Mentorship between LSU star Angel Reese and LSU legend Shaq one of 'incredible trust'

BATON ROUGE, La. — Where’s Angel Reese?

That was the question on everyone’s mind in November, when the Most Outstanding Player from LSU’s national title run last season went missing from the basketball court, fueling wild speculation.

The Tigers went 4-0 without Reese as LSU coach Kim Mulkey, famously prickly and private, refused to give the scoop on her star player. So where was Reese?

Probably talking to Shaq.

Yes Shaq as in, Shaquille O’Neal, who at 7-foot-1, 325 pounds, is larger than life in both stature and personality, and who remains the pride of this southeastern Louisiana college town even though he hasn’t played here since 1992.

They’re a natural pairing, when you think about it.

There’s Reese, whose bubbly personality fills Pete Maravich Assembly Hall anytime she walks through the arena doors. She’s the player with the audacity to not only beat Iowa guard and American sweetheart Caitlin Clark in the championship game but to taunt Clark in the process, a move caught on camera and dissected to death. That prompted the following response from Reese: "All year I was critiqued about who I was. I don’t fit the narrative, I’m too hood, I’m too ghetto … but this was for the girls that look like me. Twitter is going to rage every time, but I’m happy."

Then there’s O’Neal, so unique he needs only one name, a player who famously feuded with Kobe Bryant for long stretches of his career (Reese loves to hear the Kobe stories). O'Neal is a Hall of Famer who’s pivoted seamlessly to television, a prankster turned businessman.

Of course the two unabashedly confident and outspoken Black athletes who have been told numerous times by society to shut up and dribble − and rolled their eyes at the suggestion − would find each other. They’ve built a bond so strong, Reese told USA TODAY Sports, she doesn’t consider O’Neal a basketball mentor or a celebrity acquaintance but rather “a father figure.” Whenever she walks at Senior Day, she plans to ask him to join her, an honor typically reserved for family members.

"There’s really strong parallels in their personalities," said Bob Starkey, an LSU assistant who coaches Reese now and coached O’Neal at LSU. "They love people, they welcome the spotlight that comes with stardom, they both have a great love for this school and an enthusiasm for life."

But their relationship and mentorship goes even deeper, as O’Neal provides Reese a sanctuary of sorts, even when the rest of the world eviscerates her.

"It’s incredibly important to me that I know Angel has Shaquille every step of the way," Starkey told USA TODAY Sports. "Shaquille is an incredibly loyal person. When Shaquille is in your camp, he’s 10 toes in. Even when Angel was going through some difficulties earlier this season, he was right there for her. Where some companies might want to distance themselves from negative (attention), not Shaquille. He’s going to be there for her forever."

Fittingly, their relationship started with trash talk.

LSU's Angel Reese (10), shown here with guard Aneesah Morrow (24), is one of the biggest stars of the NIL era.
LSU's Angel Reese (10), shown here with guard Aneesah Morrow (24), is one of the biggest stars of the NIL era.

It was February 2023, and Reese was hosting O’Neal’s daughter, Me'Arah, on an official visit to LSU (she would later commit to Florida). Though they’d met previously at an LSU football game, Reese went over to reintroduce herself before tipoff. O’Neal wanted to get to know Reese better. As the second-largest individual shareholder of Authentic Brands Group, which had purchased Reebok, O'Neal was looking to sign female athletes. He had heard from Starkey she’d be a natural fit because of her big personality, fan base and ruthlessly competitive nature.

Bet you can’t get 20 and 20, O’Neal challenged.

Reese responded with 23 points and 26 rebounds in a 74-59 thumping of Mississippi State. She told him afterward that he’d better pay up. (Reese admits now she doesn’t remember what they bet, but the important thing is she won.)

"He’s super inspiring to me," Reese said. "He’s so genuine, he’s been there for me through tough times. He just gets it, and there’s not a more perfect person for me to be tight with. We have fun, and if I need anything, he would help me … and he would do that even if I never played basketball again. He doesn’t care about me as a player, he cares about me as a person."

Angel Reese says taking 'break' from team was 'a mutual decision'

Again − where was Reese during that-non conference stretch?

The 6-foot-3 junior, a double-double machine for the No. 9 Tigers, who host No. 1 South Carolina Thursday, declined to give USA TODAY Sports details about her absence earlier this season. She’d only say that she "took a break," a "mutual decision" between her and Mulkey. (Mulkey has refused numerous times to comment further on the situation.)

Reese mostly stayed away from social media during that time, at the advice of O’Neal.

"One thing I always remember he said is, I have the world at my (fingertips). I could post right now on Instagram that I bought a million dollar home and people are going to believe it, because that’s how social media works," she said. "So when all of that was happening, he was coaching me up."

The lesson: Be careful and conscious, because everything you say and write will be parsed to the nth degree. That advice, plus counsel from her NIL advisers — along with Reebok, Reese has NIL deals with Mielle Organics, Coach and Beats by Dre, among others — is why Reese mostly went mute while away from the court.

Still, she saw what everyone else posted, the slights and slurs and wild rumors of why she was gone. While Reese was being dragged publicly — something O’Neal is uniquely positioned to understand — he reminded her that there’s value in getting off social media and grounding yourself with people who know you best.

But even now that she’s cleared that hurdle and gotten back to her normally dominant self, Reese (18.8 points, 11.9 rebounds) checks in with O’Neal regularly. They brainstorm about her Reebok NIL deal (her own line is coming soon and after that, a signature shoe) and her non-basketball hobbies (a reminder that her off-court interests will carry her after she’s done playing). He’s constantly reminding her that she can be business-oriented now. He gave her complete creative control with her Reebok line, and is encouraging her to think big. Her dream, she said, is to design a shoe even NBA players like Kevin Durant would want to wear. Her relationship with an NBA legend might expedite that wish.

Both LSU forward Angel Reese (10) and coach Kim Mulkey have declined to give details on Reese's four-game absence earlier this season.
Both LSU forward Angel Reese (10) and coach Kim Mulkey have declined to give details on Reese's four-game absence earlier this season.

Her mom, also named Angel, is baffled sometimes that a four-time NBA champion and 15-time All-Star FaceTimes her daughter. Does Angel, who at 21 never got to watch O’Neal during his prime, really get the behemoth of Shaq’s celebrity? She laughed at the question. She knows enough to understand he’s a big deal, she said. But to her, he’s just a friend.

Meeting Beyonce, Kim Kardashian and Cardi B. doesn't make Angel Reese starstruck

In her time as an NIL superstar, Reese has met all sorts of celebrities, from Beyonce to Kim Kardashian to Cardi B. She’s never starstruck, she said, by O’Neal or anyone else — but knowing his dominance as both a college and professional player, she was taken aback when he called Reese “probably the greatest athlete to come out of LSU, male or female.”

His reasoning: Lots of people have the whole package, a mix of athleticism and strength, natural gifts that can’t be taught. He was in that camp. But many can’t deliver the package. In leading LSU to its first women’s basketball championship, Reese delivered — something Shaq never did.

He warned her, too, what was coming after reaching the mountain top.

"He just said, people are gonna hate me, people are not gonna like me, people are gonna feel some type of way because they wish they were me, they’re gonna judge me," she said.

It was a familiar refrain for Reese. The Baltimore native used to wonder why she was the tallest in her class. Her grandmother’s answer: "You’re tall because you were born to stand out, because you are supposed to be seen, because you are going to be in the spotlight."

That’s become truer than Reese ever could have imagined. And yet, she’s never felt the need to fit into a particular box. O’Neal reinforced that.

Angel Reese says her mentor and LSU legend Shaquille O'Neal are always reminding her, "I need to be dominating in the sport, but I should have a lot of other stuff. Basketball is second to me.”
Angel Reese says her mentor and LSU legend Shaquille O'Neal are always reminding her, "I need to be dominating in the sport, but I should have a lot of other stuff. Basketball is second to me.”

“What Shaquille went through as a collegiate player, and even what he went through as a pro, has helped him give wisdom to Angel,” Starkey said. “And the most important thing is, Angel has incredible trust with Shaquille. She’s going to listen more intently to him than she would other people.

“Shaquille is also incredibly honest with her. When she was going through things here, Shaquille would listen but he would also tell her maybe she needed to change her attitude or change her direction. And I think Angel respects the honesty she gets from Shaquille.”

Shaq has given Angel Reese 'a business mindset'

For all their playful text exchanges — if a photo of O’Neal with a woman surfaces, Reese will tease him, “Oh look who you’re dating now!” while O’Neal is quick to remind her to “always have fun with your boo” — Reese said the greatest gift O’Neal has given her is perspective. Basketball, he tells her, will end someday. She better have a plan for afterward, and understand how to execute it.

“Shaq is a businessman,” she said of O’Neal, who has an estimated net worth of $400 million, according to Yahoo Finance. “He’s very smart, he’s got his doctorate, a lot of people don’t know that he’s actually Dr. Shaq. He’s given me a business mindset. He talks about me owning a part of Reebok someday, he wants me to think about how the WNBA is going to be my summer job, so what else can I do (to make money) so I don’t have to go play overseas if I don’t want to. He reminds me that I need to be dominating in the sport, but I should have a lot of other stuff. Basketball is second to me. He’s helped me shape that mindset.”

Reese will graduate with her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies in May, but could return for a fifth season of eligibility because of her COVID year. Whenever she goes pro, she’s a surefire top WNBA draft pick. But as O’Neal often reminds her, she should not be defined solely by basketball. There’s joy waiting for her after her playing days are over, too.

Starkey hopes it’s the biggest lesson Reese takes away from O’Neal. Already, it seems Reese is a good student in that regard.

“In 30 years I’ll be looking good — look at my mom, she looks good, I got the good genes — raising kids, I’ll be living free and I won’t be working,” Reese said. “But my money’s gonna be working for me while I’m sleeping, for sure.”

Naturally, that’s a tip she learned from O’Neal.

Follow Lindsay Schnell on social media: @Lindsay_Schnell

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Angel Reese says Shaquille O'Neal is father figure, keeps her focused