Shaq: A Sit-Down With The Last Don

For his first and only Dime cover story in Dime #38 (December 2007/January 2008), we wanted to get Shaquille O’Neal‘s take on his legacy, the new crop of NBA big men waiting in the wings and some of the most pressing issues facing the League, and basketball in general, at the time. I spoke to Shaq towards the end of the exhibition season one day after practice. His Heat squad was facing an uncertain future, knowing that Dwyane Wade would be out until at least mid-November, and the interview took place shortly before the team jettisoned Antoine Walker to Minnesota for Ricky Davis in an effort to keep afloat until Wade came back…

*** *** ***

Dime: For your cover shoot, you had a specific theme in mind. You wanted to be portrayed as “The Godfather” of the NBA. Why did you pick that premise?
Shaq: We all like those movies growing up – Godfather, Scarface, movies like that. That theme is big with me. I’m in charge. I have an RV with Godfather and Scarface stuff painted all over it that I drove myself from Orlando to LSU for a football game this year. People damn near ran off the road when they saw me.

Dime: How does the Godfather theme relate to you in terms of basketball and the NBA?
Shaq: I’ve paid my dues in this game to become the most dominant big man in NBA history. I came in and took out all of the great centers standing in my way, from Ewing to David Robinson to Hakeem Olajuwon. And now all of these young guys have come in looking to take me out, doing whatever they can to take me out, whining and crying. But it’s not happening.

Dime: Who, specifically?
Shaq: Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, guys like that. But it’s not so much them whining. It’s their coaches and their team owners. They’ve had to change the rules of the game just to deal with me.

Dime: How so?
Shaq: The Board of Governors meets every year to go over the rules, and every year they only have one problem – and that’s me. Their teams can’t stop me so they have to come up with ways to change the game to try and stop me. The way they look at it, the rules might not be good for me, but I’m just one player. I’m just one player, while 200, 300 other players benefit. For example, I’m the only player in the League that gets fronted and backed night in and night out.

Dime: Has it worked?
Shaq: Not yet. Maybe when I’m 50.

Dime: Do you think you get the credit you deserve for your skills?
Shaq: No. Absolutely not. Because of the rules, I can’t showcase my skills. And because I don’t show my skills, people don’t think I can do it. But I have the spins and the crossovers and all that Hakeem stuff. I’m programmed to do it all, baby. If tomorrow, David Stern said no more double- and triple-teams on me, people would be like “Holy shit! Shaq can do that?!”

Dime: What do you think of the state of basketball today? Not just as it pertains to the NBA, but to basketball in general.
Shaq: I think the state of the NBA is good right now. Every single team has a superstar or a potential superstar in the making. It’s a lot like when I grew up watching the NBA. I think college basketball is boring. High school is a little more exciting these days, but it still isn’t where it needs to be.

Dime: Why do you think basketball at the college and high school levels is suffering?
Shaq: You hear this all the time, but it’s true: there’s a lack of skill. Kids don’t grow up learning the fundamentals, and then they find themselves in the NBA. It’s like sending someone into a knife-throwing contest who’s never practiced throwing knives before. It’s not good.

At the same time, though, it’s hard. Our society glorifies fanciness, especially when it’s on the basketball court. If a guy makes the right pass, the most you’ll ever hear is “Nice pass.” If he gets all crazy with it and goes behind his head or something, “Nice pass” turns into “Oh my God!”

Here’s an example: We’ve all seen a lot of John Stockton highlights, but they usually always end with a Karl Malone finish. You’ll never see a highlight of one of Stockton’s perfect bounce passes to Jeff Hornacek for a jumper, only clips that end with Malone’s hand behind his head dunking and he’s doing all of his “Mailman” stuff.

But like I said, it’s hard. I mean I go to the AND 1 games. I’ll take my kids to them. It’s entertainment.

Dime: Is your legacy something you think about a lot?
Shaq: I actually don’t think about it at all. That’s for the so-called “others” to think about and decide.

Dime: “The others” meaning who? The media?
Shaq: Yes. The media, the Hall of Fame. You look at where “The others” put guys like Bill Walton. Bill Walton only has one or two championships, but the way they talk about him you’d think he had a lot more. I have four. There are a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame and I’ve already passed them by, but you would never know it the way they talk about them. I have four rings, but I want six. Maybe that will do it.

Dime: Is that what drives you? You already have more rings than most players in NBA history, you have all the money you’ll ever need, and no matter what, you’ll go down as one of the greatest players ever. Is the drive for six rings what keeps you in the game and on the grind?
Shaq: That’s the legacy I drive for. That’s it. I have three years left on my contract and I want to go out with a bang. Maybe I’ll end up with five, maybe I’ll end up with four. But I want six. That’s what it’s all about.

Dime: The NBA, and sports in general, went through a lot this past summer, from Michael Vick to Tim Donaghy. There was, and is, always a lot of talk about professional athletes as role models for kids. What is your stance? Is it part of your job, or is it like when Charles Barkley said, “I am not a role model.”
Shaq: I think when Charles was making that statement it was somewhat true. Look up “role” in a dictionary – it means “to play a part.” And that’s what it is, it’s acting. I prefer to be a “real” model for kids. I speak the same language they do. I tell them to always be a leader and not a follower.

I think ultimately parents need to take responsibility. Don’t tell kids to be like Shaq. Don’t do that. I’d say, “Don’t be like me, be better than me.” My mom and dad wouldn’t let me think that I wanted to be somebody else. They wouldn’t want me pretending to be Patrick Ewing on the basketball court while I was out there practicing; they wanted me to be the first Shaq.

I would so much rather that we as a society glorify police or teachers or the guy who runs the local store. Don’t be like me; you don’t know what kind of person I am. Kids can’t call me and be like, “Shaq, should I do drugs?” Kids can’t call me and ask me that. They should be having that conversation with their parents.

If you look at professional athletes, it’s the guys who concentrate on playing a role who get in trouble. You can’t play a role forever. You can’t have lawyers and suits tell you what do and how to live your life. Everything I do I was taught by my parents. I can’t let lawyers tell me how to live. Like this past summer, some guys in suits were like, “You know what would be great, Shaq? If you went to Iraq.” Yeah, it would be cool, but I’m not gonna go and then come right back. I’m not going to go do that just for some publicity, just to take some pictures for the press. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go for real, you know? Not just because the guys in suits think it would be a good photo op. I can’t let other people tell me how to live.

Dime: When you talk about suits dictating the moves that players make, do you think that’s a result of the way the game and its players have changed since you came into the League? Players these days – from superstars to the last guy on the bench – are like their own mini-corporations. They’re surrounded by agents, publicists, marketing people, etc. How do you think the League and its players have changed since you broke in?
Shaq: The League is very, very corporate. And I think it has to define what it is. By that I mean the money that comes in – half of the money is from sponsorship, a quarter is from TV and the last quarter is from kids buying products. What’s the most important part?

And then in terms of players, it’s a double-edged sword for them. I think they should be able to wear whatever they want to wear. If you want to wear baggy jeans, you should be able to wear baggy jeans. If you want to wear sweatpants that are hanging off your ass, then you should be able to. But just know that it’s a double-edged sword. Players should be able to define themselves as mini-corporations under the big umbrella of the big corporation that is the NBA. But the players need to know that if you play the game and do what they want, you get to be part of Microsoft, you know? If you don’t play along, you’re stuck being Dell or Apple or whatever. It’s that simple.

Dime: Who is the best player you ever played against?
Shaq: Hakeem Olajuwon. No doubt. He had all that shit to his game and you just couldn’t break him. All the other guys I’ve played against, I could get physical with them or say stuff about them in the papers to shake them. And it always worked. But I couldn’t shake Hakeem.

Dime: Are there any young guys coming up now who you feel give you a real battle?
Shaq: No. The only thing these young guys might have on me now is speed. Sometimes they can run around me, or by me and sometimes even over me. But never through me. Never.

Dime: Do any of those young guys, or other young players in the League ever come to you for advice?
Shaq: Not really. A lot of these guys live in their own experience and their own brand and they’re wrapped up. Remember, we all have egos. When I came in I didn’t want to hear anything from anybody. I know how I was, so I don’t expect guys to come to me and it doesn’t bother me that they don’t.

Dime: When your contract expires, assuming that you’ll retire, where will you be? What will you be doing?
Shaq: I’m going to be in Orlando. I’m going to be in law enforcement. I want to be sheriff of that town. I want to be in the areas where I speak the language. This is not a joke; it’s not just for show. I really want to be working where it will matter most. I will be walking those streets saying, “This is what’s up.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter at @PatrickECassidy.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.