Over the years, Shaquille O’Neal has deemed his penetrating post-game insights worthy of some of Western civilization’s greatest philosophers, specifically Aristotle and Friedrich Nietzsche. Of course, everything about Shaq—a seven-foot-one, 325-lb. colossus—is hyperbolic. On Twitter, where the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar centre boasts a staggering two million followers, O’Neal regularly tweets inspirational quotes by everyone from Ben Franklin and Bill Gates to a barber from Orlando named Kurt Cooper. But there is no one he likes to quote more than himself. In a promo for his new reality TV show, ABC’s Shaq Vs., in which he faces off against top athletes in their own sport, Shaq spells out to the camera how he plans to get inside the heads of his competitors, who include Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis star Serena Williams and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals: “I study everybody’s game,” he says. “To beat them, you have to become them.” He flashes a half-smile at this impromptu nugget. “Remember that, America. A classic Shaquille O’Neal quote.”
Shaq—a man with a million nicknames: Shaq-Fu, Shaq-a-Claus, Shaqqie Robinson—is often referred to as one of the most gifted basketball players in the history of the NBA (although he prefers the pithier epithet, “the greatest athlete ever formed”—“Look it up,” he says, “Google it”). On the court, he is so tank-like that other players appear to bounce off him like rubber bullets. He has won four NBA championships—three with the L.A. Lakers and another with the Miami Heat—and he’s among the top-paid athletes in America, pulling in US$35 million in salary and endorsements. But more than being just one of the greats of the game, Shaq will go down as having created one of the most endearing personal brands in professional sports—a family man with a humongous heart, a 12-year-old’s sense of fun, and killer comedic timing.
“He’s one of those people who’s found a way to make himself much bigger than the game itself,” says Dan Durbin, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications, who specializes in pop culture and sports media. “The classic instance of that was Muhammad Ali.” Like Ali, Shaq is his own greatest champion, but O’Neal is also a master of self-parody. “There’s something inherently kind of goofy and off-kilter about him,” says Will Leitch, founder of the popular sports blog Deadspin and a columnist for New York magazine, “but it’s in a way that’s not manufactured, that hasn’t been scrubbed.”
As Shaq, now 37, prepares to enter what will likely be his last season in the NBA, and promotes his much-hyped reality TV series, we may be witnessing the beginning of his transition into the next phase of his career, which will undoubtedly involve showbiz. Between a string of awful rap albums (Shaq Diesel, You Can’t Stop the Reign), schlocky films (Kazaam, Scary Movie 4), cameos on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Bernie Mac Show, and his latest turn as executive producer of the live show All-Star Comedy Jam with Cedric the Entertainer, Shaq has proven he loves the limelight. His 2007 dance-off against NBA phenom LeBron James, in which, backspinning and booty-popping, he showed himself to possess the grace and agility of a much smaller man, was a YouTube phenomenon.
“It’s been fun to watch as he’s become comfortable in his own skin,” says Leitch. “There were times, when he first came into the league, when he was known as somewhat of a sullen guy.” Over the years, he became entangled in some nasty feuds, including his legendary war with former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant. “But now he literally has nothing left to prove,” says Leitch, “and you can tell.”
Perhaps most impressive among O’Neal’s good-guy credentials is his seemingly absurd—but evidently sincere—desire to graduate from pro basketball into a career as a police sheriff. O’Neal’s stepfather, one of his greatest role models, was a military man and taught him the value of serving his community. While in Los Angeles, Shaq spent his downtime training at the County Sheriff’s Reserve Academy, eventually becoming a reserve officer in L.A., and later Miami. “I knew someone from the sheriff’s department when Shaq was doing his training there,” says Durbin, “and they said he took it very seriously. He actually went out there and did the work. It seems far-fetched that a basketball player would do that, but he pursued it and he was dead serious.” In 2005, he famously tipped off police to a gay-bashing incident in Miami Beach and trailed the perps until officers arrived on the scene. Two men were arrested. That same year, as though being a crime-fighting NBA star weren’t enough, he graduated from the University of Phoenix’s M.B.A. program.
This year, there has been what Leitch calls “an explosion of goodwill” toward Shaq, helped along by his being one of the first celebrities to embrace Twitter as an unmediated source of contact with his fans. Sometimes he tweets about his day: “Holy s–t, I’m at the santa monica airport I just saw a lil plane crash, and the guy walk away, dam dam glad he’s ok s–t, excuse my words.” Other times, he invites fans to come out and join him wherever he is: “Anybody in portland touches me rt now will get two tickets I’m at redstar cafe.”
In professional sports, there tends to be two types of athletes—the dull-as-dishwater ones who keep their noses clean, and the ones who make big news for all the wrong reasons (Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, Tonya Harding). Shaq is one of the few who has managed to generate high-profile good-news stories for himself. “He gives journalists really good quotes. He tells stories well,” says Durbin. He’s also kept his personal life with his wife, Shaunie, and their six children very private. “You don’t see stories popping up about Shaquille O’Neal having wild parties or getting involved with a lot of women,” he says.
Other NBA alumni have used their extreme physical stature to create a different sort of notoriety. “Wilt Chamberlain, for example, professed his greatness over everybody in everything from basketball to sleeping around,” says Durbin. “He created in some respects a larger character for himself, but one that was not approachable and pleasant.” Shaq, on the other hand, uses his brand of self-mockery as a way of putting others at ease.
“One of the things that Shaq has talked about,” says Leitch, “is that his personality was shaped by this idea that ‘people aren’t going to expect me to be funny. They’re not going to expect me to be fun.’ ” As empowering as it is to be the biggest man on the court, it wasn’t necessarily easy being an 11-year-old who was twice the size of every other kid in the class. “I think people forget sometimes that Shaquille O’Neal has been a physical presence since he was, like, eight,” says Leitch. In some ways, he says, there’s almost a nerdy solicitousness to his self-parodying, “this eagerness to be noticed and fit in. To me that’s the signature aspect of his personality—the idea that he really, really wants people to like him and you wonder if that’s born out of the idea of being the oversized gawky kid that was always different.”
Earlier this year, Shaq made a guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show to introduce himself to a boy named Brenden with a rare genetic abnormality that causes him to keep growing. At 12, the seven-foot-four Brenden towers over his friends. Shaq offered to fly him out to Phoenix to see a game, shop for plus-sized clothes, and spend the weekend hanging out. “We’ll just have fun,” he said, “because I’m 12 years old also.” In Phoenix, driving around in Shaq’s car, a sort of Mack Truck with silver Superman signage, O’Neal told the kid, whom he had by then dubbed “Big Fresh Brenden,” or BFB: “We’re just alike. Everything you’re going through, I’ve been through, brother. Trust me, bad days, aches and pains, kids picking on me, so I know how you feel. That’s why I can tell you, just be proud . . . Trust me on this. The girls like tall guys.”