Touching moments highlight the LSHOF Class of 2013's inductionPublished: Monday, July 1, 2013 9:00 am By: Tammy Nunez
NATCHITOCHES -- Shaquille O'Neal delivered a mostly heartfelt, serious speech upon his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday night in the Natchitoches Events Center.
But he couldn't leave the stage without a Shaqism -- taking the crowd from sentimentality to laughter -- a fitting closing to a night that delivered Anna Koll, Ed "Skeets" Tuohy, Ervin Johnson, Ronald Ardoin, James Jones, Tommy Hodson, Chanda Rubin, Kevin Mawae, and O'Neal into official Louisiana Hall history.
"We are now changing the name of this town to Shaqitoches, Louisiana," he quipped.
Shaqitoches it was all weekend. But Saturday night rose above just the O'Neal Show. The evening brought forth not just the individual accomplishments of the inductees, but the stories behind how they got to their athletic heights and their reflections on the experiences now.
No one had a more touching personal story than Johnson, who grew up poor in Jonesville; the 6-foot-11 youth was bagging groceries at the local shop when he decided he wanted to play basketball to get a college education.
He said he still marvels that Coach Tim Floyd, who was then at UNO, took a chance on him.
"To this day I still don't know why," Johnson said. "That's walking by faith, not by sight. I couldn't catch the ball, I couldn't dribble, I couldn't shoot, I couldn't do anything.
"(Tim Floyd's assistant coach) was right. I wasn't magic, I was tragic. He was absolutely right. But one thing he can tell you is that I had work ethic. I owe a lot to my parents for working so hard for so many years, and I saw how hard they worked and I always wanted to make them proud and give them something back."
The nine athletes inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame could not have hailed from a wider assortment of sports, eras and backgrounds.
The sold-out Natchitoches Events Center hung onto every word of speeches from the inductees and those who presented them. There were stories about O'Neal holding the hand of a dying child in between NBA playoff games, and UNO's Johnson taking a cue from God in a grocery store before deciding to play basketball for the first time -- in college.
Chanda Rubin, the tennis great, was a bookworm, her introducer Zina Garrison said, who hit the strongest forehand Garrison had ever seen an 8-year-old girl hit.
Mawae drew laughter -- and he cried.
"I have a speech written and it sucks," Mawae said, all the while trying to fight back tears. "And I know my pastor wouldn't like that word."
Former LSU quarterback great Tommy Hodson also broke into sobs thinking about his wife's support through the years.
Rubin spoke of the four tables of family and friends who were there supporting her Saturday night.
The accomplishments seemed to fall by the wayside to stories and Louisiana tales -- and they brought the room together whether or not those in attendance witnessed any of it.
O'Neal remembers his first days on campus and being intimidated by Tommy Hodson, who was a football God on campus at the time.
"I was actually scared to talk to him," O'Neal said.
Brown revealed another side of O'Neal as well.
"I am not going to mention one dunk he had.... Tonight is going to be about the Shaquille O'Neal. The Shaquille O'Neal I know has nothing to do with basketball. It has to do with behind the scenes."
Brown then told the story about asking O'Neal to call the dying youngster in Baton Rouge -- O'Neal said, "I got this coach.'"
And he did -- with an hour-long visit.
Rubin seemed to sum up the night with this thought: "As a professional athlete -- it is often a phenomenal experience -- so challenging but rewarding at the same time," Rubin said. "It often tests the belief in yourself, but also emphasizes the importance of the journey."
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