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Basketball great Shaquille O’Neal: I almost chose UNC over LSU

As tributes for late North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith continue to pour in, former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal revealed Tuesday night on national TV that he almost joined Smith’s Tar Heels in 1989.

O’Neal, an NBA studio analyst on TNT, said as a high school player from San Antonio, Texas, he met Smith twice and nearly committed to North Carolina after a trip to Chapel Hill.

“For me playing for a small high school, to have the great Dean Smith travel to an Army base and sit with me and my mom and dad and ask me to attend his university. ...” O’Neal said.

“The second time I met him was when I went to the University of North Carolina. Rick Fox was my chaperone. He took me to his house. He showed me all the stuff he did with Kenny (Smith, also now with TNT), Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins. And nobody knows this, Kenny, but I almost went to North Carolina.”

So what happened?

“The only reason why I didn’t go is because they signed another 7-footer out of Texas by the name of Matt Wenstrom.”

Wenstrom had a forgettable career at North Carolina, averaging 4 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds in four seasons . He backed up Eric Montross on the 1993 national title team.

Wenstrom went undrafted but played in 11 games for the Celtics in the 1993-94 season. He scored 18 points in the NBA.

O’Neal was 13 when he metLSU coach Dale Brown at a basketball clinic in Germany, where O’Neal’s stepfather was stationed.

At Cole High in San Antonio, O’Neal became one of the country’s top centers.

He averaged 13.9 points and 12 rebounds as a freshman at LSU in 1989-1990 . The next season, he averaged 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds and made All-America. As a junior, O’Neal averaged 24.1 points and 14 rebounds and was named national player of the year.

The Tigers never made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament with O’Neal and Brown. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels went to regional semifinals twice and the Final Four once.

“He was a wonderful man,” O’Neal said of Smith, who died Saturday at age 83. “His record speaks for itself. As I’m listening to all the people talk, they say he was a better person. And I think he will always be remembered for being one of the greatest people in the history of basketball.”

O’Neal, who won four NBA titles and is considered one of the most dominating centers in league history, isn’t the only Lakers’ great who considered playing for Smith. Two years ago, Kobe Bryant said he was leaning toward attending North Carolina before going straight from high school to the NBA in 1996.

Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, associate head coach with the Hornets, said two years ago he was close to choosing North Carolina before a Ku Klux Klan rally derailed those plans. He eventually picked Georgetown.

“I was close,” Ewing said on the Dan Patrick Show in June 2013. “North Carolina was a very good school, but when I went down there they put me in that Carolina Inn and there was a big Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina when I was there. I’m like, ‘You know what, I’m not coming down here.’ ”

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