Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O’Neal boasts one of the most impressive playing records in the history of the NBA. Shaq’s Midas touch began in 1992 when O’Neal was the number one draft pick during his junior year at Louisiana State University. An MVP in three NBA finals and three consecutive career-making championship games with the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t shield the imposing basketball star from a professional legacy marred by controversy. Public battles with his peers, most famously with fellow Los Angeles Laker, Kobe Bryant, and Miami Heat coach, Pat Riley, were heavily covered by the media and fingered as the reasons for Shaq’s departures from both teams.

Shaquille O’Neal’s skills on the basketball court and his notoriously type-A personality ran side by side, creating a yin and yang effect that would alter his career path within professional basketball. Ironically, it was that same dynamic that would also make Shaq one of the most recognizable and successfully branded players to ever emerge from the NBA: O’Neal’s plan from the start. Shaquille O’Neal is entrepreneurialism on steroids. He loves “the art of the deal” to quote Donald Trump. O’Neal also has a passion for giving back to those less fortunate, through ongoing affiliations with Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Toys for Tots, and other charitable projects.

In speaking with Shaquille O’Neal about his new memoir, Shaq Uncut: My Story, he sums up his past professional antics by continually making reference to that old Sinatra tune, My Way. Shaquille O’Neal is not lacking in heart or conviction and his bold choices throughout an almost two decade NBA career are what made him larger-than-life, and procured an impressive array of nicknames: Shaq Diesel, Superman, Shaq-Fu… “Shaquille” is a first name that boasts its own media career, apart from its rightful owner.

Upon announcing his retirement from professional basketball in June of 2011, Shaquille O’Neal declared himself the “emperor of the social media network,” and he is now using social media platforms like Twitter and Tout to double down on an already expansive business empire.

Shaq’s plans extend far beyond the hoop, including the goal of obtaining his Doctorate Degree (for which he is currently studying), acting roles, and pursuing multiple business ventures. Shaquille O’Neal is not one to dwell or ruminate about his past. He is a “what’s next?” kind of guy.

Throughout our interview, Shaq and I discussed his undying loyalty to his immediate family who kept him on the right path throughout his formative years growing up in a rough part of Newark, New Jersey. We also talked about how he really feels about his biological father, his pursuit of higher education and the up and down sides of raising his own large brood of five children in a privileged environment. (Allison Kugel): How does it feel to be retired from basketball and having closed that chapter of your life after 20 years with the NBA?

Shaquille O’Neal: It feels good. I went out on a positive note. I’ve more than prepared myself for this day and it’s just time to do something new; it’s time to do something different. It seemed like once you were with your final team, the Boston Celtics (from 2010 – 2011), you had more of a team mentality and the ego was no longer there. Is that something that just came naturally with age or did you learn lessons from some past mistakes?

Shaquille O’Neal: It just came with age, and it was sort of a thing where you didn’t want to fight with the system, because a lot of other times I did it my way. I was a successful player doing it my way, but when you get older… people start to lose confidence in age so I wasn’t really trying to go up there and do things that I used to do in the past.

Shaq & Kobe Bryant
Shaquille O'Neal & Kobe Bryant In your book (Shaq Uncut: My Story) you admit that during the eight years you played with the Los Angeles Lakers you thought you were going to be a Laker for life. Had your relationship with Kobe Bryant been better, do you think you would have been a Laker up until you retired this year?

Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah, probably. But, you know, as a leader you have to either worry about the task or about the relationship. As a leader I was more task-focused. The task was to win a championship and I was a leader, and I’m doing it my way. I didn’t care who liked it, you know? Leaders always have those two things to go up against. Like, if you’re in an office are you going to be nicer to this person because you want a better relationship with them, or are you going to do it your way? And, like, if you look at the outcome, the outcome was favorable. If you could go back in time to that period with the Lakers, would you do anything differently?

Shaquille O’Neal: Nope! I’d do it exactly the same. In the last several years of your basketball career you went from the Miami Heat to the Phoenix Suns to Cleveland Cavaliers, and then on to the Boston Celtics for your final year in the NBA. Did you enjoy that variation or did you feel adrift and unstable?

Shaquille O’Neal: No, it was fun, it was fun. But a lot of people don’t understand that the reason why I went to all these different places is ‘cause I was still doing it my way. [They were] like, “Do this, do that.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not doing this shit. If you don’t like it, uh, I’ll go here.” Period. Two coaches that you talk a lot about in your book, Phil Jackson, your coach when you were with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Pat Riley, your coach from the Miami Heat, were two significant people in your life. What life lessons did you take away from each of those men?

Shaquille O’Neal: Phil Jackson was very cool, calm and collected. He was a guy that was being all respect and didn’t go and just do everything the same way. And I think because of that discipline we were able to win three out of four [championships]. And I think he never intervened between the whole me and Kobe thing because it did drive both of us. We were both so good, more than the other, that it made us play a little harder than everybody else, and he knew that, and he understood that. And what about Pat Riley?

Shaquille O’Neal: Pat was a great coach, he was a great motivator, but he was also a person that did it his way and in our case it was just the owner and the CEO didn’t see eye to eye. So, of course, the CEO had to be moved (referring to himself). For many years of your life, it seems that you had an internal battle going on between your ego and your heart. What are your thoughts on that inner conflict?

Shaquille O’Neal: I mean, it is true. I kind of believe the criticism out there drove me to become this great dominant big man. I come from a background where you never even think about quitting or giving up, you just have to fight every critic, fight every demon, and you just gotta fight, fight, fight.

Shaquille O'Neal You touch upon the topic of your biological father, Joe Toney, in your book. And you say that after all of these years, he is still attempting to make contact with you. You actually wrote a direct note to him in the book. You wrote, “It’s nothing personal, but Philip Harrison (Shaquille’s adoptive father) is my father. Period, point blank. If it wasn’t for him I’d don’t know where I’d be. So leave us alone, ok? Pretty simple, I think.” Do you want Joe to read that?

Shaquille O’Neal: It doesn’t matter, but I’m big on loyalty. [Philip Harrison] made me who I am, so I’m not trying to go back and see what this other guy is talking about, because I’m forty years old. For thirty years you’ve been gone. I’ve spent those thirty years with another man and I call him my father, and that’s it. I’m not making a big deal out of it. Do you have anything to say to Joe Toney before he leaves this earth?

Shaquille O’Neal: No. You speak a lot about money, describing what it was like growing up without any, and then going from having none to having a tremendous amount. You never experienced a middle class existence. You went from poverty to extreme wealth, and you don’t know anything in between. Have you thought about that at all?

Shaquille O’Neal: Not really. It was always, as a kid I was always a materialistic dreamer. So, of course, when you get all that money you can get whatever you want. But after a certain amount of time all that becomes boring too, and you go on to the next phase of your life. The next phase for most athletes should be how to keep it. A lot of guys don’t do that. With the material things, do you feel like “been there, done that?”

Shaquille O’Neal: Well, now I do. But the first three, four years I had to have every car, every jewelry, every ring, every suit, every Gucci bag. But then when you get older you’re like, “Geez! I just wasted money!” (Laughs). The shine wears off after a while, like a kid who gets sick of playing with a toy.

Shaquille O’Neal: Exactly. You also talk about how when you first made it big you wanted to lavish gifts upon your grandmother and your mother and father. One thing I was impressed with, and that made me happy for you, was that your family really didn’t seem like they had any selfish sense of entitlement. They didn’t try to embed themselves into your financial world. Your family just seemed to be genuinely happy for you and supportive of you, without really asking for anything from you.

Shaquille O’Neal: But they know that I’m big on loyalty. For example, my first million that I got, I bought my mother a Benz, I bought my father a Benz, and then I bought myself a Benz. They know if I have $10 million I’m not going to keep $9.5 million and tell them to split $500,000. They could get whatever they wanted. They know that I would probably give them five and keep the other five.

Pat Riley & Shaq
Pat Riley & Shaquille O'Neal And you’re a reserve police officer, which I find interesting. Had you not made it into the NBA do you think law enforcement would have been your full time career?

Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah, I probably would have done that or just done the military. Is that wanting to follow in your dad’s footsteps?

Shaquille O’Neal: That’s all I heard coming up. “You don’t make it to the NBA or go to college, you’re gonna be in the military like your dad.” Which branch would you have gone for?

Shaquille O’Neal: Army. When you go on the base, mostly all the sons follow in their fathers’ footsteps ‘cause that’s all the fathers know. They’ll say, “You need some discipline. You need this, you need that. You’re gonna take your ass to the military.” And that’s what my dad did. Was your dad so heavy handed and strict with discipline because he was afraid you would fall victim to the streets of Newark, where you grew up?

Shaquille O’Neal: Exactly. Ding, ding, ding! (Laughs). What do you think? Do you think had your dad not been so strict with you, you would have gone down a bad path?

Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah, I think if it weren’t for that I would have been a lazy knucklehead. Right now you’re going for your Doctorate degree, and I find it interesting that although you were drafted into the NBA in your junior year of college at LSU, you did go back years later and complete your Bachelor’s degree. You then went on to get your Masters, and now you’re going for your Doctorate. I think it sets an excellent example for other professional athletes to follow. Not everyone gets to “Shaq” level. Athletes get injured early on, they get cut from teams. Not enough pro-athletes place importance on higher education. Have some of your peers spoken to you about that?

Shaquille O’Neal: No, they haven’t. But, you know, I just hope to be the blueprint for how it’s supposed to be done. The good thing about me is that I’m smart. I ask a lot of questions and I’ve seen a lot of mistakes, and I try not to do the same thing. When I was young my father gave me the book on how Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] lost all his money and growing up that was always, like, a fear of mine. Now as an educated man and as a businessman, [I ask], “how do I do this, how do I do that?” You have to ask questions and you have to be smart. A lot of guys make a million and spend a million, you know? That’s crazy. Make a million, get taxed $400,000 but still spend a million, which makes them $400,000 in the hole. In other words, you’re saying you wanted to empower yourself and that’s why you pursued education.

Shaquille O’Neal: I wanted to empower myself, and I also want people to just follow. If I can get one or two athletes in every sport to keep doing it, and then hopefully in the future the numbers will be bigger. Do you think there should be some kind of program or initiative within professional sports to encourage pro-athletes to complete their bachelor’s degrees?

Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O’Neal: I think they should do that, and I also think pro-teams should give all players built-in annuities. They should say, like, guys who are making $10 million, you only get 5 and these other 5 are gonna be put away, and it can’t be touched ‘till you’re thirty-five or forty. Period. Rather than your professional legacy, as far as your personal legacy in the eyes of your kids, from their perspective, how do you think they will come to speak about you and describe you when they are older?

Shaquille O’Neal: I think they’ll say he was nice, he was kind, he was funny and he was the best dad in the world, no matter what he did. I don’t discipline my kids the way that I got disciplined, because their neighborhood temptations are much different than mine were. My kids live in a sweet neighborhood. I grew up with guns and chains, with heroin addicts on the corner when I had to go to the store. So I had those temptations. My kids have chefs and nannies and all that stuff (laughs). You know, so if they do something that’s juvenile delinquent-ish, I don’t always go to ten with them. I may just give them a look and say, “Don’t do that. Do it again, I’m gonna knock you out.” Then I’ll give them a hug and a kiss and tell them, “Go play.” But me, I didn’t get any warnings, which is good though, I’m not really complaining. Do you want your kids to be street smart, even though they have a cushy environment?

Shaquille O’Neal: They will be because they just have it. You know, some kids have it and some kids don’t. One thing about my kids, we don’t shelter them. I don’t treat them like goody two shoes, so they know. Sometimes I rough them up every now and then (laughs). Whether you have or not, you have to grow up with a little bit of “not,” for when they go out in the real world. They get it around the house. They get the cool and the slang. They’ll be fine. I want to talk a bit about social media. I know you are really into it and when you announced your retirement you declared yourself “the emperor of the social media network.” What is it about social media that you find so appealing?

Shaquille O’Neal: I find it appealing that I can give my own word and show my own face, and be myself. A lot of experts and a lot of businesses ask me “what’s the secret?” I tell them I can’t lie, there is no secret. I’m just lucky I guess. I’m one of those people who use social media differently. I break it down: 50% to make you laugh, 40% to inspire you and 10% to sell something or sell myself, or to say something for a company that I’m involved with. I think people like that and they respect that. I see a lot of guys now that don’t have brands. They recognize the term “brand recognition” so they try to build their brand, like, [by tweeting] “Hey, I’m talking to Allison right now, check out the cover,” or “Hey, I just bought this diamond necklace, look.” And I don’t think people really like that. The annoying minutia or trying to show off…

Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah, exactly, like, every five minutes. “Hey, I just put a fish tank behind my bed.” “Hey, I just bought a house, nine thousand square feet!” (Laughs). It’s kind of masturbation.

Shaquille O’Neal: Yeah, exactly. Well, I also have said that, but… How about some of the charity work you’re involved with? I happened to be in Toys R’ Us with my son yesterday and I saw a big poster of you with kids that read, “Shaq-A-Claus.”

Shaq Uncut, My Story, by Shaquille O'Neal
Shaq Uncut, My Story, by Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O’Neal: I’ve been doing stuff for Toys for Tots. If you read the moments in the book of why I do it, that’s why I do it. I do it because I’ve been doing it. I’ve been around these guys who said, “Hey, you should do this, you should do that and we’ll call this person, or we’ll call that person.” Every person who does that just to get an article, it ain’t gonna work out. I’ve been doing this even before I believed I was a big player. The Toys for Tots thing has always been a military thing. I’m going to feed three hundred families for Thanksgiving in Florida. We always do a lot of stuff. My mother has this program where she sends nurses to school on four year scholarships. We started doing that in 1995; that’s when my grandmother died and I think my mother has sent over 25 nurses to school with four year scholarships. Don’t you feel like when it comes to charitable work, you either have that thing in your heart that drives you internally to do it, or you don’t?

Shaquille O’Neal: You either do it because you love to do it and because that’s what you’re taught, or… most guys just do it because hey if CNN comes by and sees it, then maybe I can get Oprah’s network to come by and see it. A lot of guys don’t really have good intentions when they do it. At the very beginning of your book you explain that your first and middle names are Muslim in origin (Shaquille Rashaun), and they mean “little one” and “warrior.” And you write, “I never knew why my mother gave me a Muslim name.” Is that something that made you think, “Hey, maybe I want to check this out and see what it’s all about”?

Shaquille O’Neal: Yes, and also Philip (Shaquille’s father) is Muslim. Everything that I’ve done helps me equate with everybody. My father’s a Muslim so I can say hello to the Muslim people. My accountant, who’s one of my favorite people in the world, is a Jewish guy. So now I can speak a little bit of Hebrew. My best friend is Mexican from San Antonio, so you know, I always tell people that I lived a Karate Kid sort of life. Growing up, I’ve just seen so much and gone through so much that now it just makes me a people person. Everybody likes me, so I can go to a Muslim guy and say, “Assalamu Alaikum.” Faith is all about what you believe. As a man, as a person, you can never disrespect anybody’s faith and say, “That’s not right.” You’re gonna believe what you believe. Muslim religion and all these religions have been around thousands and thousands of years. So who am I to say, “Hey, don’t do this, don’t do that.” You believe what they believe, you respect what they respect, and you respect that person as a man or a woman, and you’ll make it far in life. Fact is I’m Muslim, I’m Jewish, I’m Buddhist, I’m everybody ‘cause I’m a people person.

Shaq Uncut: My Story,” by Shaquille O’Neal (with Jackie MacMullan) is available at book stores nationwide and at on November 15, 2011.

Follow Shaquille O’Neal on Twitter @Shaq.