The fate of four signed basketballs given by NBA great Shaquille O'Neal to Sichuan earthquake survivors sparked an Internet storm in China this week.

The 15-times All Star doled out the balls to four children on Tuesday when he was visiting a school in Mianyang, the city worst affected by the earthquake which killed more than 80,000 people last year.

The boys were devastated when the balls were subsequently confiscated by school staff and China's increasingly assertive Internet community rallied to their cause.

More than 90 percent of the 3,200 respondents to a Xinhuanet online poll felt the school had no right to take the gifts and comments on forums cast doubt upon official denials that they would be used for private purposes, China Daily reported.

O'Neal, who is hugely popular in basketball-mad China, later dispatched replacement balls to the students.

I never thought it would be like this. I can imagine how disappointed the boys must be, O'Neal told the paper.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ian Ransom)