February 11, 1996
Long before Tim Duncan roamed the Texas plains, if you asked San Antonio hoop fans who was the greatest ever to play in their city, you’d get a couple of nostalgic George Gervin responses. More often, citizens would stand at attention to salute “The Admiral,” David Robinson.
But between the reigns of the Iceman and the Admiral, there was one baller who totally dominated the hardwood, losing just one game in two years, ripping down rims and leaving opponents dazed, coaches cold-sweating and fans in a state of shock and awe.
Then he left Cole High School. And conveniently, San Antonio forgot all about Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq bailed the Lone Star State in 1989 to play with then-proud American Chris Jackson and the LSU Tigers. Although he wound up toiling in his initial NBA years with Orlando, he never lost his affection for the Mission City and the people there. Always donating back to Cole High with hoop gear, he even offered his high school math teacher his Orlando condo for her honeymoon. He would leave scores of tickets at the Alamodome for local friends anytime his team came to play.
But San Antonio’s fans and small-town media could care less. To them, basketball was all about Mr. David Robinson, the man who saved the Spurs from getting moved out of town, who led the team as a rookie to what was the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history, who made the Spurs and its city relevant again. The Admiral was a patriot, a gentleman, a statesman, a scholar. Ostensibly, to his core, he was a really swell guy. At least, that’s what they’d tell all of you. Not a thug, they’d say, like that Shaquille O’Neal.
Well before he became a brash rapper, B-movie headliner and can’t-miss future Hall of Famer in his years with the Magic, the young Shaquille was a gentle teenage giant who absolutely adored and emulated David Robinson’s game. In the summer of 1989, the city’s best high school player saddled up to the soon-to-be NBA rookie at a bible college’s basketball event, and pleaded for an autograph.
“He wrote his name real quick and was like, ‘Yeah, come on, hurry up’,” Shaq penned in his 2001 memoir Shaq Talks Back. Robinson didn’t engage in any constructive dialogue, and declined to make any eye contact. “He kind of dogged me out. He was my favorite player. That’s OK. I said to myself, ‘when I see you, I’m gonna get you.’”
Once in the League, Robinson gave O’Neal something more to stew about. In 1994, well behind O’Neal in scoring on the final day of the regular season, Robinson, his teammates and the hapless Clippers colluded to allow him to drop 71 points and wrest away the league scoring title. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, the adulating media wrote, and Shaq was miffed. The vilified Shaq knew that had he done this to Robinson, the columnists and talk show hosts would have strung him up.
Cut to February 1996, in San Antonio at the Alamodome, site of the 1996 All-Star Game. A total bore by most accounts, until the final minute. Spurs teammate Sean Elliott fumbled the ball trying to dribble it around his waist, and Robinson sauntered back on defense from halfcourt. Grant Hill brought the stolen ball up the court on a 4-on-3 break. Hill made eye contact with Shaq at halfcourt, leaving you to wonder if Grant knew of the grand plan to lay down some Shaq Fu.
You could read Robinson’s face as Shaq gathered the ball from Hill’s pass, just one foot in the paint. “He’s just gonna try to lay it up past me, I can deflect it,” he probably thought to himself. “Surely, he’s not gonna try to crown me, the All-Star Game’s host, not from way out there. For goodness sakes, this is just an exhibition game! Right?” Indeed it was an exhibition, only he didn’t know his hometown humiliation would be on display.
Robinson tried to keep altitude with the soaring Shaq, but the two shoes of Mr. Goody Two Shoes didn’t have the lift of his determined opponent. With no defenders to his left, Shaq could’ve easily slammed the ball through with his left hand. But Robinson was on his right, and Shaq would not miss this last-minute opportunity to upstage the reigning MVP on his home floor with the world watching. His right hand and the Spalding hovered well above and beyond the leaping 7-foot-1 center’s outstretched fingertips. Some would argue a 320-plus pound man had never gotten that high off the ground. Not without a forklift, anyway.
O’Neal leaned into Robinson’s chest in mid-air and in a split-second… Kazaam! The Admiral’s ship was sunk by a tomahawk explosion. Quoth the Diesel:
“I got some revenge… dunking on Robinson as hard as I've ever dunked and knocking him to the ground. That was a message. I wanted to show him that he'll never be able to stop me, especially when I’m coming like that. I kind of showed the rock to him, then had to bring it back a little bit, and I just threw the thing down, right on him. Wha-pah! And when he fell, I just looked at him. ‘Stay down, don't get up.’ It was a knockout.”
Propelled by O’Neal’s sheer power, the ball came down faster than The Fu-Schnickens’ careers. Thundering through the net, it ricocheted off Shaq’s size-22 EE sneaker. While still clutching on the rim, he booted the ball Pele-style over Robinson into the press row, as if to say, “Write about THAT, punks.” Forced to bow down to Shaq’s prowess as he stumbled out of bounds, the faithful Robinson realizes this was a moment of almost Biblical proportions. For once, Goliath slew David.
O’Neal had dunked on D-Rob before, and would continue to for seven more seasons, even more so once he moved out west to ball with the Lakers…
In San Antonio you’re constantly reminded to “Remember the Alamo.” Almost exactly 160 years after the epic battle ending with a fallen hero, Shaq gave San Antonio one more thing to remember. San Antonio disowned Shaquille O’Neal, but he put the world on notice that from that day on, he owned San Antonio.