Merry Shaqmas from Shaqlanta!
The NBA great turned TNT analyst known as Shaq, but who introduces himself as Dr. O’Neal since earning a doctorate degree in education last year from Barry University, has been busy this holiday season. Wednesday night, he was at Philips Arena, where the Atlanta Hawks were playing the Sacramento Kings, the NBA team of which he is now part owner. Earlier this month, he partnered with the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation to deliver Christmas cheer to Humphries Elementary School.
And the other day, in between filming commercials, O’Neal was simply was in the mood to chat. So, off we went to Turner Studios in Midtown, where His Shaqness was ready to hold court, off the court.
"It was always my plan to branch out," he said of his many post-playing enterprises, which include stakes in the Five Guys burger chain and the 24-Hour Fitness chain as well as the, um, Shaqcramento Kings. "My motto has always been to surround yourself with people who were smarter than you."
O’Neal calls a 63,000-square-foot mansion in Orlando home, a tidbit shared under the “Shaq Facts” tab on his website, but he’s a part-time Atlantan, too.
“I’ve had a condo here in Buckhead for about 15 years,” he said. “When I played on other teams, this was one of my favorite towns to come to. It was so culturally mixed.”
His real estate holdings also now include a six-acre farm in Gwinnett County.
“I’m known as the Lord of Lawrenceville,” he joked.
The “Shaq Inc.” story looking at his various business ventures has been told by numerous media outlets including Fortune magazine, which ran a story with that title earlier this year. His website spells out the slew of partnerships he’s forged, from signature sneakers to the Shaquille O’Neal line of jewelry at Zales.
We were summoned to a Turner Studios green room, where O’Neal folded his 325-pound, 7-foot-1 frame into a couch that seemed comically tiny, simply to discuss his affinity for Atlanta.
“I’ve been eating at some fabulous restaurants,” he said. “10 Degrees South. Cheesecake Factory. I like Davio’s. It’s nice, quiet and friendly.”
For years we’ve been getting Shaq sightings from area restaurants, each with an intriguing menu quirk. Why, we were finally able to ask, does he always eat dessert first?
“Growing up as a youngster, we never had dessert. We could never afford dessert,” he said. “We had Neapolitan ice cream from time to time, which I hated. I always said if I ever make it big, I’m going to eat dessert first.”
He did, so he does.
The endorsement deals he signs onto pay homage to his formative years, too.
“After I won my first championship, Wheaties asked me to be on the box,” he said. “As a young African-American, we couldn’t afford Wheaties. I said, ‘I’m a Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops guy.’”
That didn’t work out, and O’Neal eventually did grace Wheaties boxes. Still, he stressed that he never wants to seem too big for his britches.
“My family’s always had a Buick,” he said, effortlessly working in a plug for another endorsement partner. “It’s a dangerous word that people call image. To me, image is reality. If you try to portray something that you’re not, it will catch up with you.”
We had to talk fast. O’Neal was about to tape commercials for Gold Bond and Icy Hot (two products he personally uses and likes), so we started firing as many questions as we had time for. Since Atlanta seems to be ground zero for reality show programming, has he considered the small screen?
“You can’t afford me,” he says to scare them off.
Will he do another rap album?
How’d he get into moviemaking? He played a comical cop in this summer’s ensemble “Grown Ups 2” and will appear next in locally shot “The Familymoon,” both Adam Sandler projects.
“Adam Sandler used to tell me when I was playing, ‘I’m going to put you in a movie, big guy.’”
Does he think Chris Christie, governor of his native New Jersey, would make a good president? (O’Neal endorsed Christie’s re-election bid.)
“I think he would. He’s tough. He’s from Jersey. He’s a nice guy. He gets things done.”
Would O’Neal ever consider getting into politics?
“Law enforcement politics. I’d love to be sheriff one day.”
What would people be surprised to know about him?
“I don’t have a bodyguard.”
Our time was up. Dr. O’Neal’s handlers had come to collect him. One last question: What would this Renaissance man like to do that he’s not yet had a chance to?
“I would like to meet the Queen of England. I would love to meet Prince Albert of Monaco. I know people like that are busy. I would just take her hand, say, ‘Hi, Queen.’ I would love to sky-dive. I would like to go to the moon for a day. I’m a dreamer.”