Thirty years ago, Shaquille O’Neal offered a terrifying glimpse into the future for his opponents. During his NBA debut, a young O’Neal grabbed a rebound and went coast-to-coast for a dunk, exhibiting a singular combination of size, athleticism, and power. In an era when Hall of Fame centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing ruled the paint, those attributes set O’Neal apart from his peers. O’Neal’s dominance, along with his alluring personality and tendency for silliness, placed all 300-plus pounds of him at the front of the league’s new crop of stars.
Since retiring in 2011, the ever-enterprising O’Neal has become a highly sought-after pitchman and a pillar of TNT’s Inside the NBA. As an analyst, O’Neal has been notoriously disdainful of contemporary basketball and critical of current players—particularly big men who would rather shoot jumpers than utilize the brute-force approach that helped make him a Hall of Famer. Three decades later, O’Neal, now 50, has gone from the young guy who was one of the new faces atop the NBA to an often hypercritical former player. This journey is explored in O’Neal’s new four-part HBO docuseries, Shaq.
The film, which was directed by Robert Alexander and premieres on November 23, examines O’Neal’s early life, his up-and-coming years as a pro with the Orlando Magic, the glory and drama of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship three-peat, and winning his fourth title with the Miami Heat, along with his many off-court endeavors. It zooms in on aspects of his personal life, particularly the Army brat’s strict upbringing. Hard lessons from his mother, Dr. Lucille O’Neal, and his stepfather (who he’s long referred to as his father), the late Sergeant Phillip Harrison, are at the root of his no-excuses assessment of today’s players. In true O’Neal fashion, he doesn’t budge when pushed about his point of view.
Shaq is part of a recent spate of legacy-affirming sports docs, including The Last Dance, They Call Me Magic, Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers, and The Redeem Team. If The Last Dance was Michael Jordan’s sanctioned hero story and such films are all the rage, why wouldn’t O’Neal want his own? Ahead of Shaq’s premiere, The Ringer talked to O’Neal about his parents’ influence, his perspective on modern basketball, and his feelings about his own legacy.
I know these projects take time to complete. How long has this documentary been in the works?
Like two years. We had to gather information and talk to people. … I remember watching and going, “Oh snap, I forgot that happened.” I’m the type that works and then tomorrow I have something else to do—not that I forget, but I compartmentalize. So a lot of stuff was so far back in my memory bank that I couldn’t even recall what, when, and how.
You entered a league ruled by Michael Jordan that was still abundant with centers. In the film, you talked about how the best way to show players like Olajuwon, Robinson, and Ewing respect was to show them no respect. But you also said that you felt too in awe of Olajuwon when you played against him in the 1995 NBA Finals. Was the difference that it was your first time in the Finals?
It was my first time in the Finals and he and I had the same agent, so we kind of worked out a little bit. He was just a nice guy, and when I really respect you, I’m never going to talk trash to you or do anything. But I tried talking to him and he didn’t respond, so that kind of let me know that he had me. I knew that if I said something to the Georgetown boys, they’d get pissed. I knew David Robinson would get all military on me. With Hakeem, I’d elbow him and he’d go, “Nice elbow, brotha.” … But growing up with a drill sergeant, you learn not to make the same mistake twice. That’s why I said to myself, “If I ever get back to the Finals, I don’t give a [mouths the word “fuck”] who I’m playing—they gon’ die.” No more nice or respect and all of that. I didn’t follow my own rules, I actually showed him too much respect. He was averaging 31 [points] and I was averaging 28, but we got swept, so he owns the title of “‘He dogged you out.”
You had 61 points and 23 rebounds against the Clippers on your 28th birthday. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an assistant coach for them at the time, and this was after he was critical of you. When you heard the critiques from the likes of him and Magic Johnson, who you respected and looked up to, was it similar to hearing your stepfather pushing you harder?
The great Dr. Lucille O’Neal, who happens to be my mother, told me, “Before you get upset at criticism, make sure there’s no truth to it.” The only criticism of me was, ”Oh, he didn’t win [a championship] yet.” I could be as mad as I wanted, but it was the truth. But that birthday game, when he didn’t look at me, I was like, “Oh, you’re not gonna look at me? You don’t have to look at me, but you’re gonna know my name by the end of this game.”
When you won your first title in 2000, you said your stepfather took all of your MVP awards—All-Star Game, regular season, and Finals—away and told you that you could have them back when you won another title. How much has his discipline and approach to keeping you hungry and motivated, even after you made it to the league, informed your criticism of the modern NBA—particularly modern big men?
I still go by his practices today. For example, I have a chef. I say, “You’re only allowed to put one slice of turkey on that sandwich, homie.” I know I make a lot of money now, but it’s the same thing. You have to push yourself, but you have to be honest with yourself and allow other people to be honest with you. When I’m criticizing guys, I’m really giving them information. But if you’re too sensitive and emotional, you’ll never see what I’m doing. I’m saying, “You should do this” or “You should do that.” If you take it as me taking a personal shot, then you’re not really paying attention.
Do you feel like your generation of players is more deferential to the legends than players are today?
Yes, and the reason is the monetary value. Guys are making way more than we did, so in their minds, they think they’re better than we were. But that’s not the case, because there’s a lot of bums out there making a lot of money. And yes, I said it.
You’ve been criticized for your critiques of the modern NBA. What is it about the evolution of basketball that you’re put off by?
Because it’s soft, and I stand by what I say when I say it. If you’re a big guy—like, 7 foot and 300 pounds—and you want to shoot jumpers and then wonder why you’re not winning, there it is. You have to take advantage of your athleticism and size; the more you do that, the more success you’ll have. And then everyone is a follower. I would average 60 points per game in this league and let me tell you why: I’m not shootin’ no mufuckin’ jumpers—not one. I’m gonna run to the middle of the lane every mufuckin’ time—oh, sorry, my momma is here [laughs]. I’m gonna run to the hole every time, they’re gonna have to call 100 three-second violations, but I’m getting layups and dunks. Every time you shoot a three and miss, I’m gonna run right by you, be the first guy down the floor and get easy buckets. And you can’t flagrant foul like you used to, so I’m gonna go to the line a lot. I would average 50—and I’d be the highest paid in the league.
You value rank, respect, and the concept of paying your dues. As an outsider, I’ve always viewed the NBA as a fraternity of sorts. In addition to having a drill sergeant as a stepfather, how much did being in an actual fraternity shape how you responded to criticism and then how you assess current players?
The way I deal with criticism is that if there’s no truth in the criticism, then it’s my job to make you shut up. “Shaq’s only shooting 30 percent from the free-throw line, he’ll never win.” OK, but if I score 40 against this dude or average 40, then I’m definitely going to win. And then after I win my trophy, it’s just more criticism: “Bet he can’t get another one.” OK, watch this. “Bet he can’t get another one.” So there’s always gonna be criticism, but at the end of the day, when you open up that book, you will see my name. That’s all that matters to me and my family.
Do you hold certain players to a higher standard because you feel like you were held to a higher standard and responded by rising to challenges?
Yes, that’s all. If you don’t rise to the moment, then are you really that great? If you can’t operate in chaos, are you really great?
I know you’re looking to tell your story on your own terms through this docuseries, but how much of it is about reaffirming your legacy and making sure that people know about your credentials and remember what you accomplished?
Legacy is all a matter of opinion. I’m looking at nine people right here [gestures toward his family]; their opinions are the only ones that matter. Mother, brother, sisters, auntie, uncles—because we were told, a lot of times, that we weren’t gonna make it. We were told that we would be where we were from—Newark, New Jersey—and that was it. So whatever people say about me … listen, I know my name is gonna be juggled around—“Was he the best? Was he the second best?”—but legacy is a matter of opinion. It’s on whoever’s writing that day and how they feel about you. But I have three statues and three retired jerseys, so I’d like to think that when you look up and you see “O’Neal,” and they ask “Hey, who’s O’Neal?” people will say he was a bad dude.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.