of him to meet somebody else and call somebody else my father. I could never do that, no matter what the circumstances are.”
The door was reopened last March when O’Neal asked Toney to meet him at Vonda’s, one of O’Neal’s favorite Newark eateries, which happened to be on the ground floor of Toney’s residence. As Toney slowly rose from his seat, speechless, O’Neal opened his massive arms. He hugged the man who had not held him since he was in the hospital birthing room on March 6, 1972.
“I didn’t know if you was mad at me,” Toney said, “I didn’t know if you hated me.” He spoke of why he never came downstairs all those times when friends called, telling him his son was here.
Perhaps instinctively remembering his early lessons to not be embarrassed by his size, O’Neal proved himself once again to be the bigger man.
“I don’t hate you,” O’Neal recalled telling him. “I don’t judge. I don’t have the right to judge. And, being a father, I know it’s hard.”
Toney told O’Neal he was glad that Harrison had been in his life to give him the discipline he needed and be the father Toney couldn’t be. He also reminded O’Neal that he gave him the gift of his name, Shaquille Rashaun, which in Arabic means, “little warrior.”
The day Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal bent down to embrace Joe Toney, he gave him the gift of forgiveness.