Shaq Isn't Holding Anything Back

For the first time, the Lakers legend recalls his narrow escape from death as a teenager. Plus, he says he could get out on the court right now and “bust Rudy Gobert’s ass”-and he means it.

When he really wants to get a point across the netscape over Zoom, Shaquille O’Neal leans forward in his tall blue-leather office chair to separate his towering frame from the shelving with the four Emmys behind him. His chin is down slightly, head at a bit of a tilt, as he peers into the camera like it’s an actual tube. “The quicker I got through whooping everybody in the school, the quicker you know Shaq's the man,” he said when I asked about his bullying other kids growing up. “So now, if you fear me, you’re not going to talk about me. That's what I wanted.” He leans back again, stroking at his salt-and-pepper beard or putting an index finger to his temple as he rounds out an answer.

I knew Shaq bullied kids at school because he talks frankly about it, and the moment he knew he had to stop, in a new docuseries on his life out now on HBO. The fourth and final episode of SHAQ premieres Wednesday, after two winding episodes on his professional playing career—following an occasionally slow exploration of his early life in Episode One—already hit over the last month. Throughout the series, the all-time big man is candid about his various personas: baller and brawler and businessman, the most dominant player in basketball history, ally and antagonist of Kobe Bryant, Inside the NBA panelist and Krispy Kreme franchisee and EDM DJ, son to a drill-sergeant father whose methods Shaq believes made him who he is today—methods that these days might be considered abusive. (Or, as Shaq calls it: “the a-word.”)


Similar to The Last Dance, the subject has some editorial control over this series, but it doesn’t feel like Shaq is holding much back. One exception is the tale of his narrow escape from death when he was 13 years old at an army base in Germany, a moment that he feels vindicated all the beatings he took from his father. In the conversation below, which has been edited for length and clarity, he tells that story for the first time. Shaq also traces the moment he stood up to his father and let him know he’d taken ownership of his own life. He talks the kidney issues he now faces from all the painkillers he took in his playing days, why he never had to come into the season in shape just to take on Tim Duncan, his criticism of Kyrie Irving, and how he could get out on the court right now and “bust Rudy Gobert’s ass.”

I guess I should ask how you're feeling after Kenny pushed you into the Christmas tree last night.

I feel wonderful. I’m in shape. I’ve got a 5.2 pack. My sixpack is almost there. When I was young, I always wanted to be a stuntman, so I would teach myself how to fall. When you're pushed off balance, you’ve got to turn and try to find the middle of your back, right? If you try to go forward, your instinct should put your hands out. Plus I'm not going to fall face forward into a Christmas tree. So, I turned my back like I taught myself to do, and you just brace for impact. But it looked good, right?

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It did look good. Speaking of injuries, after a few years at the Lakers, your body had taken some hits. Other voices in the documentary said you felt like you couldn't really make a big deal out of it publicly because everyone expected you to be Superman. Is that how you felt at the time?

Yeah. And plus, my father's motto is: if you can walk and run, you can play. I took joy in walking into a game and seeing you and your father—and your father bought you a Shaq jersey, and you sitting there watching the game. That made me feel good. That made me feel like I was somebody. And you know what? Uncle Shaq can't let the kids down. Forget your dad, but I can't let you down, kid. All right, watch this kid, I’mma get a dunk and I’mma look at you just to help you feel good, so you can go back to school and say, "Hey man, I took a picture with Shaq. He dapped me up." It's just like a whole ecosystem of how I thought. I love the fans, I love the people. So if I could walk or run I would play.

And painkillers. Had a lot of painkillers. I got limited kidney stuff now, going on. I don't have the full range, but I took so many painkillers that [doctors are] saying, "Hey, man, we don't need you taking that stuff now. You got to be careful." That's why I don't take any supplements, anything right now. Only thing I take is my little GF-9 stuff. But my kidneys are kind of just chilling out right now. I don't want to flare ‘em back up.


So they think that's tied to what you used to get through games?

Yes. I know it is, brother, trust me. I mean, 15 years of that, straight. Sometimes I couldn't play if I didn't take it. All it did was mask the pain. So when I'm loose, oh, it's going to be a great show. If I got a little ah, that limits me. That's a couple points. If I got an ah-ah, it's going to slow me down a lot. If I got an ah-ah-ah-ah-ah, then I'mma be out there looking like Rudy Gobert.

You credit your dad for your discipline, and a lot of what you accomplished. And it's clear that the rule growing up was you kids did as he said. But was there a moment in your life when you decided you didn't always have to do what he said?

Yeah, that was when I was 18 years old, an adult, and getting into the contract stuff. And he would come in and yell and I'd be like, "Hey, man, I got it." And then he just finally—he almost had a tear and was like, "I've been waiting for this."

"You've been waiting for what?"

"I've been waiting for you to stand up and I’ll know I raised a man. You know what you got to do—boom, boom, boom, boom, boom: protect the family, always keep an eye, take care of your money, don't sign nothing without looking at it." And he let me take it on from there. It was good, like he wanted me to stand up to him.

"My book went just like I would’ve liked it to go minus one chapter—I wish the free-throw chapter had some better pages," O’Neal says.
Photo by Bob Berg | Getty Images.

The same thing I tell my kids: "One day, we going to have to have this argument, son. Because right now I'm just telling you what to do, and you’re listening, but one day you’re going to have to say, 'No, I got it.’ And then if I feel you got it, I'mma just back up." I tell my kids that all the time. So, the day I stood up to him, he was like, "About time!" Because he didn’t understand contract negotiations. Only thing he did was protect. So the guy came in and said, "Reebok”—like with my first Reebok [signature shoe]. The guy came in and he looked at us, grabbed a piece of paper, and he said, "$10 million for four years. Sign it right now. Don't even look at it."


My father’s like, "Motherfucker, you think we stupid?" I had to grab my father. Like, "Aye man, you can't come into meetings acting like you going to mess the deal up. I got it."

"I'm going to go back to the hotel, Big Man." We didn't have any problems ever since.

In the film you say that some people might regard your dad’s punishments and treatment of you as “the a-word.” Do you consider the beatings you took differently now? Do you consider them abuse at all?

Well, I don't like to throw that word around. There are different levels of that. But based on the rules and criteria, the letter of the law as it states today, it would definitely fall under that. But how he did it—it was needed. I appreciate it. Made me who I am today. Because I was definitely a follower. His thing was, "I'mma teach you how to be a leader." It just taught me how to have critical thinking.

I didn't tell this story in the documentary, but I always say, "Don't drink beer." One time in West Germany, we lived on a certain base and all the parties were on the other base. Friend of mine was drinking. Snowstorm. Wanted me to ride with him. So my thought process, I go: If I get in the car and start drinking with the boys and my dad find out, I'm a dead man. "No, man, I'm cool." Right? 13 years old. And you know what happens after that right? They die. Everybody in the car, dead. Ran into a pole.

So what the spankings did for me is just help me become a thinker. And help me become a leader. And after that day, after my friends died, I was like, you know what? Never again. It's leadership time from this day on. True story. I never told anybody that story.

At times on the Lakers, you were criticized by people who said you came into the season out of shape. Did you feel like they were criticizing your discipline, or your professionalism?

Yeah, they were, but they had no idea what they were talking about. Every training’s different. My thing is, even now, I don't have to train for you. Game is here. I can eat 50 burgers right now and bust Rudy Gobert's ass. I'm telling you. Because it's the mentality, right? And then, when you took the beating I took, I’ve got to rest, I’ve got to recover, I’ve got to get off painkillers, right? And then when it comes time to train, I know what to do, I know how to do it. People always say, "You came in out of shape." I'm like, "What year you talking about? Give me a year. Was it 2000, when I got the MVP? Was it 2001? What year are you talking about? '96 through 2000, when I came in shape, we got our ass whooped.


People talking about, "Oh we went to the gym a lot." Yeah, you had to go to the gym a lot. The other guy, when he came in, his first few years he wasn't The Black Mamba. He had to go to the gym and work on his game. I didn't. I came in The Diesel. Who’m I getting ready for? Tim Duncan? For what? Patrick Ewing? For what? I get ready when I get ready. So, I wasn’t worried about what people said. My book went just like I would’ve liked it to go minus one chapter—I wish the free-throw chapter had some better pages.

You've had some harsh words for Kyrie Irving, and some other guys in today's game—

No, it wasn’t harsh words, I don’t use harsh words. We live in a different world. You can't say certain stuff. And when you say and do certain stuff, you have to be ready for the impact. Right? Like hey man, this ain't 1980. This ain't the '70s. You got to think. And then especially when you grab your phone and you introduce the conversation, right? I knew from the documentary [2018's Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, which promotes antisemitic views], once they said that phrase, I knew he was going to have problems.

And a lot of people said, "Oh, Shaq, you showed the documentary at your theater." Yeah, I did show it at my theater, because I allow the producers and movie guys to show at that theater. But I'm not going to grab the phone. As a businessman, I'mma let a guy show a film. But I knew once he did that, that one little phrase… I saw the CEO of Amazon said he's not taking it down. He's like, "Hey, everybody, different values, different beliefs." That's true. And I'm a respectful man. Whatever you believe in, I respect you for. I'm not an expert enough to say, "You're wrong! That shirt you’re wearing, that's not green, that's lime green!" I'm not going to fight you about it. If you think your shirt is green, I'mma say, "Cool. I think it's lime green." We have a respectful conversation, that's it. It's too much of, "You're wrong, I'm right!" That's why the world’s starting to get divided.

Listen, I respect everybody, I respect every religion, I respect every culture. So it wasn't harsh words, it was, "Hey, man, you got to think. You got to think. Especially when you want to grab your phone and show off and show how smart you are. You invited the conversation. You could've just had that conversation with your friends and your boys, and nobody would ever know.

"Who’s the first person to jump in my arms?" O’Neal says of the late Kobe Bryant. "Look at it. Every championship, who’s the first guy to run to my arms?"
Photo by Don Emmert | Getty Images.

The media took some blame in the series for amping up the problems between you and Kobe on the Lakers, but you also say in the series that you would leak stories and you played your part. How do you look back on that now?

It was the perfect plan. Marketing 101. Talk about me. I knew exactly what I was doing. Right? And then, listen, every team goes through that. All this, "Hey, man, I like you." Na, that's not how you win championships. You got to have fights, you got to have arguments. Because when you're in those certain situations and you teach yourself how to get out of those situations, nothing can distract you. This story that I created, that we created, it was definitely fictional. But if it was true, Google right now, “Shaq's first championship.” You'll see Reggie Miller, [Pacers] down by five or whatever, shoot the three. Miss it. Somebody gets the rebound, throw it up in the air. 30,000 people going crazy. It's about 1,500 people on the floor. My family's on the floor, his family, fans on the floor. Who's the first person to jump in my arms? Look at it. Every championship, who's the first guy to run to my arms?

So, yeah we had fights. I got a little brother, we fight all the time. But the key word you must understand is the respect was always there. When I get doubled, I'm looking for him. When I wasn't having a good game, I'm looking for him. And when he went to the hole and tried to do all that and he got doubled, he looking for me. That's all we needed, was respect. Everybody from the outside thinks it should be, "Oh, hello honey.” No, that's not how you win championships. So I'm not one of those guys, "It's the media’s fault." I knew exactly what I was doing.

Your other great partner was Dwyane Wade. What were the differences between him and Kobe as your partners and leaders of the team?

Me and Kobe, we came in together. Got signed on the same day. So, we had eight years to grow. I'm going to the Heat, I'm an older player, I ain't got time for these psychological games... Now you get rid of all that stuff. If we would've grown up together, it would have been the same thing. I would've molded him too. Because also what I learned to do with Kobe is, you get him mad, he plays on a different level. I knew that from the days we used to call him “Showboat.”

"Pass the ball, Showboat."

“Man, I ain't Showboat!"

I knew exactly what I was doing. Because I was the first one to see the kid when he was 18 years old. And I saw that he wanted to be great. A lot of kids at 18 were just happy to be there. He wanted to be the man. OK, you want to be the man, but you not the man yet. So, we're going to tell him, "You're not the man, you little punk." And it just drove him crazy, to where he had to go work out six, seven hours a day because he wanted to be well respected. And that's all my plan. I knew exactly what I was doing. Because guess what? I was raised by a drill sergeant. You got to break ‘em down, and then bring ‘em back up. And Kobe was a tough kid. He could take anything. So I could say damn near anything to him.

"No, I wasn’t always engaged," O’Neal says of his 19 seasons in the NBA. "And I’ll be the first to tell you it was boring."
Photo by Bob Berg | Getty Images.

You talk about how you’ve struggled to sleep since Kobe and your sister passed away. And you said you wished you had reached out to him again in later years. Is there anything in particular you wish you’d said?

No, it's just that when you're the leader of a family and people depend on you, you work, work, work, work, work, work, work. You take things for granted. Like, Man, let me call Kenny. Man, I done did three interviews a day, I'm tired, I'll call him tomorrow. And tomorrow ain't promised. Even with my sister, I went to see her when she was in the hospital. I should've stayed. But she said, "Hey, baby, I know you got to go to work." I go to work, and on the way back, she was already gone. So just instead of saying, "I'll do it tomorrow,” I try to get everything done today. It's not what we would've talked about. It's just talking at all. "What's up? How you doing? Oh, your daughter's going to USC? That's dope.”

In the doc, someone says of you, "He was so good it was sometimes boring for him." Is that how you felt, or were you always engaged?

No, I wasn't always engaged. And I'll be the first to tell you: it was boring. It's like you were talking about: "He's coming in out of shape." Who am I getting in shape for? Tim Duncan? I don't motherfuckin’ think so. David Robinson? Patrick Ewing? Nope. Don't fuckin’ need to. I get ready when I get ready! So yeah, it was boring. Because I'm programmed—the only people that could stop me is the earthlings. If the refs let me do what I was supposed to do, I could average 60. But every now and then, I’d throw a 'bow and they’d sit me down. I’d waste eight to ten minutes on the bench.

But yeah, it was boring. Because my mentality is: you ain't going to take my mama house away. You going to have to kill me first before you take my mother's house away. And nobody was raised like I'm raised. I knew who they were, how they grew up. Like Duncan, you were raised up in the Bahamas, swimming. You a good player, but ain't no way you going to fucking dominate me. All the ass whoopings I had to take—and all the times me and [my childhood friend] Kenny got jumped going to the corner store—I'm not going to let no dude that's swimming in blue water outplay me. It ain't going to happen. Me and Kenny dodging bullets, and dogs and shit chasing us.


From: Esquire U.S. 

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Jack Holmes
Senior Staff Writer
Jack Holmes is a Senior Staff Writer at Esquire, where he covers politics and sports. He also hosts Useful Context, a video series.
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