ESPN Films has quickly become one of the most respected components of the sports media giant's empire. Since the beginning of the 30 for 30 series a few years ago, ESPN has created documentaries that, while certainly sports focused, cover stories in such a thoughtful manner that the films appeal to an audience larger than just sports fans. In it's partnership with ESPN, the SEC has annually commissioned a set of films to cover the tales and legends of the conference in the SEC Storied series. 4 new films will air this month, beginning tonight with Shaq & Dale.
Disclaimer: ESPN wanted us to review this film so much they provided us with an advance copy.
If you do the math, at the age of 28 now, I was not old enough then to realize what I was seeing on the screen when my dad was watching his alma mater and, more directly, Shaquille O'Neal, become a nightmare for SEC foes and top-ranked opponents. When every other kid was rocking their Jordan jersey and shoes or other Bulls garb, I had my No. 32 Magic jersey on with those amazing Shaqnosis shoes. It wasn't until the rare occurrences on ESPN Classic or the creation of YouTube, that I was finally able to see how dominant he truly was at the collegiate level.
By then, I enjoyed reading, and while I was getting Cliff's Notes for school reading assignments (because honestly, who had time for that at that age?), I spent more of my reading time focusing on biographies of Shaq and other intriguing sports books. Doing that got me wondering who this Dale Brown figure was. Most failed to see him as I did, and likely for good reason. Brown's coaching tenure ended on a sour note, he wasn't the friendliest towards the NCAA, and in his mind, he couldn't care less about what they thought. And I soaked up every bit of that. Knowing his gameplan was unique, something that wasn't the plodding, cut-and-dry basketball that you saw at Duke up until recently and more currently, Wisconsin and their NBA counterpart San Antonio, made me appreciate him more. Now I know there is a certain distinction of appreciation of their style of play, but it has never sat with me. To know Brown went up against guys like Paul Westhead and Jerry Tarkanian only furthered my opinion of Brown in recognizing the true coaching greats of the game.
Enough of this background though, this is about my review on the special.
If the NBA ever wanted a story to sway the Players Association on making kids stay in college longer, this is what they should show. The relationship that Brown and Shaq had was special. Something a kid won't ever get by going overseas, where they see these talented newcomers as more of an attraction for fans. They have a system in place and these kids don't ever fit it, but it can help them sell more tickets for the time being. It is also something you won't EVER get in the NBA. With head coaching in the NBA as a revolving door based on results, and where the failures are sent onto a carousel waiting for their turn to be picked off the ride for a second chance, there isn't much chance of a relationship-building experience. Tie in the fact these coaches want to win to not be shown that door and one or two bad performances from a rookie can send them to an area of a bench where they may not be seen for awhile, or a send-down to the D-League.
What made Dale and Shaq click so well is their personalities were mirror images of each other. Both were raised in an environment that demanded each of them to grow up and recognize what they could be behind determination and hard work. Each one of them had the mindset to never be intimidated by anyone. Now, Shaq had a little more of a solid standing in that regard because "Who in their right mind would really challenge someone of his stature?" It could also be said that it would be stronger coming from a guy like Dale because here is this scrawny, older gentleman, yet he is showing the same tenacity his 7'1", 320-lb. center was showing on the court.
This special also gave us one thing sports fans always love to do and can sit down and talk about for hours: The good ole "What if?" scenarios. What if Jackson, Roberts and Shaq all had their heads on straight? Would this be an even more incredible story with a national title banner hanging up in the PMAC, or would that title have been enough for Shaq and convince Dale enough that his prized center was ready for the NBA? They are always fun things to sit down and have a beer or two over.
How similar the lifestyles and mindsets of Dale and Shaq were was also a prime example of why Dale went out there on the court during that Tennessee game. How many other coaches have you seen go out of their way to specifically defend a certain player? The bond they had back then was even more magnified by this well-done special to show their friendship has only gotten stronger following Shaq's departure from LSU. It was really a special thing to see as a sports fan in general, and meant even more to me as an LSU fan.
Two more things before I go. At 5'11" and only graced with a love of sports, not the athleticism required, I have never dunked before in my life, outside of using a trampoline or lowering the goal to accomplish the feat. I did however hit a game-winner at the buzzer in my high school playing days and you best believe I did the Cabbage Patch just like Shaq did, much to the chagrin of my coach.
Also, I hate Duke and their stupid, book-smart, unknowledgeable sports fans.
If you approach this documentary hoping for a retrospective on the great LSU basketball teams of the late 80s and early 90s, expect to be sorely disappointed. In fact, this documentary may just as well be about gardening or banking or any other regular 9-5 job. Because this documentary isn't about basketball; this is the story of a friendship.
The story begins with Dale reading a letter he had written Shaq back in the early days of his recruitment. These letters totaled hundreds, one a week for his Shaq's entire stay in Germany. The letters came, of course, after the famous epithet wherein Dale saw Shaw playing ball at the gym and asked him how long he'd been in the army. "No sir, I'm only 13," Shaq replied. Dale Brown's recruitment of Shaq began right then and there.
The film builds out from there. This is just two old friends swapping memories and stories. "Hey Dale, remember that time when..." "Hey Shaq, remember that one time..." Laughter and hugs ensue. But truly, that may be what makes it so enjoyable.
We know plenty enough about Shaq, the basketball player. Even plenty about Shaq the TV personality and NBA "analyst." What the film allows the audience to see is Shaq, the human. He's as thoughtful, introspective and considerate as he is large. Shaq is a more deeply thought human than many imagine, deeply influenced both from his stepfather, the late Phillip Harrison and "Daddy" Dale himself.
The memories are fond, sometimes fun, like the time Shaq first saw Dale's house and couldn't believe he had a pool. Sometimes tough, like the time Shaq was misrepresented as supportive of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. Sometimes they are about character building, like the time Shaq overslept and missed class, which Brown took as a chance to have Shaq run the track for four hours. Not only did Shaq not miss class again that semester, he finished with the highest GPA on the team. Today, that would probably constitute an NCAA violation.
All of these moments served to strengthen a relationship that was partially father/son, but more nearly a close friendship. For a father/son relationship insinuates a certain level of inequality, whereas to hear it from Brown, these men are very near equals. Different in age and appearance, though starkly similar in backgrounds and passions.
It's quite unfortunate that Brown's legacy is so tied to failure, both on the court and off. Impossibly, it will be the first thing mentioned from the lips of many LSU fans, while broadly ignoring how tremendously successful he was. Wright Thompson has a beautiful line in his latest piece on the late basketball coach Jason Rabedeaux, "He's a good man, and would be judged an enormous success in every single profession except the one he chose." Shaq got the opportunity to outlive the "loser" legacy due to his wild NBA success, but for Dale it will always be, "How could you not win with Jackson, Roberts and Shaq?"
And that's a shame, because Dale the man, he is a winner.