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

Michael Walton
NBC Sports Chicago

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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Can you imagine Shaquille O'Neal on the Flyin' Illini? It almost happened originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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