“I’ve been to the Hamptons 20 times,” Los Angeles Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal told me on Friday when I spoke with him exclusively about his entrance into the Oscar race as a producer of the documentary feature Killer Bees. “But I’ve been on the rich people’s side — the Leonardo DiCaprio, the Puffy, the Beyonce side, with the boats, where people are well off — so when I was told there was another side, I was like, ‘That’s impossible!'”
So, at the urging of his friend Glenn Fuhrman, O’Neal screened an early cut of Ben Cummings and Orson Cummings‘ 82-minute documentary feature about the primarily black Bridehampton High School basketball team — nicknamed the “Killer Bees” — and its coach, Carl Johnson as they defended their 2015 state title while simultaneously confronted with racism, gentrification and income inequality. “I was quite surprised by what I saw,” the 46-year-old said. “I was like, ‘This is a story that needs to be told.'”
O’Neal and art dealer/gallerist Larry Gagosian, a Hamptons local, signed on to the film as producers, with Fuhrman joining as an executive producer. The doc had an awards-qualifying run in theaters on both coasts the week of July 27 — it played at the Cinema Village in New York and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in Los Angeles — and it subsequently hit VOD on Aug. 7 before, appropriately enough, playing at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Oct. 6.
O’Neal couldn’t be at the Hamptons for the film’s premiere, but he says he had already made several trips to Bridgehampton to meet with the kids — he even shot hoops with the team. “When they saw that I was a regular person, I think that’s what shocked them the most,” he recalled with amusement. “I came in by myself, no bodyguards, no entourage, wearing the same jeans as they were, same clothes, same sneakers — and I think they realized that I was an older version of them.”
On Wednesday, O’Neal, along with Gagosian, Fuhrman and the Cummings brothers (Bridgehampton High alums), will bring their film to Hollywood, hosting a screening and reception for friends with boldfaced names and members of the Academy’s documentary branch, in the hope that the film may gain some Oscar traction ahead of voting to determine the shortlist for the best documentary feature Oscar. (O’Neal will also join me for an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast that will cover his entire life and career, and will post soon thereafter.)
O’Neal has served as a producer on several projects since retiring from basketball in 2011 — among them, the 2016 30 for 30 episode “This Magic Moment,” the 2017 religious drama Steps and the 2018 documentary A Week in Watts. Still, I half-jokingly had to ask him if he is feeling more motivated to move into the realm of awards-caliber projects these days so that he can snag an Oscar like his former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, with whom he always enjoyed fierce competition and who took home the statuette for best animated short in March for his autobiographical film Dear Basketball. “Oh, that’s funny,” he replied with a laugh. “That’s funny. It would be nice [to win]. But when I put these films out, I hope that they will touch people emotionally. Lives aren’t going to change otherwise. If you win awards, you win awards. But nothing I’ve done outside of basketball has been about winning awards.”
And does he intend to continue producing films after this one? “Of course,” O’Neal said emphatically. “We’ve got a lot of stuff in the works. Now that I’m retired and have much more time, yes, I want to do it much more.”