HBO turns spotlight on Shaq in new docuseries

Shaquille O’Neal has been literally larger than life since he was born. He was more than 6 feet tall by age 10. He was a hyped high school player and college player. He arrived in 1992 in the NBA with oversized expectations. Even after his Hall of Fame NBA career concluded, he became a sought-after TV commentator and a successful businessman.

So HBO had plenty of material when it commissioned what would become the four-part docuseries “Shaq,” debuting Nov. 23.

O’Neal spends a major chunk of time in metro Atlanta in part due to his work with TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” He owns local Papa Johns and Krispy Kreme franchises. Before a screening on Nov. 14 at the Illuminarium off the Beltline near North Avenue, Shaq said he spent hours talking about his life to the documentarians.

But given how much he has parsed his ups and downs over the years, he said he really didn’t pick up any fresh insights. (He had already written a best-selling memoir a decade ago called “Shaq: Uncut.”)

“I already know myself,” O’Neal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a brief interview on the red carpet. “I am myself. I wanted you to know stuff about me you didn’t know. I’m not used to being vulnerable so I opened up a little more.”

Credit: RODNEY HO

Credit: RODNEY HO

O’Neal was able to honor his late stepfather Phillip Harris, who died in 2013, as well as his mother Lucille. His close-knit family helped shape him and support him through his formative years well into adulthood.

His stepdad “used to tell me all the time how proud he was of me,” O’Neal said. “And my definition of being rich is being able to see my mother all the time. And if she needs something, I’m there for her. If she needs me to give $1,000 to a local church, I’m there.”

Robert Alexander, who directed the series, said when HBO asked him to work on the project, he jumped aboard with enthusiasm.

“I love rich characters to make films,” he said. “Shaq is as frame filling as it comes.”

The interviews with Shaq went smoothly: “We did three or four days, three hours at a time. We kind of flowed. It’s about energy, connecting.”

And while O’Neal’s life as a basketball player, from his aggressive play to his free throw conniptions, have been chronicled ad nauseam by fans and critics alike over the years, Alexander also explores his robust post-NBA career in the fourth episode.

“The nuance of his business approach is interesting,” Alexander said. “To me, it’s very unexpected.”

Alexander said he decided to design each episode a little differently.

The first episode, focused on O’Neal’s childhood, is modeled after monster movies. The second episode, which honed in on his rise with the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers, is inspired by comic books. Episode three, which explores the tensions he had with Kobe Bryant, was more like a film noir. The final episode, which covers his final NBA years and his post-basketball life, plays with social media visual tropes.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

His buddies Ernie Johnson and Charles Barkley from “Inside the NBA” pop up in that fourth episode and also came to support O’Neal at the screening.

“While Shaq could play the game at a high level, it was his enthusiasm and joy for the game that was infectious,” Johnson said on the red carpet. “He knew what resonated with fans. He knew that sliding on the floor to the baseline as a 7-foot-1 guy was entertaining. He always knew when the camera was on him.”

ESPN and others chased after O’Neal once he retired, but he opted for TNT. “Our boss at the time David Levy told Shaq, ‘We don’t need you on our show but we’d like to have you.’ I think that kind of honesty worked,” Johnson said.

Early on, he recalled O’Neal trying too hard. “We were joking that he was going to need to set himself on fire by the fifth week the way he was going,” he said. “You don’t need to go that fast. The mark of a good player is they let the game come to them. He figured out how do that with us.”

Barkley said it took only about three weeks for Shaq to lean into the show’s unique rhythms. He told Shaq not to think too much about it and go with the flow. “We’re just talking basketball,” he said. “We’re not saving the world.”

O’Neal, who turned 50 this year, simply wants people to remember him as a nice guy more than a basketball player or pitchman. He said he is always happy to take selfies with fans, shake hands and kiss babies.

“My mission now is to just brighten people’s day,” he said in the fourth episode.


IF YOU WATCH

“Shaq”

Debuts 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23 on HBO and available the next day on HBO Max.