IT’S THE FIRST week of November, and Shaquille O’Neal is standing on the front lawn of his 8,600-square-foot home in near Atlanta, Georgia. A metro-Atlanta resident for more than a decade now, Shaq has been in his current house for about four years. The entrance to the 30-acre property is a black, iron-clad gate with a Superman logo, a nod to one of Shaq’s many nicknames. This logo appears throughout the property, including on the front door and outside a detached garage that has been converted into a gym. A giant gorilla statue and a large rusted structure fashioned to look like basketball hoops are both visible from the street.
It’s not exactly a secret who lives here.
Shaq has been known to whisper during interviews when he’s not interested in talking, but out here his deep voice carries across the grass as he asks me, again, to confirm how old I am. There’s no way I can really be 29. I’m used to people fixating on how young I look, mostly because I’m petite, only four-foot-11. Still, I didn’t anticipate Shaq being so fascinated by it. Ahead of the interview, I’d mentioned to my mom where I was going, prompting her to say, “I know you don’t like taking pictures at work, but please get a photo of you two standing together.” Before I can ask, Shaq instructs a member of his team to take a picture of us with his phone. He wants to look like he is taking his daughter to school, he jokes. Dressed in a black tank top and matching gym shorts, the seven–foot-one NBA legend grabs my hand and smiles for the photo. His leg is the size of my whole body. I didn’t notice it in the moment, but when I look back at the photo, a school bus drove by just as he said, “Anybody mess with you, li’l Jewel, I’ll fuck them up.” As we’re walking back to the house, he’s clearly still thinking about how small I am. “My record is four-nine,” he says, referring to the height of the shortest woman he’s dated. Also, anyone who dates me is lucky, he adds, because when I’m in my 40s, I’ll still look like I’m in my 20s.
How I might look in a decade isn’t what I came to Shaq’s mansion to discuss, though. I’m walking around his compound—past the tree house and through the backyard where he hopes to one day add a path for riding dirt bikes—to see how the former athlete views himself today. As someone whose body has always been up for public scrutiny as a result of his profession, what is a going-on-50-year-old Shaq’s philosophy on health and wellness? How are his priorities changing? How is someone known for being a big kid grappling with growing older? As a child, Shaq dreamed about being a basketball champion, a successful rapper and DJ, and a TV star. He’s accomplished all this and much more. Today, he isn’t just an analyst on TNT’s Inside the NBA. He’s also a DJ known as Diesel (he plays EDM); a sheriff’s deputy hoping to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community; a producer of the animated short film Headnoise, about anxiety; an owner of various fast-food franchises; and arguably America’s top athlete-turned-pitchman, hawking everything from insurance and Icy Hot to printers and Papa John’s. Just how many brands Shaq is endorsing is hard to keep up with—he’s constantly unveiling new partnerships and cashing out old ones. His net worth is estimated to be around $400 million.
Shaq has transcended sports fame and become a beloved public figure even at a time when America is more divided than ever. Part of that appeal may have to do with his authenticity, as Kenny Smith, a former NBA player and Shaq’s colleague on Inside the NBA, points out. “Shaq’s unapologetic about who he is,” Smith says. “He embraces his greatness, his faults, and his differences. He’s not afraid to be like, ‘I’m bigger than most.’ He embraces everything that he is, which most people don’t do.” Even if you don’t always agree with all the things Shaq does or says, you probably would want to have a drink with him. It would probably have to be nonalcoholic, though. Shaq has never really enjoyed drinking. When he was 13, his adoptive father, an Army sergeant, caught him with a beer and made him chug it. Has barely touched the stuff since.
SHAQ, WHO CAN flip from serious to silly to philosophical to (willfully) oblivious from sentence to sentence, tells me in serious-ish mode that he has been thinking a lot about something Deon Cole, a comedian and an actor in The Harder They Fall, says in his 2019 Netflix special, Cole Hearted. Cole asks everyone in their 40s to make some noise. Then, as the crowd begins to settle down, he reminds them of their mortality with one simple sentence. “You got 30 summers left,” he says, widening his eyes and cocking his head. Cole later clarified the statement, which he turned into a hashtag on Twitter. “When I say 30 summers left, I don’t mean to die. I mean I have 30 summers left to do whatever I want in a vibrant, energized manner,” he posted.
This moment stuck with Shaq, although his memory of it is a little off. He remembers Cole, who turns 50 just a few months before Shaq does, saying they had 15 summers left. “For me, [in] 15 summers, I’ll be 65,” Shaq says. “I’ll be an old fucking man. I never thought about it until he said it.” Of course, it’s absolutely possible to still have a “vibrant, energized” life after 65, although Shaq’s definitions of vibrant and energized might be more
intense than yours.
Speaking of energy, Shaq’s been burning serious calories lately in his home gym. During the pandemic, his weight crept up to around 415 pounds. (His playing weight was 325.) He typically trains four days a week now for about an hour, blasting through 20 minutes of cardio and banging out 40 minutes of strength work. He wants to slim down to 350 pounds and be ripped enough to “go topless” and post an Instagram thirst trap for his 50th birthday in March. His fitness goal, he elaborates, is to make sure his stomach doesn’t hang over his belt. He doesn’t want to develop the dreaded “OTBB,” or “over-the-belt Barkley,” as he puts it. (This, of course, is a reference to his friend and Inside the NBA colleague Charles Barkley. The two regularly riff with each other on many topics, including their weight.)
This, along with protecting his endurance and vitality, is what Shaq was trying to prevent when he went to visit a doctor for the first time in his life about two years ago. When he says this, I ask him to repeat it to make sure I heard him correctly. Shaq had never been to a doctor before? Ever? Correct, he says. Outside of the medical care he received as a professional athlete, Shaq had only recently taken himself in for a checkup. He says the doctor had a list of things he needed to improve. As a man whose NBA diet consisted of burgers from McDonald’s or “a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo and two pineapple sodas,” he would need to limit his snacking. In an attempt to stay “slim” and “presentable,” Shaq says he began taking supplements but soon encountered another problem. “I was taking a competitor’s supplement, and it stopped everything. I mean everything. . . . Nothing was working,” he says, growing more and more serious with each suggestive sentence.
Ever the businessman, Shaq started to think about how many other men in their 40s could probably benefit from a new kind of supplement. This is what inspired him to begin working with Novex Biotech in early 2021 to promote the company’s GF-9 diet pill. The home page for the brand, which features before and after photos and an endorsement quote from Shaq, says a clinical trial for the supplement showed it “increase[s] mean, serum (blood) growth hormone levels by 682%.” Shaq’s health and wellness business endeavors don’t stop there, though. He also began endorsing Alkaline88, advertised as a perfectly pH–balanced alkaline water enhanced with minerals and electrolytes, while he was trying to eliminate soda from his life. Even on his current health kick, Shaq admits he’s not perfect when it comes to his diet. He still dislikes vegetables and enjoys snacking… in moderation of course.
Advertising as a celebrity can be full of pitfalls, and that’s especially true when getting involved with supplement brands, which can market their products using misleading or inaccurate claims that are not always supported by science. The Mayo Clinic, for example, says that for most people regular water is just as good as, or perhaps better than, alkaline water. About supplements that increase human growth hormone (HGH), such as the ones sold by Novex, experts at Mayo say that “some dietary supplements that claim to boost levels of HGH come in pill form, but research doesn’t show a benefit.”
Shaq says he realizes there’s a perception that he advertises for a lot of businesses, but he insists they’re all brands he genuinely believes in (even if the clinical trial the company did was tiny, with a sample size of 16). “I can’t not like a product and then turn around and make you like it. It’s not good business,” he says. “It’s unethical, and it’s something I would never do. I have enough money where I don’t have to take your money and then fake people out.”
Nick Woodhouse, the president and chief marketing officer of Authentic Brand Groups, the company to which Shaq sold the rights to his name brand in 2015, says “America’s greatest pitchman” may work with a lot of companies, but he also turns down a “tremendous” number of deals. “The demand for Shaquille as a business partner is unprecedented,” he says. “He’s transitioned from one of the greatest NBA centers of all time to one of the best businessmen of all time.”
SHAQ, IN silly-ish mode, is sitting in his “office,” also known as the island situated between his kitchen and living room. He’s telling me about his plans to go to Michaels, the chain craft store, after our interview wraps. He’s in the middle of decorating his “boom boom room,” a bedroom located just off the kitchen on the main level of the mansion, and he needs to buy something to add to its one remaining empty wall.
The room is painted black, matching the bed’s headboard, which features rhinestones in each of its tufts. Shaq says he bought the bed by accident, but he personally decorated the perimeter of the room and doorframe to include matching individual rhinestones. The night before our interview, he went to Walmart and purchased five clocks and five mirrors for the space. When I arrive, they’re already hung up, although a bit haphazardly. Only four of the wooden clocks, set to times in various parts of the world, fit on the wall above the headboard. He’s placed the fifth clock above one of the small rectangular mirrors on another wall.
Shaq readily admits he still has plenty to learn about interior decoration (“I’m just finding out about modern [versus] traditional,” he says), but he already has an idea for what the finishing touches will be. He’d like to add a smoke machine and laser lights that will bounce off the mirrors so that when he’s lying on the bed, he can envision a scenario in which he must remain completely still or else come into contact with one of the death beams. It’s another example of Shaq being Shaq, flexing his wild imagination and shifting a term that tends to have a sexual connotation into something playful. For the record, he says his “boom boom room” will be used for napping.
Back in the kitchen, one of the producers from Men’s Health who’s prepping for a video interview later asks him what guidance he might have for her 30-something boyfriend, who is feeling stuck. “My advice is you have to get him to realize you don’t care. [As] men, we have to worry about us and then we have to worry about y’all. If you let him know, ‘Baby, I love you and I don’t care what you do,’ that will start to ease the pressure,” he says. “And then, at night when he gets home, put it on him.”
Shaq says young people, typically men, ask him for advice all the time. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so I have the answers,” he says. Plus, he understands what it’s like to feel the weight of providing for an entire family, having been responsible for his six children. When he’s not dishing out advice, he’s handing out gifts to unsuspecting strangers. Early in 2021, a video of Shaq paying for an engagement ring that a young man had on layaway went viral. But Shaq says this happens more often than cameras can capture. And usually it involves a mom and a young child.
“My mom is my go-to for inspiration,” he says about Lucille O’Neal, who raised him in Newark, New Jersey, and now lives in Atlanta. “Whenever I go somewhere, I try to look for her and me.” Recently, Shaq was in Best Buy and saw a woman and her son thumbing through coupons to buy a 45-inch television. He upgraded the TV size for the family and handled the bill. Another time, he saw a woman trying to pay down a $500 layaway debt at Walmart around the holiday season. He took care of that, too. “That used to be us, and that could still be us,” he says, perhaps giving a glimpse into why he continues to work so hard. Even for a man who has been wealthy far longer than he was ever struggling, the trauma of poverty has convinced him that he could still be back to putting things on layaway with just a few business missteps.
Shaq’s upbringing influenced most of his beliefs about life, not just his financial and philanthropic outlooks. He has long been open about the fact that he was raised by a stepfather who was a drill sergeant and has other family members who work in law enforcement. One family friend, Jerome, worked as his bodyguard throughout his career and still lives with him. Shaq’s own involvement with law enforcement has been well–documented. He’s been a reserve officer in Miami, for the Port of Los Angeles, and elsewhere. He’s also an honorary U. S. deputy marshal. He became a sworn deputy in Georgia’s Clayton County in 2016.
Today, he works for the Henry County Sheriff’s Office as a community–relations director, hosting events such as a “Ride 4 Unity” motorcycle gathering this past summer. “I would love for the community and law enforcement to get back together,” Shaq says. He says he recognizes how controversial his love of law enforcement has become in a time when there is increased awareness about police brutality against Black Americans. “I understand both sides, trust me.” Even as a notable figure and a member of law enforcement, Shaq says he’s often pulled over by cops when he visits places outside metro Atlanta. When he stopped for gas once in Valdosta, Georgia, more than 200 miles away, he says he saw an officer hit a U-turn and drive up behind his car to pull him over. He also recalls a time when an officer pulled him over with his gun drawn. “I asked him, ‘Why you got your gun out?’ He said, ‘I’m sorry. Last time I stopped a big guy, we had to fight.’ That got me thinking, you don’t know what these people have been through.”
Shaq says he knows people don’t love his point of view on this, and it’s not an exaggeration to say this kind of thinking can have extremely dangerous implications. This type of profiling from officers who are tasked with protecting and serving can lead—and has led—to fatal outcomes for the Black people who are on the receiving end of such bias. It’s sad that these experiences of being profiled have made him more empathetic about these officers’ behavior instead of concerned about the potentially deadly impact.
But as with most things, Shaq’s outlook on this can be traced back to his childhood. In Shaq Uncut, his 2011 autobiography, he wrote that he didn’t grow up in a household where race was regularly discussed. Still, this dark-skinned Black man has been larger than average his entire life. When he was just ten years old, he was already six-foot-four. In a society in which his size can make him a huge target, perhaps Shaq’s perspective and his efforts to disarm people with a joke and a smile have been his way of surviving.
Still, while he continues to work with the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, there are limits to his law-enforcement goals. He’d previously planned to run for sheriff in a few years but has since decided against it. He likes Henry County’s current sheriff, Reginald Scandrett, and wants to support him. Plus, he says, “the climate’s too hot right now.”
Shaq’s Army-brat upbringing has informed his philosophies on mental health, too. “I’m programmed by my military father. You don’t worry about the problems; you worry about the solution. Whatever the problem is, I’ll stay here for a while, and then the solution . . .” Shaq snaps his finger as if the answer has appeared right in front of him. “My solution if I can’t figure it out is [telling myself] it could be worse. Once I say that, all of my problems are over.”
It may seem like every issue has an easy solution for Shaq, but there are certain occurrences that even the most optimistic personality cannot account for. He says he’s still having a difficult time processing the death of his sister to cancer in 2019, three months before the death of Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant. (An autographed portrait of Bryant jumping into his arms after the pair won their first NBA championship is one of the first images you see when you walk into Shaq’s home.) “When my sister was here, it was a bunch of ‘I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll call her tomorrow. I’ll call her tomorrow.’ Now I can’t call her ever again,” he says.
He has similar feelings about Kobe. “I didn’t see Kobe at all. We didn’t call or text,” he continues. “That’s fucking with me. I don’t have a solution for that. I would never imagine them gone before me.” A few days before our chat, Snoop Dogg announced that his mother had died. As a friend of the rapper and a self-described “mama’s boy,” Shaq started thinking about his own mom. In many ways, he’s still eager to please her and leave a legacy that will make her proud.
“I just want people to say Shaq was a nice guy,” he says. “I want them to see somebody that mostly did the right thing. I don’t promote myself as perfect, but I take care of my family. I love people. I respect people. And I love Black women.” Shaq’s second act is nowhere near over, though. In his mind, he still has 15—or 30—Shaqtastic summers to live.