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“My new role in life, being an alien, is to enlighten the people, make them laugh, help them out,” says legendary basketball player-turned-film producer Shaquille O’Neal — who stands at 7-foot-1, weighs well over 300 pounds, and wears size 22 shoes and 60XL suits — as we sit down at WeWork in Century City to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. The 46-year-old, whose most recent project is Killer Bees, a documentary feature about a primarily black high school basketball team in the Hamptons fighting to defend its 2015 state title while simultaneously confronting racism, gentrification and income inequality, continues, “So if I can produce something that gives people certain information, or produce something that’s funny, or be a part of something that’s helpful to society, that’s what I’m all about. That’s why producing appeals to me.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 30:49], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Gabe Polsky, the director of the new documentary feature In Search of Greatness, about his quest to determine what separates the greatest athletes from the rest.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.
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O’Neal was born and raised in Newark. His mother was a housewife and his stepfather a drill sergeant in the Army whose profession caused the family to frequently relocate all over the world — “I can relate to anybody, anywhere, anytime,” O’Neal says — including to West Germany, where he first got into basketball. “I only had two options: the NBA or the military,” O’Neal says. “So I started to build the character known as Shaq.” Despite his height and his best efforts on the hardwood and in the gym, O’Neal got cut from his high school team during both his freshman and sophomore years of high school — but, even so, Dale Brown, the coach of the LSU team, saw him at a basketball camp in West Germany, believed in his potential and offered him a college scholarship to play for his team down the road. The O’Neal family then relocated to Texas, where O’Neal developed into a dominant player who was suddenly a hot commodity among colleges — but he honored his commitment to play for Brown. “He was loyal to me before I was Shaq,” says O’Neal, who often speaks in the third-person, “so now that I am Shaq, I have to remain loyal to him.”
O’Neal wanted to be a guard, but because of his enormous size he was positioned as a center — and quickly became a major star for LSU, where he was also pursuing a degree in business. After his junior year, though, fearing the possibility of an injury that could undercut his long-term earnings potential, O’Neal left college to enter the NBA draft. He was selected first overall by the Orlando Magic, whom he, in turn, rewarded by winning the Rookie of the Year prize for a season in which his dunks broke backboards and numbered more than twice the previous record. (He would break that record two years later.) His only discernible weakness was his free-throw shooting, which led opponents to employ a “hack-a-Shaq” technique of guarding him: better to foul him and take the chance that he might miss one of his two attempts than to allow him to get close enough to the basket to score two guaranteed points. “It was the Man Upstairs’ way of keeping me humble,” he says philosophically. O’Neal ultimately leaned on the Magic to get him a sidekick, specifically Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, and together they enjoyed a magnificent 1994-95 season in which O’Neal won the league’s scoring title, was runner-up for league MVP and then, after beating Scottie Pippen‘s Chicago Bulls, made it to the NBA Finals to play Hakeem Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets — only to lose a series they were favored to win. “The lesson,” O’Neal says solemnly, “is don’t celebrate too early.”
In 1996, in one of the most impactful free agent moves in the history of any sport, O’Neal left the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers traded star Vlade Divac for a rookie named Kobe Bryant in order to free up cap space for O’Neal, who, at 24, agreed to a seven-year contract worth $120 million, and then successfully convinced the team to hire legendary coach Phil Jackson. Under Jackson, O’Neal played his best and Bryant became a comparable star, and the resulting squad three-peated as NBA champions, winning titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 — though there were widespread reports of tensions between the two players. “You can’t always believe what you read in the media,” O’Neal says, arguing that his hazing of Bryant was actually a motivational strategy that “worked out perfectly,” adding, “I respected him and he respected me.” Nevertheless, O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat in 2004 because of what he calls “Mafia rules” — “They wanted to go with the younger don, and the older don got taken out.” O’Neal says he has no hard feelings about being traded away, and was actually energized to play alongside another top young talent, Dwayne Wade, en route to a fourth NBA title. “It meant a lot” to win one without Bryant, O’Neal acknowledges, since some had suggested he couldn’t do so. “And,” he confesses, “I was pissed when he got that one more than I did. [Bryant won titles in 2009 and 2010.] I was super-pissed.”
The remaining years of O’Neal’s basketball career were far less glorious. He had short, injury-plagued stints with the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, and admits he felt he “let the people down.” Eventually, an accumulation of unshakable ailments brought his NBA career to an end. “When I got hurt, I was glad I got hurt,” he says somewhat surprisingly. “What I learned from karate and Mafia movies: When your time is up, your time is up.” O’Neal’s final stats place into some perspective the greatness of his 19-year professional career: 28,596 points (seventh all-time), 11,330 field goals (sixth all-time), 13,099 rebounds (15th all-time) and 2,732 blocked shots (eighth all-time); two-time league scoring champion, 15-time All Star and four-time NBA champion; Olympic gold medalist in 1996; and 2016 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — all despite missing, due to injury, 20 percent of the games in which he was eligible to play.
What’s most remarkable, though, is that O’Neal’s second act, since announcing his retirement from playing in 2011, has been almost as successful as his first — something that even the hyperconfident man himself seems a tad surprised about. “The first couple of weeks I was bored, but then once I got the call from TNT everything picked up,” he says. In addition to serving as a popular TV commentator on TNT’s show Inside the NBA, he also oversees a number of business investments and provides endorsements for a wide range of products, earning tens of millions of dollars a year. “I’m in the fun business,” he explains, and he annually presides over The Shaq Summit, a gathering of the people with whom he partners, “so we can align and have the same message.” Moreover, he not only completed his undergraduate degree, but also secured a master’s and a doctorate. “I did that for my children,” he says. “I wanted them to be able to say, ‘My daddy was the man.'”
And then there’s Hollywood. During his playing days, O’Neal appeared in William Friedkin‘s 1994 dramatic film Blue Chips, through which he first met Hardaway, and the 1996 kids’ movie Kazaam. But it was only after his retirement from playing that he began to wield his influence behind the camera, serving as a producer or executive producer of narrative films, like the 2017 faith-based drama Steps, and of documentaries, like the 2018 portrait of promising students in a gang-infested community A Week in Watts. Most recently, he was shown, and then signed on as a producer of, Killer Bees, brothers Ben Cummings and Orson Cummings’ documentary feature about the social challenges confronting a high school basketball team comprised of mostly black players in a mostly white community because, as he puts it, “I’ve been going to the Hamptons for 30 years and I never knew they had a ‘real’ side.” The team in the film faces “all the same issues,” on and off the court, that O’Neal’s high school basketball team did, he asserts, and it clearly bothers him that there hasn’t been more progress over the decades. A film might be able to change hearts and minds, O’Neal realizes, and his own role in making that happen is clear to him: “I can bring it to a wider audience.”
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