Shaquille O’Neal ambles up to a table at The Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills and somehow squeezes his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame into a small wooden chair. Although he’s a regular here and always sits in the same wood-paneled alcove off the main dining room, patrons stare, offer high-fives as he passes and even cheer like it was the Lakers who were in the process of crushing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals and not the Golden State Warriors. While most athletes bristle at being touched, the basketball Hall of Famer and current Turner broadcast analyst embraces it.
“I don’t do entourages. I don’t do security,” he says. “I’m a people person. The word ‘mobbed’ is not in my vocabulary.”
Without glancing at the menu, he opts for organic chicken and roasted broccoli instead of his usual dish, the king salmon. The waiter brings him his standard beverage — Fiji water — because O’Neal never drinks alcohol, not since his teen years when his drill sergeant stepfather (whom he refers to as his father) caught him and a cousin with a 12-pack of beers and showed no mercy. “He was really hard on us, and now that I’m older, it’s like I had a Harvard education on how to become successful, and I didn’t even know it,” he says.
On the court, that success was undeniable. O’Neal is regarded as the most dominant center in the history of the sport, winning three NBA championships with the Lakers and one with the Miami Heat. Now, at 46, he’s stepping up his Hollywood game in a big way. First is a co-starring role in the Lionsgate comedy Uncle Drew, which opens June 29. The film sees O’Neal and fellow former real-life pros Kyrie Irving, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson and Lisa Leslie playing septuagenarian hoops has-beens who reunite to win the Rucker Classic street ball tournament in Harlem. He’s third lead, paid about $250,000 for the role. But who’s counting when Forbes says you earned $700 million on the court and via endorsements?
His slate of upcoming projects includes the Facebook Watch reality show Big Chicken, named after and chronicling the opening of his first restaurant chain, which specializes in fried chicken sandwiches and will launch in Las Vegas in mid-October; an animated show for Universal Kids Network based on his inspirational Little Shaq book series chronicling lessons from his childhood; and two scripted TBS comedies, one of which will co-star Ken Jeong (“Sort of a Rush Hour thing,” says O’Neal). The network approached the basketball legend and the Hangover breakout about collaborating after their well-received duel on TBS’ rap battle series Drop the Mic that aired in April.
Those projects come on the heels of a busy spring that found O’Neal launching Shaquille O’Neal Presents: All Star Comedy Jam: I’m Still Laughing on Showtime in March, voicing a role in Global Road’s animated kids film Show Dogs in May and bantering with Charles Barkley as part of Turner’s NBA playoffs broadcast team, ending in late May. For the man who fronted studio movies like Paramount’s Blue Chips ($23 million) and Disney’s Kazaam ($18.9 million) during the height of his career, he’s been eager for a second act.
“Who am I to say no to Hollywood? You know, everybody wants to be a movie star,” he says with a laugh.
That certainly seems true for elite basketball players. O’Neal’s push into the entertainment space coincides with a broader phenomenon of hoops stars — both current and former — making significant forays into film and TV. O’Neal’s former Lakers teammate and frenemy Kobe Bryant recently won a best animated short Oscar for Dear Basketball. LeBron James has a number of high-profile films in the works at Warner Bros., including a House Party reboot, and has the NBC game show The Wall currently on the air. Steph Curry is developing faith-based movies for Sony’s Affirm label. And Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Television is tackling NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant’s story for the Apple series Swagger.
But O’Neal might be uniquely poised among current and former sports superstars given his broad appeal that bridges red state and blue state sensibilities. In an increasingly polarized era where many athletes are entering the political morass — from Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to Jake Arrieta goading Trump-hating celebrities to leave the country — Shaq is the ultimate tabula rasa and can be whomever you want him to be, not unlike Taylor Swift or Dwayne Johnson. “I don’t do politics. I’m in the fun business,” he explains.
But ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant says O’Neal’s silence is itself a political stance. “In today’s times, saying nothing is as powerful as speaking,” says Bryant, author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. “By choosing to be a pitchman and choosing to be quiet, you are making a political statement. He just doesn’t want you to know what he thinks. He’s an entertainer. He’s making a lot of money. He’s got a lot of visibility. I think he’s making a calculated decision not to speak on [politics].”
That approach seems to be paying off. According to Marketing Evaluations Inc., a New York-based company that compiles Q scores (a measure of the familiarity and appeal of a brand, celebrity or company), O’Neal boasts a better score than the top five current NBA stars — James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Curry and Durant. Among former athletes of any sport, only Michael Jordan enjoys a higher Q score.
“He stays out of all kinds of controversy,” says Marketing Evaluations president Steven Levitt. “Shaq has great appeal with children, teens and adult males. He’s like a gentle giant. Happy, playful, always smiling. There’s no baggage associated with him — except for being terrible at the free throw line.”
Not surprisingly, he is a top earner on Madison Avenue, where he does spots for Reebok, JCPenney, Krispy Kreme, Gold Bond and Icy Hot. Before this dinner, he was shooting a commercial for Ring Home Security. “I don’t know how much I’m making from endorsements. My guys are not allowed to tell me. Never want a deal to be influenced by money,” he says. “I always deal with products that I believe in. You know, it’s dishonest as a businessman to take the money and run away from your brother.”
Following his first championship with the Lakers in 2000, O’Neal was approached by Wheaties to grace the box. He told his longtime manager Perry Rogers: “ ‘I’m from the ’hood. I’ve never had Wheaties in my life. You call Frosted Flakes,’ ” he says. “Second championship, Wheaties came back again. I said, ‘Wheaties, I love you, but I’ve never tasted that, and I’m not going to start tasting that.’ When they come with Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, Rice Krispies, that’s it. So finally, about four years ago, I got a call [from Fruity Pebbles]. They said, ‘Shaq, we know you like us. We want to put you on 13.5 million boxes, but there’s not a lot of pay.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be paid. Just do it.’ It’s a collector’s item now. Biggest day of my life.”
To understand his ability to appeal to all demographics, look no further than his upbringing. His stepfather, the late Phillip Harrison, was Muslim and a career Army sergeant. His mother, Lucille O’Neal, was Baptist. They moved from base to base, living in New Jersey, Germany and San Antonio before he wound up in the bayou at LSU. “An African-American project, Germans, Spanish, boom, boom, Cajuns. I’m able to interact with all people,” he says.
Harrison instilled in O’Neal a respect for the military and law enforcement — not a popular sentiment among the current crop of black athletes and the larger Black Lives Matter movement. “My father was like that. You don’t be quiet during the national anthem, he’d go crazy,” he says. “Now people starting to hate police, and I don’t like it, personally. I don’t get it. You know, I always tell some people, ‘Hey, if a rapper does something crazy, you want me to hate all rappers? You know, one athlete does something crazy, you want people to hate all athletes?’ So I love police. I’ll always support them.”
In fact, O’Neal has plenty of law enforcement experience. He first became a reserve officer with the Los Angeles Port Police and later became a Miami Beach reserve officer. In 2016, O’Neal was sworn in as a sheriff’s deputy in Jonesboro, Georgia. He plans to run for sheriff in Henry County, Georgia, in 2020.
Despite his pro-police stance, O’Neal doesn’t offer a strong opinion on most topics — a rarity in today’s Twitterverse. On Kaepernick, he says, “I have nothing bad to say about the guy, but if I was making a stand, I probably would have got about 500 top athletes, set up a press conference, invite everybody to say something and come out on TV,” he says.
People forget that Kaepernick isn’t the first to balk at standing during the anthem. Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was doing it back in 1996. “I called him and said, ‘Hey, bro, you don’t want to be standing for the anthem, just stay in the back, you know? ’Cause you’re starting to offend some people,” he says of his ex-LSU teammate. “I was like, ‘Look, man, that’s tripping. Stay in the tunnel. Don’t come out.’ ”
Even the Roseanne Barr controversy elicits a yawn from O’Neal.
“She’s a comedian. I guess she thought she was being funny, but because apes are correlated with black people, I guess you could cry ‘racism,’ ” he says. “But I don’t do that. I’m sure she’s going through a lot of it right now, but I had a lot of people call me worse names that never hurt me.”
It’s not that O’Neal is indifferent about what is playing out in the news, he says, he just takes a different approach. In May, a grandmother who was an innocent bystander was shot and killed during an argument that followed a graduation ceremony in Jonesboro, Georgia.
“I was watching on TV, and I was like, ‘Man.’ It just reminded me of my grandmother, and my grandmother’s a very spiritual woman, so [she sent] a sign that said, ‘Baby, just go and pay for the funeral,’ ” he says. “I called local funeral homes and I paid for the funeral. They sent pictures. They said it was the best funeral. That’s just the stuff that I do.”
And whether it’s on the court or onscreen, O’Neal just wants to entertain, something Harrison drilled into him as a youngster.
“My father took me to a game one time, and we sat in the nosebleeds. The game was so terrible, my father was upset. He hits me in the chest, and right then, he said, boom, ‘If you ever make it big time, you got all these dads paying all this money. Kid, make sure you put on a show,’ ” he recalls. “That’s why I was diving in the stands, kissing babies, eating people’s popcorn, just putting on a show. They don’t do that anymore.”
Though they are polished and media-savvy, today’s basketball stars haven’t cultivated strong personas like the previous generation. After all, it’s hard to imagine another Shaq or Dennis Rodman emerging from the current crop of NBA stars. The only dramatic rivalries play out on reality TV like Basketball Wives (created by O’Neal’s ex-wife Shaunie O’Neal — they divorced in 2010, and he has not remarried). But Shaq and Kobe had a very real rivalry that prompted O’Neal’s trade to Miami in 2004. While they “never” talk, says O’Neal, he won’t cop to any lingering bad blood. “I’ve got six kids, I ain’t got time to be calling another man, you know?” he says. (One of O’Neal’s six is top basketball prospect Shareef O’Neal, who just graduated from Crossroads in Santa Monica and is heading to UCLA in the fall.)
But he admits he felt the presence of the green-eyed monster with Bryant’s unlikely Oscar win. “I was a bit jealous,” he continues. “Jealous of him, he got a 12-pack [of abs], I only got a four-pack. So it was one of those professional jealousies, like, ‘Oh, man, he got the gold.’ ”
Still, when it comes to likability, there’s no contest. “There’s really no comparison between Shaq and Kobe,” says Levitt, noting that Bryant doesn’t even crack the top 10 on the Q Score meter when it comes to former athletes.
O’Neal’s vibrant personality goes a long way both in front of the camera and behind it. On the Atlanta set of Uncle Drew in fall 2017, the days were long. Makeup and prosthetics application and removal took up to five and a half hours each day for a number of the actors. But director Charles Stone III says O’Neal kept his castmates’ spirits up under difficult conditions.
“He’s the consummate ham. In the best way,” says Stone. “He totally loves to make people laugh. If we had to do a scene with a dramatic bent, Shaq would say, ‘OK, Charles, can I give you a funny version now?’ He’s a prankster and a sweetheart.”
Perhaps that’s why Shaq still does business around the world. In a few days, he’s heading to Beijing and Shanghai as part of his successful deejay career, aka DJ Diesel, and he’ll perform more than 20 shows spinning hip-hop in 2018. That line of work aligns with O’Neal’s nocturnal rhythms. On a typical nonworking day in Calabasas, he wakes at 11 a.m. and watches Maury Povich with friends. He will lay down $300 bets for the daily is-he-really-the-father DNA reveal. ESPN isn’t for him, but he stops short of calling it too political (“I don’t watch, but I don’t want to get into the business of judging people ’cause who am I to say, ‘You shouldn’t be talking about politics?’ ” he asks). At night, he works out (he’s heading to the gym after this dinner) before settling in at his Calabasas home (he also cited homes in Atlanta and Miami), where he’ll channel surf until 5 or 6 a.m. Recent favorites include The Blacklist, Arrow, Scandal, Stranger Things, Badlands and anything on Animal Planet.
He mentions a girlfriend but won’t reveal her name, though it has been reported he sees lifestyle blogger Laticia Rolle.
Although O’Neal cops to owning “Lamborghinis, Ferraris, private jets” (Note: plural), he insists he’s pretty practical. Wearing a no-label gray polo shirt, black jeans and zero bling, his appearance backs that up. Though he left LSU shy of graduation, he returned and received his bachelor’s degree and later added an MBA from University of Phoenix and a doctorate in education from Barry University in Miami. Next up is a law degree from Barry because O’Neal wants to own a law firm in Florida, and he says you can’t own a law firm in that state unless you’re a lawyer.
In offering up an explanation for all of the post-basketball hustle, O’Neal leans back in his chair and says, “My father also did a good job of, ‘Hey, man, all athletes end up being broke.’ ”
This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.