Political History by Mitch Rabalais: When Duke and Shaq Clashed

In 1991, the LSU Basketball team was one of the best squads in the country. Featuring the nation’s top player, Shaquille O’Neal, the Tigers appeared poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But as basketball season tipped off, it wasn’t exciting games in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center that drew national attention to Louisiana.

State Rep. David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, had made a runoff in the hotly contested race for governor. With his well-known past, Duke had become the subject of international media attention, basking in the spotlight.

Increasingly worried about how Duke’s image was hurting the state’s ability to attract economic development, New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon paid for a series of TV spots. In them, he explained how David Duke in the Governor’s Mansion could negatively effect LSU’s ability to attract top athletes.

Dixon’s ads were effective and generated a fair bit of attention, and sportswriters covering LSU began asking players and coaches for their thoughts on the governor’s race. When approached, O’Neal said, “I’m not into politics. I looked at LSU as a school when I came here. Now if David Duke were the coach and trying to recruit me, I'd have told him to take a hike.”

Days later, a WAFB reporter asked Duke about Dixon’s ads. Having caught O’Neal’s response, he said, "Shaquille O'Neal on the LSU basketball team said my being governor wouldn't affect the state at all. He said unless I was perhaps the coach.”

O’Neal instantly caught backlash for Duke’s remarks. Coach Dale Brown, never shy with his political opinions,  was outraged by the politician’s spin on his player’s words. He helped O’Neal draft a statement denouncing Duke and calling the candidate a liar.

Duke, an LSU alumnus, supposedly made plans to attend the Tigers’ next home game. Brown told LSU administrators that if Duke was in the crowd, he and the team would walk off the court in protest. On the day of the game, police were stationed all around the PMAC, determined to intercept Duke. He never showed.

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