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Q&A: Shaq on His NBA Beginnings, His Legacy, and Why He’s So Critical of Today’s Players

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Thirty years ago, Shaquille O’Neal offered his opponents a terrifying glimpse into the future. On his NBA debut, young O’Neal made a rebound and went from coast to coast to soak, displaying a unique combination of size, athleticism and strength. In an era when Hall of Famers like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing ruled the paint, these qualities set O’Neal apart from his peers. O’Neill’s dominance, along with his attractive personality and penchant for goofinessranked his entire £300-plus number one among new league stars.

After retiring in 2011, the always adventurous O’Neal became highly sought after pitcher as well as TNT pillar Inside the NBA. As an analyst, O’Neal is known to be dismissive of modern basketball and critical of current players, especially big men, who would rather shoot jumpers than use the brute-force approach that got him into the Hall of Fame. Three decades later, O’Neal, now 50, has gone from a youngster who was one of the new faces at the top of the NBA to an often hypercritical former player. That journey is explored in a new four-part HBO docu-series. Shaq.

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Directed by Robert Alexander, the film, which premieres on November 23, chronicles O’Neal’s early life, pro career with the Orlando Magic, fame and drama of the Los Angeles Lakers’ three championship titles. peat and win his fourth title with the Miami Heat, along with his many off-court efforts. He focuses on aspects of his personal life, especially his strict upbringing as an army brat. Hard lessons from his mother, Dr. Lucille O’Neill, and his stepfather (who is long credited as his father), the late Sergeant Phillip Harrison, are at the heart of his uncompromising assessment of today’s players. In true O’Neill style, he won’t budge when pushed to his point of view.

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Shaq is part of a recent spate of legacy-affirming sports documents, including Last dance, They call me magic, Legacy: The True Story of the Los Angeles Lakersas well as Redemption Team. If a Last dance was the sanctioned story of Michael Jordan’s hero, and movies like this are all the rage now, why shouldn’t O’Neal want his own? ahead Shaqpremiere, Ringer spoke with O’Neal about the influence of his parents, his views on modern basketball and his feelings about his own legacy.

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I know these projects take time to complete. How long has this documentary been in production?

Like two years. We needed to collect information and talk to people. … I remember looking and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I forgot what that was.” I am one of those who works, and tomorrow I have other things to do – not that I forget, but I share. So many things were so far away in my memory bank that I couldn’t even remember what, when, or how.

You entered a league run by Michael Jordan that still had a lot of centers. In the movie, you talked about how the best way to show respect to players like Olajuwon, Robinson and Ewing is not to show them any respect. But you also said that you were in awe of Olajuwon when you played against him in the 1995 NBA Finals. Was there a difference in the fact that you participated in the final for the first time?

It was my first time in the final and he and I had the same agent, so we worked a bit. He was just a nice guy and when I really respect you, I will never say mean things to you or do anything. But I tried to talk to him and he didn’t answer, so that let me know that I was with him. I knew that if I said anything to the guys from Georgetown, they would get angry. I knew that David Robinson would set all the military on me. With Hakim, I hit him with my elbow, and he said: “Good elbow, bro.” … But as you grow up with a drill sergeant, you learn not to make the same mistake twice. That’s why I said to myself: “If I ever go back to the final, I don’t give a damn. [mouths the word “fuck”] who I play, they will die.” No more courtesy, respect and all that. I didn’t follow my own rules, I actually showed him too much respect. He was an average of 31 [points] and I averaged 28, but we were kicked out, so he owns the title “He tracked you down.”

On your 28th birthday, you scored 61 points and grabbed 23 rebounds against the Clippers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was their assistant coach at the time and that was after he criticized you. When you heard criticism from the likes of him and Magic Johnsonwho did you respect and look up to, was it like your stepfather pushed you harder?

The great Dr. Lucille O’Neill, who turned out to be my mother, told me, “Before you get upset by criticism, make sure there’s no truth in it.” My only criticism was, “Oh, he didn’t win [a championship] for now.” I could have been mad all I wanted, but it was true. But on that birthday when he didn’t look at me, I thought, “Oh, you’re not going to look at me? You don’t have to look at me, but you you’ll know my name by the end of this game.”

When you won your first title in 2000, you said that your stepfather took all your MVP awards – All-Star Game, Regular Season and Finals – and told you that you can get them back when you win another title. How much has his discipline and approach to keeping you hungry and motivated, even after you’ve made it into the league, has influenced your critique of the modern NBA, especially the modern big men?

I still go to his workouts. For example, I have a chef. I say, “You’re only allowed to put one piece of turkey on this sandwich, bro.” I know I’m making a lot of money now, but it’s the same. You have to push yourself, but you have to be honest with yourself and let other people be honest with you. When I criticize guys, I really give them information. But if you are too sensitive and emotional, you will never see what I am doing. I say “You must do this” or “You must do this”. If you mistake this for me taking a personal picture, then you are really not paying attention.

Do you feel that your generation of players is more respectful of legends than players are today?

Yes, and the reason is in the monetary value. Guys do path more than us, therefore, in their opinion, they think they are better than us. But this is not so, because there are many homeless people who earn a lot of money. And yes, I said it.

You have been criticized for criticizing the modern NBA. What turns you off about the evolution of basketball?

Because it’s soft and I stand by what I say when I say it. If you’re a big guy like 7ft 300lbs and you want to throw jumpers and then wonder why you don’t win, that’s it. You must take advantage of your athleticism and size; the more you do it, the more success you will achieve. And then everyone is a follower. I would average 60 points per game in this league, and let me tell you why: I don’t throw a single fucking jumper – not one. I’ll run to the middle of the lane every fucking time – oh sorry, my mom is here [laughs]. I will run every time, they have to call 100 three second violations, but I get layups and dunks. Every time you hit a triple and miss, I’ll run right past you, get down to the floor first and get the light buckets. And you can’t be rude like you used to be, so I’ll walk the line a lot. I would have averaged 50 and I would have been the highest paid in the league.

You value position, respect and the concept of paying dues. Being an outsider, I have always viewed the NBA as a kind of brotherhood. In addition to the fact that the stepfather was a drill sergeant, how many be in a real brotherhood shape how you respond to criticism, and how do you rate current players?

My attitude to criticism is this: if there is no truth in criticism, then my job is to make you shut up. “Shaq only shoots 30 percent from the free throw line, he will never win.” Okay, but if I score 40 against this dude, or average 40, then I definitely going to win. And then after I win my trophy, it’s just another criticism: “I bet he can’t get another one.” OK, watch this. “I bet he can’t get another one. So there will always be criticism, but in the end, when you open this book, you will see my name. That’s all that matters to me and my family.

Do you hold higher standards for some players because you feel like you’ve been held to higher standards and taken on challenges in return?

Yes, that’s all. If you don’t get to the moment, does that mean you’re really that great? If you can’t operate in chaos, are you really great?

I know you want to tell your story on your own terms through this docuseries, but how much is it about validating your legacy and making people aware of your credentials and remember what you’ve accomplished?

Legacy is a matter of opinion. I’m looking at nine people right here [gestures toward his family]; only their opinion matters. Mother, brother, sisters, aunt, uncles – because we were told many times that we would not survive. We were told that we would be where we come from – in Newark, New Jersey – and that’s it. So, no matter what people say about me… listen, I know my name will juggle: “Was he the best? Was he second best? — but heritage is a matter of opinion. It depends on who is writing that day and how they feel about you. But I have three figurines and three old T-shirts, so I’d like to think that when you look up and see “O’Neal,” they’re like, “Hey, who’s O’Neal?” people will say he was a bad guy.

Julian Kimble wrote for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and much more.


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