Preps Talk

Can you imagine Shaquille O'Neal on the Flyin' Illini? It almost happened

Can you imagine Shaquille O'Neal on the Flyin' Illini? It almost happened

Shaquille O'Neal was one of the most dominant high school basketball players in the history of the sport. Coming out of Robert G. Cole high school in San Antonio, Texas, O'Neal was already known by coaches nationwide as a force on the court after leading Cole to a 68-1 record over his final two years there, including a state championship in his senior season. 

Needless to say, O'Neal had his pick of all the nation's top college programs. On a mid-February episode of the Knuckleheads podcast hosted by Quentin Richardson and Darius Mies, he discussed his journey to LSU, including all the schools he considered along the way.

Something many fans don't know: O'Neal was seriously considering Illinois, then featuring Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty, Stephen Bardo and Kendall Gill.

"I went to Illinois, Nick [Anderson] and Kendall Gill, they showed me a good time," O'Neal said on the podcast. "But it was too cold, I'm like 'it's too cold up there.'"

That brought back memories when brought up to Gill, who spoke with NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday about O'Neal's visit to Champaign.

"It was great," said Gill when reminiscing about O'Neal's visit. "It was Halloween weekend... Halloween weekend in Champaign is a big event and they closed down Green street, which is the main street/strip in Champaign, and it’s one big party with all of the students, and on this particular weekend, there were all kind[s] of parties going on.

"So we took him to the Alpha house, which is the Alpha Kappa Alpha house, we took him to the... Kappa house, we took him to the QDogs [laughs], we took him to the Student Union parities."

By all accounts, Gill, Anderson, and Co. provided O'Neal with a great experience and overall impression of the University of Illinois. But Gill says the Fighting Illini never would have had the chance to woo O'Neal with Illinois' great campus if not for the recruiting prowess of former Chicago Bulls player and Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins.

We took him around the campus, y’know because Illinois, we have a beautiful campus, man, it’s really nice and everything is right there. It’s big but everything is right there. And he really liked it, and he liked the players that we had.

But all of this can be attributed to Jimmy Collins, our former assistant coach who was the master recruiter. And everybody in the country respected Coach Collins and that’s why he was able to develop the pipeline out of Chicago, which was the main reason why Shaq came to visit. 

With everything going as planned on O'Neal's visit to Illinois, the only thing that could slow down the Fighting Illini was mother nature.

"The weather was OK for the first two days, but then on the third day, he (O'Neal) got extremely cold," Gill said. "And for somebody that’s from San Antonio, Texas, that can be [a] culture shock... It was just cold enough for somebody that’s not from here to be like, ‘Man this is TOO cold!’ We were used to it but for Shaq, it was totally different."

O'Neal ultimately decided to stick with Louisiana State University, and though his LSU squads only got as far as the second round of the NCAA tournament during his time there, he was a wildly successful Tiger before his leap to NBA superstardom. 

Gill's Flyin' Illini squad followed up their Final Four appearance in '89 with another NCAA Tournament appearance in '90 sans O'Neal, but they were upset by the 12-seed Dayton Flyers in a tough game. Gill says he likes to think about how great that squad would have been but ultimately is happy about how things worked out for all parties.

"Unfortunately for us, Shaq decided to choose the warmer weather of LSU, and things worked out pretty well for him. But I think he would’ve looked a lot better in orange and blue rather than gold and purple.

"We were in his top five, and unfortunately we didn’t make it, but it was good to have him down on campus. And look at this, 30 years later it’s a great story."

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Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

Jerry Sloan, Bulls player and Jazz coaching legend, stayed true to Illinois roots

There’s country strong. And then there’s Jerry Sloan.

The NBA Hall of Fame player and coach, a tenacious defender and steady offensive threat, became a household name with the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s. Four-time NBA All-Defensive First Team. Two-time NBA-All-Star.

Sloan died Friday after a courageous battle against Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. He was 78.

But it was Sloan’s perseverance as a child and his dedication to the game of basketball —and his home town— 300 miles south of the Windy City that made him a real star.

[MORE: Remember ‘Original Bull’ Jerry Sloan as he lived: tough, humble and honest]

The former Bull, who went on to lead the Utah Jazz to the playoffs in 15 of his 23 seasons there as a head coach, grew up on a farm near McLeansboro, Illinois. The youngest of 10 children, Sloan would routinely wake up in the wee hours to do family chores. He’d then walk two miles to the town’s high school for basketball practice.

The foundation of a hard work ethic and a ferocious competitive nature paved the way for Sloan’s rise to stardom.

Sloan played on several great McLeansboro teams in the late-50s. In his junior season, he helped guide his squad to a 19-6 record for coach Gene Haile. He followed that up with a senior season most kids would dream of: 26 wins, 3 losses. He was named to the All-State team.

He would later guide the Evansville Purple Aces to two Division II national championships. He became known as “the Original Bull” shortly after the startup Bulls franchise drafted him in the 1966 expansion draft. The rest was history—a brilliant 10-year career in Chicago as a player and nearly three more as a head coach on West Madison before becoming a legend in Salt Lake City.

But it was his small-town roots that made Jerry Sloan all the more genuine.

He would return to McLeansboro several times in 1984 —the year he became an assistant with the Utah Jazz— to watch his high school team play. His son, Brian, led the Foxes to the Class A state championship that year, going 35-0 in the process. Brian went on to play for Bobby Knight at Indiana.

Sloan would return frequently to this Southern Illinois town many times during his run with the Jazz— a run where he only finished below .500 once and racked up an astonishing career 1,221 wins. Hamilton County High School, formerly known as McLeansboro, dedicated its gym in Sloan’s honor in Dec. 2012. A road in McLeansboro is now called Jerry Sloan Avenue.

In a statement, a representative from McLeansboro High School said the following:

“Today is a sad day for Hamilton County and the Foxes. Coach Jerry Sloan has passed away. Coach Sloan graduated from McLeansboro High School in 1960 and was always a hometown boy. Whenever he returned he was just one of us. He will be greatly missed. RIP Coach Sloan.”

McLeansboro will always be Sloan Country.

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Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy to transfer from Nazareth to Florida's IMG Academy

J.J. McCarthy, the state’s top-ranked high school quarterback and overall player according to Rivals, is transferring from Nazareth Academy to IMG Academy in Florida.

McCarthy made the announcement on his Twitter page Monday afternoon.

The news sent shock waves throughout the national prep football landscape. McCarthy, committed to play at Michigan, led the Roadrunners to an IHSA 7A second place finish back in November. As a sophomore in 2018, he threw for over 3,200 yards and 36 touchdowns. It culminated in a state title win and a 13-1 season.

The move makes sense for McCarthy, as he will team up with offensive lineman Greg Crippen, a fellow Michigan commit. According to Rivals, McCarthy (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) is ranked as the No. 5 pro-style quarterback and No. 33 overall recruit in the country.

The loss is a huge one for head coach Tim Racki and company at the La Grange Park school. That said, the Roadrunners are one of the dominant programs in IHSA football, compiling a 38-4 record the past three seasons with three state titles in the previous six campaigns.

The big questions: Will other high-caliber Illinois high school athletes follow McCarthy? When will the IHSA commit to a fall sports schedule? What will Illinois high school football look like in the fall? What guidelines will be in place? There are many uncertainties.

What is known: The IHSA chose to cancel the state basketball tournament and all 2020 spring sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Illinois is currently in a phased reopening of businesses and other institutions. Florida is ahead of Illinois in respect to some of those aforementioned facilities.

The risk, or perhaps the unknown, was worth it for McCarthy and his family. Will Florida —or other states, including Illinois— even be cleared to play football come August? Will his move be a productive one in retrospect?

Time will tell.