The Boys & Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee has a long history of welcoming some big names to their annual Great Futures Gala, and this year was no exception as Shaquille O'Neal charmed the crowd at the annual fundraising event. From anecdotes about his childhood spent at the Boys & Girls Clubs in New Jersey to hilarious stories from his nearly two-decade basketball career, Shaq entertained and inspired the audience, young and old alike. We sat down with the giant star for an interview before he took the stage at the Omni Nashville Hotel. We chatted about his benevolent nature, his business acumen and his thoughts on social media.
What did the Boys & Girls Clubs mean to you as a kid?
I lived in the projects [in New Jersey], but fortunately, the Boys & Girls Club was right across the street. So I was instructed to, after school, wait there until one of [my parents] picked me up. Inside, there were a lot of rules — when you come in, show us your homework, do your homework then after that, you can play — so it taught me about being focused on education. It also taught me about being a leader because I was always the biggest one in there, and the counselor would always say, "Listen, all these kids follow you; make sure you do the right thing." You know, leadership is about making people follow you because they want to, as opposed to because they have to, so it taught me that, and it was a place where I could just sit and cultivate the character the world knows as Shaq. And it's a lot of character. I was at home, and I'd see the Hulk and always say, "Man, I wish I could do that," [or] I'd see a wrestler or a rapper or a basketball player — there was a lot of things I wanted to be, and the counselors used to always say, "If you put your mind to it, you can become anything you want."
You've been really charitable in your career. How do you choose which organizations and causes to donate your time and resources to?
I wish I could take sole responsibility, but my mother just calls me and says, "I need to do this; I need to do that," and I just hit her with a "yes, ma'am." One of my favorites is Shaq-a-Claus. She was doing something for the Boys & Girls Club in Orlando, and she spoke at the event, and a thousand kids were not getting anything for Christmas, so my mother called me [and] said, "I need to borrow some money." But I could hear something was wrong with her voice, and she said, "I need to buy some kids some toys." I said, "How many kids are there?" She said, "A thousand," and I said, "I'll take care of it." My mom is the type of mom that doesn't want anything — like I had to beg her for me to buy her a new house — so I told her, "I'll take care of it." I didn't have a plan, so I'm on the way home, and by the grace of God, there was a U-Haul place there. Me and my friends pulled over, got three trucks and went to Toys R Us, and we wiped them out, and that's Shaq-a-Claus. My heart weeps when I see homeless people, like I wish I could just be the one to eradicate all homelessness all over the world, so we do something every Thanksgiving called Shaqsgiving where we feed them stuff that I would eat.
You experienced a great deal of success and celebrity at a young age, and you had this really long career, yet you seem to have remained very grounded and scandal-free throughout that time. Was there a person or a lesson that you credit with keeping you level-headed?
Well, the lesson is [that] I don't think I'm better than the average man or woman. Second lesson is, I realize that I'm a lucky guy. Third, I never take anything for granted. Fourth, when you step on people on the way up, when you fall, those people will step on you. Five, I don't like to create enemies, so I have to look over my shoulders. And lastly, I'm just nice to people. I don't want to be in that superstar category. I don't want to be that. When it's all said and done and people say, "What do you think about Shaq?" the only thing I want them to say is he was a nice person. That's all I want to be known as.
You've had a lot of success in various fields outside of basketball. Do you have a guiding business principle you follow?
My guiding principle is: develop partnerships. A lot of people in my position lose money and lose assets when they get into fields that they're not competent to run or know about. For example, I'm in a restaurant business. Rather than me trying to run 45 or 50 franchises, I hire a franchise expert and develop relationships with him. But you also have to be educated enough to know what you're looking at, so I think having a masters in business administration helps. I don't micromanage, but whenever I want to look at the books, I can.
Is there anything new on the horizon for you? Anything you've dreamed about doing that you haven't yet pursued?
I was at a technology summit one day, and I want to say it was either Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, one of those guys, that said, "I want to be involved in things that change the world." So that's kind of what I want too, whether it's investments or speaking or just doing certain things. I have six children, and I want to continue to set positive memories in their mind so they understand what it is to be successful, how to work hard and do things like that. But I don't really think about it. I just like to work and have fun and just like to make people smile.
I'm curious about your relationship with social media. You started your career at a time when social media wasn't a thing, but you seem to have really embraced it. How would you define your relationship with social media?
Sixty percent to make you laugh, doing something silly, crazy; 30 percent to inspire you, a quote, a story I see; and 10 percent to sell Shaq. That's how I look at it. That's always been my method, and then I try not to do it too much.
Are you grateful social media wasn't around when you started your career?
Yeah, because I probably would've been in a lot more trouble. [laughs]
I saw that the Staples Center recently unveiled a statue of you. I can't even imagine what it feels like to have a statue erected in your honor and to still be honored and celebrated five or six years after retiring. That's obviously not something the average person experiences. They may work a career their entire life, then they retire, and that's it. How does it feel to know you still mean so much to your fans?
It means that I did everything the right way. I rubbed people the right way. I did it with honor; I did it with class, and I did it with respect. And the crazy thing about the statue is I can remember as a youngster, I had a friend who was a white guy, and he loved the Celtics, and I loved the Lakers. And his name was Mitch, and we used to fight every day. I actually thought I was Magic; I really did. I thought everything I did was Magic Johnson, and then for me to become a Laker and then get my jersey retired next to him and have a statue next to him was just a great honor.
This is my one basketball question: who do you love watching now?
Steph Curry. And the only reason I like watching him is because he does stuff I couldn't do, which makes it entertaining for me. When I see another guy that does stuff that I've seen before, I'm not super impressed, but he impresses me because the stuff he's doing I've never seen before, and I've played against some of the greatest.