By his senior year of high school, Shaquille O'Neal was targeted by the best D1 programs in the country, and although he played for a relatively small high school, his size and stats did the talking — after all, Shaq lead Cole High School to an undefeated 34 win record that year. Naturally, coaches started flocking to his games, and the scholarship letters flowed in.
Shaq on what bothered him at North Carolina
Everyone assumed that Shaq was already set on choosing LSU, because of his relationship with coach Dale Brown, but in reality, he wanted to see what other offers were on the table. O'Neal visited five schools before committing to LSU as per Shaq Uncut: My Story.
"The first one I went to was North Carolina. Rick Fox, who later became my Lakers teammate, picked me up and he was cool, but Coach Dean Smith kind of rubbed me the wrong way. He sat down with me in his office and basically told me, 'I’m Dean Smith. Here’s what I’ve done. I’m pretty great and have you ever heard of Michael Jordan? I coached him.'"
All Coach Smith shared with Shaq during his visit was UNC's accomplishments and famous basketball alumni, but Shaq was already familiarized with all that and craved a more tailored approach, one where he would be in the center of focus — he wanted to be 'The Man'.
Dean Smith envisioned Shaq as a backup
As crazy as it might sound, Shaq wasn't UNC's primary option at the center spot. There was another player they believed had more upside than O'Neal, and knowing Shaq's mentality that was a dealbreaker.
"I also knew something else—Dean Smith liked this other seven-footer from Texas more than he liked me. He had just signed this kid named Matt Wenstrom, and I was UNC’s backup choice."
Shaq desired to create his own legacy and was willing to go to a less-known basketball program, but somewhere where he wouldn't be perceived through Michael Jordan's or anyone's accomplishments for that matter. Unfortunately, for North Carolina, Coach Dean Smith concluded the visit with —"'If you come here, you can be like Michael, James Worthy, Sam Perkins.' I nodded my head politely but I was thinking, “No. I’m going someplace where I’m going to be the first.”
As for Wenstrom, the player Coach Smith anticipated would have a better career than Shaq — he ended up starting only two games for UNC and averaged 1.6 points during his time at Chapel Hill. After going undrafted, the Boston Celtics picked him up in the 1993-94 season, only to play him in 11 games.
Shaq still holds a grudge towards the entire UNC program, as he condescendingly pointed out “I’m guessing Dean Smith never told any of his recruits, 'Ever heard of Matt Wenstrom? I coached him.'"
Shaq ultimately committed to LSU, where he was coached by Dale Brown, the same coach that discovered him when he was a 13-year-old kid living with his family in a military base in Germany. That proved to be the right decision, as Shaq absolutely dominated college and went on to have a legendary NBA career.