COLUMBIA — When most people shorten their names to make a nickname it becomes something innocuous. Joseph becomes Joe, Matthew becomes Matt, Michael becomes Mike and so forth.
For Shakara Jones, a 6-foot-2 freshman forward and the top post presence on the Missouri women’s basketball team it’s different. Shorten her name and it becomes Shak, pronounced like Shaq, the nickname for NBA center and dominant post player Shaquille O’Neal.
Jones’ father gave her the nickname when she was a freshman at Francis Howell Central High School in St. Charles and weighed 215 pounds.
“I was big and husky and I played down low, so my dad named me Shak because I was big and my name was Shakara,” Jones said.
The name stuck through high school and coach Cindy Stein kept it going when Jones came to MU, but not because she thought her freshman forward bared any resemblance to a future Hall-of-Fame center. It was just more convenient for her to use in practice.
“It’s just easier,” Stein said. “Sometimes I have to call her something quickly.”
Jones enjoyed watching O’Neal win three championships with Kobe Bryant at his side with the Lakers and tried to develop a game similar to his in high school. Now Jones has slimmed down and added more finesse to her play, but she still admires the way O’Neal plays.
“He’s big and he works and he just dominates,” Jones said.
Even with her nickname and a game that originally was molded after O’Neal’s, Jones, who Stein called “probably the most humble person you’ll ever meet,” doesn’t try to be Shaq when she steps on the court — the nickname doesn’t mean much to her.
“It’s just a nickname,” Jones said with a shrug.
But teammates say it’s a good one. They point to her role as the team’s top post player and her playful nature that keeps them entertained during practice.
“I think it fits her,” freshman guard Raeshara Brown said. “You see Shaq in the media, and he’s very goofy, but on the court he handles his business. That’s how Shak is. She’s goofy and she likes to play around. I don’t think she takes it to head, and I don’t think it plays any part in her personality, it’s just fun to play around and call her Shak.”
Jones doesn’t tell jokes constantly, but her demeanor can set teammates in stitches.
“She has her own personality, she doesn’t have to crack a joke, she can look a certain way, and I can be laughing at it,” freshman guard Jasmyn Otote said.
She likes to play around whenever she can, and even though Jones doesn’t give herself new nicknames like the Big Aristotle has been known to do, her goofiness has earned her a new one from teammates.
“We call her momma because she’s always trying to make us stay in line,” Brown said. “If we’re playing around too much she’ll go ‘Oh Rae Rae, you come here and you sit down,’ but she’s playing and she likes to goof around like that.”
Her joking penchant for discipline isn’t all that has rubbed off on teammates. Jones came into the season confident and fellow freshmen Brown and Otote said seeing Jones’ confidence has helped them get comfortable in their first season.
Departed senior Eetisha Riddle also noticed it. Riddle, who has been practicing with the team for the past two weeks to rehab her torn ACL and MCL, has been matched up with Jones during drills and said she is impressed with Jones’ approach.
“Most people, when they come in here are a little timid and they want to pass too much,” Riddle said. “But she came right in, and she has a scorer’s mentality.”
Jones had plenty of reason to be confident. She won the 2006-07 Miss Show-Me Basketball award given to the state’s top high school player and made sure she wouldn’t be intimidated by playing in the Big 12.
“You can’t come in scared,” Jones said. “It’s a big arena, wherever you play there’s going to be crowds, so having a little bit of confidence keeps you from being frazzled.”
That confidence is being tested now, though. Jones had her worst game as a Tiger against Arkansas on Wednesday. She grabbed nine rebounds, but was constantly frustrated by Arkansas’ interior defense. She didn’t score and had several shots swatted away by Razorbacks post players. Stein said she expects Jones to put the poor performance behind her quickly.
“It’s tough, because I tell her to just get over it,” Stein said. “Shak has a great attitude, she’s one of the hardest workers on the team. I can’t imagine her being depressed about this and letting this affect her. She loves challenges and I think this will make her stronger.”