Growing up in New Jersey, superstar Shaquille O’Neal had it rough. He credits the building across the street from the projects where he lived with keeping him active, and therefore alive. The time he spent at the Boys and Girls Club made him who he is today, and he wants everyone to know that. The gentle giant with a nonstop sense of humor – and a PhD – has a special message for any kid today who is struggling in the projects: I’m just like you.

At 7 feet 1 inch, Shaquille O’Neal is a presence everywhere he goes. But at the Boys and Girls Clubs, he’s just Uncle Shaq.

“Growing up in Newark, the Boys and Girls Clubs were a safe haven for me,” recalls the 15-time NBA All-Star, known for his great dunking ability. “I lived in a rough neighborhood and my parents couldn’t afford babysitters, and the club was just across the street from our projects. I was instructed to go there and stay until 6 or 7 o’clock until my parents came home.”

“It was there that I cultivated the Shaq character. After we did our homework you’d see kids playing basketball – let me go and get my Dr. J on. After that you’d see kids dancing and playing music – let me get my LL Cool J on.”

Even more important than honing his basketball skills, Shaq credits his home away from home with keeping him out of trouble, away from the drugs and gang violence that surrounded him. To pay it forward, he’s been a staunch supporter of the organization, whose mission he wholeheartedly endorses: 1) that every kid graduates from high school and has a plan for the future, 2) that all kids have healthy lifestyles, including 30 minutes of physical activity every day and 3) that kids have a strong character and display leadership.

All-star athlete Shaquille O’Neal has no trouble really playing the part at story time

All-star athlete Shaquille O’Neal has no trouble really playing the part at story time

At least once a month, he visits clubs to share his story. “I know I have an inspiring story that all kids can relate to,” says Shaq, 43. “‘I was just like you,’ I tell them. ‘I used to wear the same jeans on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a different shirt, because I couldn’t afford more. I didn’t always have the Jordans or the Reeboks; I wore regular shoes.’ I’m just like them, living their dreams.”

“When Shaquille O’Neal walks into a room,” says Bernadette Shanahan, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County, “everybody sits up and takes notice. It’s not too often that you see someone so tall. He has a presence that lights up a room. In fact, one of the kids asked him his shoe size – a 22!”

When Shaq visited the Camden County facility, “he talked about how he overcame some of the challenges and struggles he faced,” Shanahan continues.

“When you looked at the kids, you could see his message really resonated with them. Having him come and share his experiences as a child, probably about the same age they were, made them sit up and take notice that it doesn’t really matter where I come from, what matters is the path I take.”

Shaq says his favorite moments are when young adults inspire him, sharing their personal stories and telling the athlete how he influenced their lives. “Things like, ‘I was there when you gave a speech. I used to be in trouble, and I got out of trouble and now I’m in law school,’ or ‘I’m in college and got a full scholarship.’ I hear stories like that all the time,” he says.

Shaq visited Camden’s Boys and Girls Club with Mayor Dana Redd and Gov. Chris Christie

Shaq visited Camden’s Boys and Girls Club with Mayor Dana Redd and Gov. Chris Christie

From playing “Shaqa Claus” and providing gifts at Christmas to promoting anti-bullying campaigns, Shaq’s partnership with the clubs and their kids is widespread. His generosity to the clubs goes back two decades, when he donated $1 million to buy computers. “When I got big-time and saw the world was stepping into technology,” he says, “I realized people in lower-income neighborhoods didn’t have access to them.”

“Now 95 to 98 percent of our clubs have learning and technology centers because of Shaq’s vision,” says Frank Sanchez, national vice president of community affairs and business.

Shaq credits his parents for teaching the importance of education throughout his life. “My parents didn’t have college educations, but they were very, very smart,” he says. “Like all parents, they wanted their children to be better than them, so they stressed education, being a leader, doing the right thing and giving back.”

The family moved about every four years, because Shaq’s father was in the military. He attributes living in Germany, Louisiana and Texas with giving him a broader understanding of people. Despite the instability of his home, Shaq often talks about his parents and his admiration for how they raised him.

“It’s impossible to talk about Shaquille O’Neal without talking about his mother,” says Sanchez. “She was relentless at providing him opportunity and relentless at protecting her son. There would be no Shaq if it wasn’t for his mother, Lucille O’Neal.”

Lucille, too, was a veteran of the Boys and Girls Clubs. They are the first mother and son inducted into the club’s National Hall of Fame, says Sanchez. Together, Shaq and Lucille led the club’s 2014 Back to School Campaign.

Shaq also credits his dad, Phillip, who he says would share subtle lessons with him. One time, Phillip saw a homeless man holding a sign that said, “I’ll work for food.” His father gave the man food, some money and told him to take care of himself.

“He said, ‘Son, if you ever make it big time and you can help those in need, be sure you put a smile on their face,” Shaq says. “Make sure you’re nice, humble and always friendly to people.’”

And make it big, he did. His basketball career from 1992 through 2011 included stints on the Orlando Magic, LA Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. Among his many achievements were four NBA championships and three NBA finals MVP awards. He was known as a leader on the court, and he continues to be a role model for young athletes off the court.

“A lot of kids believe sports is their way out, but education is part of that,” he says. “How many of us went pro, then left pro and didn’t have enough education to know how to handle our finances?”

Shaq left Louisiana State University for the NBA after three years. In 2000, he fulfilled a promise to his mother when he finished college, earning his bachelor’s degree. He even missed a basketball game to attend graduation. He went on to earn his masters through the University of Phoenix in 2005 and, ultimately, his doctorate in leadership and education from Barry University in 2012.

“I would walk into a business meeting in my expensive suit, and everybody would overlook me. So I got my masters in business, so they’d know that I understand all the business terms. As far as getting my doctorate, my mother said we didn’t have any PhDs in the family,” he says. “I wanted to be the first Dr. O’Neal.”

Shaq’s business empire is massive. He lends his name and image to dozens of brands, including Reebok, IcyHot, Gold Bond and Buick. His face graces Arizona Iced Tea cans, and he has his own Shaq Dunkman shoe line.

He’s also become a renowned basketball analyst as co-anchor of the Emmy Award-winning show “Inside the NBA” on TNT. Alongside former Philadelphia ’76er Charles Barkley; Kenny Smith, winner of two NBA championships; and veteran sportscaster Ernie Johnson, Shaq has become a respected sports commentator – with a lot of jokes and horseplay thrown in.

He attributes the show’s success to its anchors. “We have the advantage because we played, we dominated, we won championships, and we add a lot of humor to our show,” he says.

Shaq insists his sense of humor comes naturally. “I was always the class clown,” he says. “I always wanted to touch people by making them smile.” In fact, his friend, comedian Kevin Hart, told Shaq he was naturally funny – a pretty strong endorsement, Shaq is quick to note.

The athlete also appeared in the movies “Grown Ups 2” alongside Adam Sandler, “Kazaam” and “Blue Chips,” and he sharpens his comic chops in The Comedy Shaq Network on YouTube. He’s also made appearances on several TV shows, including episodes of “Fear Factor” and “Jackass.”

Shaq is a family man with six children – three boys and three girls ranging in age from 7 to 18. He prides himself on being a dad and passing on the values he learned from his own parents. He’d prefer, though, that his kids not follow in his footsteps as a professional athlete.

“One: it will put a lot of pressure on them, and two: it’s not important,” he says. “I’m more interested that they get an education and follow their dreams. Maybe I could help them cultivate their dreams. I’m teaching them about nepotism, but I’m teaching them in the right way.”

“In this world it’s about what you know and who you know. Your father is a successful man, so let’s just say I give you a business. You’re going to have to know how to run that business. You want to play basketball? Cool, but you must have a college degree, and you have to be business educated.”

In the meantime, Shaq loves coaching his kids’ teams, eagerly noting his undefeated record. He says his coaching style is all about having fun while learning the fundamentals.

Shaq is also a fan of social media, dubbing himself “the world’s tallest geek.” He has nearly 10 million Twitter followers and close to five million “Likes” on his Facebook page. Shaq recently finished a 60-day workout plan, hoping to inspire fans to stay in shape. “I’m gonna try to get me a sexy six-pack so I can take my shirt off,” he jokes.

Despite his good-humored nature, the professional athlete is focused on honing his business skills.

“I just want to continue to maximize my potential,” he says. “I plan to take advantage of all the business opportunities as a young up-and-coming entrepreneur.”

October 2015
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