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Byline: Kevin Sherrington Dallas Morning News

Shaquille O'Neal looked darkly at the three men approaching him, as if they were coming for his wallet. Or maybe it was the look of someone who already had been taken.

He muttered a small curse.

The men, all nearly a foot shorter than O'Neal and several million dollars lighter, stuck out their hands.

O'Neal cursed them again. But, even as he did, the sneer curled into a smile.

He couldn't really hold it against them, what these three men did to him nine years ago. It hurt for a long time. He would mention it wherever he went to play basketball, whether at Lousiana State or Orlando or Los Angeles, where Lakers' general manager Jerry West said signing the 7-1, 305-pound center to a $121 million contract last year was better than becoming a father.

O'Neal is rich beyond his dreams. Only Michael Jordan is more marketable. What more could he want?

Maybe something someone stole from him.

Before the movies and rap videos, before the commercials and endorsements and Shaq Fu, before he was ranked among the NBA's top 50 players ever after only four years in the league, Shaquille O'Neal lost a high school basketball game.

Just one: a regional final against Liberty Hill.

The three Liberty Hill men - Clay Cole, Steve Smets and Darren Masur - turned to face a camera outside the Alamodome visitors' locker room as O'Neal swept them up in his seven-foot embrace. He leaned into the lens and smiled one of the most famous smiles in all sports.

And then, in something just above a whisper, he cursed them again.

The five senior starters of the Liberty Hill basketball team didn't care much for scouting reports in the 1988 Class 2A playoffs. They'd all started the year before, when they lost in the state finals, so they tended to match themselves against that failure, not opponents.

They didn't worry even when they heard about this new monster at San Antonio Cole, who averaged 10 blocked shots a game and moved through the state's second-smallest classification as if it were not much more than tall grass.

They didn't wince even when they got a scouting report on Shaquille O'Neal from a retired resident in their hometown, just north of Austin.

``He'll kill you guys,'' the old fellow told them.

The Panthers shrugged.

They didn't really have much reason to be cocky. They didn't have any great athletic tradition at Liberty Hill, the hub of an unincorporated little town on a knob of rock, cedar and live oak that covers this part of Central Texas like steel wool.

On a brief tour of his hometown - Liberty Hill doesn't have a Main Street so much as a main block, and most of it is boarded up - Clay Cole conceded the chief detriment to growing up where he did.

``When you say you're from Liberty Hill,'' he said, turning off the main drag, ``it's kinda hard to describe.''

But the boys' high school basketball team gave the town an identity in the late 1980s.

The Panthers did it by first advancing all the way to the 1987 state title game, which they lost to Morton. Everyone just assumed they'd be back the next year. Cole and Phillip Lenox were four-year starters. The biggest players on the team, Smets and Corby Davis, bookends at 6-3 and 180 pounds apiece, started three years.

Only Masur, who transferred from Austin, played fewer than three years for the varsity, and former Liberty Hill coach Rusty Segler said Masur completed the set.

The Panthers went into the 1987-88 season ranked second in the state and played like it, winning district games by an average of 52 points.

``If we didn't win by 30, Coach would make us run,'' Masur said.

They were so overwhelming that one coach refused to allow his team to go out for the fourth quarter against them. He acquiesced only when Segler convinced him that his players needed the practice ... and agreed to let the clock run.

The Panthers' goal each game was to shoot 60 percent from the field and 80 percent at the free throw line, and they came close more often than not.

They scored fewer than 75 points only once in district play, and they beat one team, 123-49.

They weren't run-and-gun. ``We just made a lot of the shots we took,'' Smets said.

The Panthers of the late 1980s were among the best shooting teams in Texas high school history. In Segler's three years as coach, ending after the 1987-88 season, the Panthers never shot less than 74 percent from the free throw line as a team. They led Class 2A all three years in free throw shooting. Two of those years, they led all classifications.

All five starters in 1987-88 averaged in double figures.

``It was the perfect role team,'' Segler said. ``They not only performed their roles well, they thrived in them.''

Lenox led the team in scoring with 28 points a game. But Cole, who averaged 21 points for the season, scored 30 a game when Lenox missed six games early in the season with a bad ankle.

Masur averaged 11 points and 10 assists. He didn't shoot much. That came later. He accompanied Cole and Segler to Concordia Lutheran in Austin and came within one three-pointer of a national record when he made 13-of-20 against Howard Payne.

All the Liberty Hill starters could shoot in 1987-88. They just didn't need to do much of it because of Phillip Lenox.

Clay Cole talked about Phillip's terrific elevation and perfect form, repeating it over and over until he knew the words failed him. But the picture of it was in his eyes.

Rusty Segler saw it. ``I have not seen a more perfect jump shot on the high school level than his,'' he said.

Lenox also had a knack for drawing fouls. He liked to jump into a defender, sometimes passing up a wide-open shot just so he could dribble up a couple of steps and make contact.

And it was at the free throw line where Liberty Hill's relatively small stature didn't matter. Lenox was an 85-percent free throw shoooter as a senior. The game before the Panthers played Cole, Lenox became only the third player in Texas to score more than 3,000 points. Of Lenox's 43 points in the regional semifinals against Ingram, 17 came from 21 free throw attempts. Liberty Hill made 34-of-44 as a team.

So the Panthers could shoot, either on the move or standing still. They weren't easily intimidated, either, perhaps the result of a playoff game against perennial-power Snook. Snook had a 6-9, 250-pound center who would go on to play at Washington State, among other stops.

``We didn't think we had a prayer,'' Cole said of the Snook game. ``It was such a monumental upset, we couldn't believe it.''

The victory steeled the Panthers. How much better, they figured, could this O'Neal character be?

Plenty, apparently, as Segler and Bennie Lenox discovered when they scouted Cole early in the '88 playoffs.

``We both looked at each other like this was crazy,'' Segler said. ``No way. He was a man among boys.''

Segler didn't pass along the scouting report. He told his players what was apparent. Because he played against such smaller athletes, O'Neal didn't fight for position much. He simply reached over opponents for rebounds. He moved and shot well for someone his size and age, and he swatted away shots as if he were flicking lazy flies on a hot summer day.

Segler's plan was the same one everyone tried against O'Neal. He told his post players - Smets and Davis - to get inside O'Neal on defense and make him go over their backs.

The Panthers hoped to get O'Neal in foul trouble. They were confident it would work, even after seeing O'Neal for the first time in the Victoria gym where the regional final was played. He was so big - 6-10 and 240 pounds - that his warmups didn't fit. He wore them low, slung just under his rear end.

``I'm sure he thought that was intimidating,'' Cole said.

But the Liberty Hill players insisted they weren't afraid. Davis said he never thought about what it would be like playing someone so much larger than him. They figured whatever he could do to them, they'd make up elsewhere on the court.

``They had Shaquille and two other players,'' Masur said. ``We didn't have any weaknesses.''

They didn't look scared, at least not in the game film. Segler gave each player a tape of the game last year. One evening in January, all of them but Lenox negotiated the winding road to Clay Cole's house in Liberty Hill to watch the game as a group for the first time.

They didn't gloat or high-five each other as the murky images passed before them. They were just as business-like as they looked on video.

The pre-game strategy proved faultless: O'Neal picked up two fouls early in the first quarter, then back-to-back fouls before the quarter ended. He sat out the rest of the half and didn't start the second. He made four of five field goals when he returned, all turnaround bank shots in the low post.

But he was nearly useless on defense. Afraid he might foul out, O'Neal was reduced to holding his hands over his head on defense, and the Panthers took the ball to him.

On one play in the third quarter, Lenox dribbled into the lane, leaped, changed hands with the ball in O'Neal's face and shot it over him in a movement as seamless as running water.

``Look at that shot,'' Clay Cole said, smiling.

A better snapshot of the game came a few minutes later in the video. A friend would even capture it. In the black-and-white photo, Davis is going up for a shot directly beneath the basket. O'Neal - Smets at his side, pushing him away with a deft right hip - has his hands up, as if he were being robbed.

``Who did THAT?'' Cole asked, pointing at the television.

``Who do you think?'' Davis said.

Cole told him it was a good shot. Davis, noting O'Neal's foul problems, refused to take too much credit. ``He couldn't do anything,'' he said.

O'Neal played the rest of the game without fouling out, but finished with just nine points. He didn't have a single dunk.

Lenox scored 36 points and Davis had 26. The Panthers weathered a rainbow of three-pointers by San Antonio Cole in the second half and won, 79-74, to advance to the state tournament.

In Austin, they beat Troup but lost in the final to Archer City, 80-69. The former Liberty Hill players couldn't remember that score as they walked the halls of their old high school after watching the video. They all but pressed their noses to a glass trophy case, trying to read the scores in the auditorium shadows.

``I used to know all this stuff by heart,'' Masur said, his eyes tracing the brass figures, ``but it fades. You didn't think you'd ever forget.''

They would have forgotten the San Antonio Cole game, probably, if O'Neal hadn't gone on to become an icon. They knew he'd be good, they said, and they knew basketball wouldn't take them very far. Clay Cole, who made third-team All-State, and Masur both played at Concordia. But Smets and Davis gave up basketball, earning degrees from Texas and Texas A&M, respectively.

Lenox, the Class 2A Player of the Year in 1988, received only a few scholarship offers. A Houston-area recruiting specialist may have summed up the feelings of scouts when he told an Austin reporter that Lenox was ``great in the garage'' but ``can't play.''

The description infuriated Lenox's friends and family. But he didn't make anyone regret it. He took a scholarship at what was then East Texas State and stayed only a year. He transferred to Southwest Texas, but never played organized basketball there or anyplace else.

Segler said being a Lenox ``was a tough legacy to follow.'' Maybe tougher than anyone will know. Phillip Lenox remains a mystery, even to his old friends. He didn't return a reporter's telephone calls. Reached by his old teammates, he told them a week's notice wasn't enough time to get off work in San Marcos and drive the half hour to San Antonio to have his picture taken.

They didn't believe him. ``Phillip's different,'' Cole said, smiling.

The rest of the Liberty Hill players, all married, didn't stray far from home. Cole works for the state and lives in Liberty Hill on two acres his father gave him. Davis, who also lives in Liberty Hill, manages a golf course. Masur, a salesman, lives in Austin. Smets lives in nearby Georgetown and works for his father, a home builder.

Every year they get together - all but Lenox, anyway - at the state tournament in Austin. For years, the loss to Archer City was a focal point of their discussions. Masur called it one of the hardest times of his life.

But life got harder than games. Smets' brother, David, the sixth man on the 1987-88 team, died in an automobile accident a few weeks after the loss to Archer City.

And gradually - as the years passed, and O'Neal's presence loomed larger and larger - their perspective on that senior season changed.

Sitting around a kitchen table in Clay Cole's house, the old teammates said they never bring up the '88 regional final game with outsiders. Others do, though. A brother-in-law or a cousin or an old classmate will mention that Liberty Hill once beat Shaquille O'Neal, and people won't believe them.

When others question it, the Liberty Hill players don't argue much.

``I hope we've moved on more than that,'' Smets said.

In some ways, moving on was harder for O'Neal. For years, he said officials ``robbed'' him in the game. He vowed revenge the next season and got it. In a playoff game against Liberty Hill, O'Neal led San Antonio Cole with 40 points, 29 rebounds and 11 blocked shots on the way to an undefeated season and state championship.



Photo: Before going on to stardom in college and the NBA, Shaquille O'Neal lost one high school game - just one.

Daily News File Photo
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 16, 1997

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