Stanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal used to go after one another at practice at LSU, those battles leading O’Neal to claim that Roberts “made me what I am”. While O’Neal had a Hall of Fame career, Roberts experienced the other side of the coin.
Roberts got to LSU in 1988 but was ineligible as a freshman because of his grades. He played one season for the Tigers, then decided to drop out of school. However, the delayed timing of his decision meant that he missed the 1990 NBA Draft, so he elected to play one season in Spain for Real Madrid.
In his one season abroad, Roberts averaged 8.7 rebounds per game, failing to dominate a league that probably wasn’t even as good as the SEC. NBA teams who went to scout him worried about his conditioning and effort level, including the Clippers, who could have selected Roberts at no. 22 in the 1991 draft, but instead passed on him for LeRon Ellis. Orlando picked up Roberts at no. 23.
His fitness was an issue with the Magic, limiting the rookie to 20.3 minutes per game in 55 outings. Orlando drafted O’Neal first overall in 1992, putting Roberts on the trading block. This time, the Clippers — needing a center — were interested.
They traded away Charles Smith, Doc Rivers, Bo Kimble, and a first-round draft pick in a three-team deal to acquire Roberts and Mark Jackson. Roberts actually had a no-trade clause and took his time before waiving it to complete the trade. When he got to Los Angeles, according to Sports Illustrated, Danny Manning told him, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life.”
Head coach Larry Brown and the Clippers committed to getting Roberts healthy. Even though the team didn’t expect him to contribute until at least the All-Star Break, his first season with the team was relatively successful. In February of 1993, Roberts was averaging 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, occasionally even getting up for lob passes, suggesting that the team may have found its center of the future. At the time, he had just turned 23 years old, so his prime was firmly in front of him.
Unfortunately for Roberts, the good times didn’t last. He tore his left Achilles tendon 14 games into the next year, ballooned during rehab (Ralph Lawler said he came into camp above 345 pounds), and was sent to a weight-loss program at Duke University. The experience there didn’t go well (from the L.A. Times):
A junk-food junkie, Roberts was put on a fat-free diet of 1,800 calories a day after entering the Duke clinic on July 10. He left after a week because he was bored, he said.
“I couldn’t adapt very well,” he said. “When I was first there I didn’t lose any weight because I wasn’t into the program.”
He returned to Duke, then left again because of personal problems. Roberts said he couldn’t go to physical therapy because his driver’s license had been suspended. Baylor said that Roberts’ therapist was located across the street.
Roberts ended up the missing the entirety of the 1994-95 season after tearing his right Achilles tendon, and he returned the next year as a shell of his former self. He played 69 games over the subsequent two seasons, averaging 7.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. The Clippers traded him in the 1997 offseason to Minnesota for Stojko Vrankovic, and then-coach Bill Fitch pointedly said the team liked Vrankovic because “He’ll be there every night.”
Despite his issues staying on the court, Roberts was well-liked in Los Angeles. Lawler said, “He brought joy to everyone but himself.” He got along with all of his coaches, and was beloved in league circles, even with people who were maddened that he wasted his talent. Had his footwork and soft touch around the basket combined with a genuine motor or passion for the game, he could have been a superstar. As is, he is still the best Clipper to wear no. 53 and the 92nd-best player in franchise history.
Roberts eventually went back to LSU to earn a degree in sports administration. He graduated in 2012. He currently is still in Baton Rogue, working as a recruiter for Aptim Government Solutions,