A room full of cameramen, assistants, Krispy Kreme executives and film producers are doubled over in laughter. On the monitors, a room away, Shaquille O’Neal, once the most dominant force in basketball, is blasting Beyoncé off of his phone and serenading a doughnut as he slowly eats it. For the next 20 minutes, O’Neal shuffles through music on his phone for an impromptu karaoke session, mostly playing, as he calls them, “’80s white guy classics.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Atlanta, the work home of O’Neal, both at Turner where he does Inside the NBA and as the proud new owner of the Krispy Kreme off of Ponce de Leon Avenue. O’Neal sits at a table where for two hours as he shoots a new commercial advertising the company’s newest addition to the menu, coffee.
The idea for the ad is simple. Blind taste testers come in and try one cup of coffee, and then a cup of Krispy Kreme’s coffee along with a doughnut. However, the star of the show is O’Neal, who surprises the testers when they walk in by his presence. At times, he tries his best to hide and surprise them as they walk in, but there are few things in the East Atlanta studio large enough to proved cover for the mammoth of a man.
Once at the table, O’Neal presents the coffee and doughnuts and has a little fun with the testers before sending them on their way.
Watching O’Neal work in this space is impressive. As dominant as he was as a basketball player, he’s almost equally as skilled as a commercial actor. O’Neal is working on this day without a script. He’s simply given a tagline to work into his dialogue with the testers and ad-libs the dialogue. Not once throughout the two-hour shoot does he fumble with his words or get caught off guard by the testers’ awkwardness or confusion, despite their best efforts at times.
The best example of this being when one tester referred to the doughnut presented to him (on Krispy Kreme paper, no less) as a “Dunkin Donut,” to which O’Neal gasped in horror and hilariously reprimanded him for saying the “DD” place (this ended up being the only call for a retake throughout the two hours).
O’Neal’s overwhelmingly friendly and outgoing personality lends itself to this work, and especially this particular ad concept of having him host a taste test. He’s never shy, not afraid to crack a joke or be the butt of it and he matches his massive physical size with an equally large persona.
After years of practice, he’s perfected his craft as a pitchman and as a businessman. O’Neal long dreamed of having his own empire outside of basketball and today he has it. He’s proven to himself and everyone that big men can sell just as well as the little guys, so long as they take the right approach and market themselves properly.
Following his commercial shoot, O’Neal sat down with UPROXX Sports for a discussion of his career off the court, business and acting philosophy, advice to young players, fear as a motivator, acting, music and, of course, his love of doughnuts.
How did you first get involved with Krispy Kreme and getting a franchise?
I’ve been wanting a franchise ever since I first tasted one. I tasted one I want to say ‘94. It was in Florida, I think it was. What is this? I had a box. Never tasted it before and it was awesome. I used to see stores all the time. It’s one of those places where when you see it you gotta stop, especially with the hot light. I can remember when I would travel back from Georgia to Baton Rouge, I promise you, every time I go through Mobile, Alabama I can smell ‘em. So every time I would smell them, I’d pull over. Every time I’d go through there I’d *sniffs* smell ‘em and say “oh, yeah, I’m close,” and I’d pull off at the exit and get some gas and Krispy Kreme would be right there.
So it’s one of my favorite doughnuts. I called ‘em and I’ve been bugging them for years asking if I can be on their team and be a franchise owner. We finally got the deal done and they gave me a landmark location here in Atlanta and I’m looking to get more. I definitely would like to be on the Krispy Kreme team forever. I’ve been in the franchise business before. Started with 100 Five Guys, sold ‘em, wanted to do something different. Would love to, when it’s all said and done, have 40 or 50 Krispy Kremes.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about. You’ve been very active businessman during your career and after. Was there anybody that pointed you in that direction?
The first day I met Magic Johnson, 18 years old, L.A. at the game. I get standing ovation, blah blah blah. Magic pulls me in the back and says “good to be famous, but you better start owning things.” When I was 18 years old I had no idea what he was talking about. So I followed him over the years and saw the stuff he was doing and realized that at some point in life the big money from basketball will stop. Cause when you’re making big money in basketball, life is easy, right? You’re making 10, 20, 30 million dollars a year, but at some point all that will stop. And 86 percent of the guys that when it does stop, they go broke. I didn’t want to be part of that 86 percent.
So I said, let me do something smart. I always wanted to have something to fall back on, and basically I became a businessman out of fear. I made $270 million playing ball. I didn’t want to be the guy, “oh, Shaq made $270 million now he’s broke.” So out of fear I said, let me invest in 24 Hour Fitnesses. Let me be an early investor in Google. Let me invest in the Sacramento Kings. Not only that, but as a father I wanted to teach my kids that there’s more to life than basketball. My mother is like my spiritual advisor. She told me one day that I will be known for something more than basketball. I don’t know what it is, but people will know you’re a nice guy and love you and respect you and it’ll have nothing to do with basketball. So, to answer your question, I did all of that stuff out of fear.
What was your first endorsement deal?
First endorsement deal was Classic Cars. When I left LSU I did a press conference. On the way home from Baton Rouge to San Antonio, that’s back when I had the big cell phone, so I got a call from my agent who said Classic Cars is going to give you a million dollars. So I got the million dollars and I spent it in about 30 minutes.
Because, when you’re a kid you forget about FICA [Federal Insurance Contributions Act] and you forget about all that stuff. So I went and bought a Benz for 150,000. Got home, my father says, “hey, where’s mine at?” So we go back, I get him the same car. There’s 300,000 gone. We get back, my mother wants a smaller one, so that’s another 100,000. Then I gotta get the jewelry and the earrings. So I get a call the next day from the bank on the army base — so, leaving school early, not having taken any business courses, only thing I know is when you get money you put it in the bank and the banks are insured for 250,000 dollars. So I knew the bank on my army base wasn’t going to go belly up.
Next day the guy calls me and says, “hey, you’re 150,000 in the hole.” And I was like, “what do you mean?” And then I forgot all about FICA and state taxes and forgot all about that. So when my guy said “you’re making a million” and then he took his 15 percent, I was only making five-something and I spent it.
So after that I was like, you know what let me slow down. I hired a business manager and put myself on an allowance. The greatest investment I ever did was annuities. Because annuities to me was, I told them when I got done playing I still want to be able to get this much every month. So that was my way of saying, “if all this fails and you invest in all this stuff and it fails, you’ve still got this much.” Money you’re still getting. So I collect when I’m 50, 55, and 60 I’ll be collecting a lot of money each month.
Is that something you’d advise to young players? Have you talked to young players about how to handle the money?
I tell them all the time, but to each his own. A lot of people don’t, see, like I have a plan. I always do [joint ventures] with people that understand what’s going on. For example, when I did deals with 24 Hour Fitness, I allowed 24 Hour Fitness to run 24 Hour Fitness. It’s mine, but I’m going to let you run it. Rather than me getting all my homeboys and trying to [run it all] like a lot of people. If you don’t know what’s going on when you in a business you can lose a lot.
The greatest quote I ever read was “the greatest leaders are the ones smart enough to hire people smarter than them.” When I read that I was like, “oh, okay, this is how they do it.” For example, if I’m going to start an internet magazine or company, it’s going to be me and you. I’m the face of it, but you’re the one doing all the work, because this is what you do. You write, edit, cut pictures, boom boom boom. And then we both look good together. So whenever I do business with people I always let them know that I will let them continue to be who they are.
You’ve become a pitchman extraordinaire of sorts. What was the evolution like for you, doing commercials and these types of things?
As a youngster my marketing professor at LSU told me big guys don’t sell. He gave me an F on a project. He told me, “bring me a project you think can be sold in the future.” So, you know me, I bring him Shaq shoes, Shaq underwear, Shaq T-shirts. And his comment was, “I see you didn’t put a lot of thought into this.” And what he was saying made sense. There’s a reason you don’t see big guys on commercials, Shaq. You only have the little guys, Magic, Jordan and Kareem. This was when I was in college. He said big guys don’t sell. So I wanted to make it a point to myself and to everybody that big guys can sell.
So when I first did my first deal with Reebok, it was an overall shoe deal, I told them, “OK, if you’re going to give me five [million], how about you give me four and you take a million and give me three commercials that I want to create.” So, for them it was a good deal. We don’t have to give this guy five, we’ll give him four. So I created the first commercial, but I was smart. I knew how I wanted people to see me. That was the commercial where you had the special effects, don’t fake the funk.
We did that one and then I shot one with the little kid for Pepsi. I wanted people to say hey, this guy’s big and giant, but he’s friendly. Big friendly giant. A BFG. I wanted everybody to say this guy’s a BFG. And then once they saw that everything happened on its own.
What was the process like for you with the design of that first signature shoe with Reebok?
Process and business is easy. The first rule of a CEO is you let people do what they do, not be a micro-manager. I’m not a designer, so [they show me options] and I say, ‘I like this, I like this and I like this.’ I’m never the one to say, ‘oh, change this.’ They brought me options, I said I liked this one and let’s do it. It was easy. I wanted something that looked different. I wanted something that people would always remember.
And I know the Shaqnosis when they first came out I was taking a chance. At first I didn’t like them, but then I saw myself playing in them cause we were shooting a commercial and I was like, they look nice. We gon’ call those right there the Shaqnosis.
Watching you here shooting this commercial, it seems to come so naturally. Now with you doing TV, did doing commercial shoots help you be more comfortable with doing TV and has the TV gig helped in your comfort on camera even more for these shoots?
It was hand in hand. The good thing about me in most of these spots is I get to be myself. So, in all my silly commercials, people who know me know I’m a very silly person. I don’t like to do a lot of serious commercials. Every now and then I’ll get a director who says, “don’t smile” and I’ll be like, “nah, can’t do that, that’s not what we do.” My signature thing is to always look in the camera and make people smile. Just like one of the Krispy Kreme slogans, we just want to make everyone happy. That’s what I always do.
Fortunately, my first couple movies I had to play a basketball player. Then I did the movie where I played a genie (Kazaam), but a lot of movies I play myself. I never took an acting class, but I took a course one time where the guy said, “acting is facial expressions and delivery.” You have to deliver the message you’re trying to get across and your face has to match. So like, I can’t go *smiles* “stick ‘em up.” I have to go *scowls* “motherf*cker…” you know? So, it was just facial expressions and delivery and I just try to do that all the time.
When you’re picking things you’re going to endorse…
I have to love them. You can’t, and there’s one of my agents. They know not to just bring stuff to me because people are throwing money out. We don’t roll like that. Like I’ve been doing Krispy Kreme, and I’ll continue to do Krispy Kreme even if we weren’t doing all this. Every time I ride by and that red light’s on, gotta get me a dozen.
So, I always tell people the story that when I won my first championship Wheaties came and said we want to put you on the cover. I was like, “I don’t eat Wheaties” and I told my guys to give Frosted Flakes a call. They turned us down.
Second championship, Wheaties came back again. “Listen man, you’re the first champion that wasn’t on the box, we need you.” I can’t do that to myself and to the people. They said, “we’re going to do something we don’t ever do, we’re going to offer you some money.” They came with big money. I told ‘em can’t do it. Told my people to call Frosted Flakes. Frosted Flakes turned me down again.
Third championship, Wheaties came back again and I told ‘em no.
Fourth championship, I was on the box but they did a deal with the Miami Heat and the NBA, so they put me on the box, cause they got the team photo. Finally, two years ago, we got a call from Fruity Pebbles, cause Fruity Pebbles was my second option. They said, “hey, we heard you like our cereal, we want to put you on 13 milion boxes.” I said, “yeah, let’s do it.” They said we don’t have a lot of money, and I said “it ain’t about the money off top.” So we did that deal.
I have to love the products that I’m doing. Icy Hot. I’ve been doing that. Krispy Kreme, I’ve been about it for a long time. Long time.
You’re a music guy, we saw you in there playing some stuff between shots. What’s some newer stuff you’re rocking?
Oh, I ain’t really rocking the new stuff. I haven’t been up on it. I’ve got my own little radio, Shaq Fu Radio, and we play a little new stuff every now and then, but I like old jams. Stuff when I was coming up. L.L, Jay Z, Eminem, Death Row, Biggie, Tupac, that stuff. And I love ’80s white guy classics.
I saw that, you were jammin’ to A-ha in there.
Want to shift to a little basketball talk. What have you seen from Joel Embiid and his game, and is there anything that impresses you about what he’s done this year?
He’s playing good, but I think a lot of people will say, is he only doing it because he’s playing a little bit.
So you’re holding out judgement until he’s playing more than 28 minutes a night?
Yeah, but not only 28 minutes a night. Like, when I first came in I played 70 games my first year. That’s what the NBA’s all about. Play, day off, play, play, day off, day off, play. You know, five games in seven nights and that stuff. So, with him being able to just pick and choose when he wants to play, he always has fresh legs so he’s always going to have the advantage. And then, with nobody ever having seen him before, that also gives him another advantage. Now that people know he’s a pretty good player, when his minutes start to come up we’ll see.
I don’t give credit too early for one reason: I never got my credit early. So, like, the problem with today’s game is everyone can do their own editing. So like now if he does a great play, I send it to you, you send it to him, he’ll tweet it and everyone will see it and that’s what’s in everyone’s mind. “Oh my god, he’s a great player,” but it takes more than one or two plays to be a great player. So I’m going to hold back my thoughts. However, he’s pretty good and I like what I see. But I wonder if he has an advantage because he plays 28 minutes a game and takes two games off.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the big man?
They’re gone. They’re dead and it’s all my fault.
You killed them?
I killed them all. Nobody wanted to bang and get in the paint. Everyone wanted to be like Dirk and shoot jumpers. That’s good sometimes, but at some point it ain’t enough room on the court for everyone to shoot jumpers. That’s why I loved the paint cause I was the only one doing it. Which means, Kobe you stay out there, you stay out there and throw it and let me go to work. Now, everyone’s behind the three-point line and wants to shoot jumpers.
I can’t let you get out of here without a little Inside the NBA talk. Rapid fire, you give me the name. Funniest?
Ernie. By far.
Well, we all give different point of views. You can’t say one guy’s smarter than the other. Charles has a unique perspective about the game and how he sees thing. I always try to see things from a practical standpoint, a straight-forward standpoint. Kenny’s so smart he’s stupid, so he’s out of that. So, probably Chuck.
Most likely to pick up the bar tab at the end of the night?
I don’t drink, so not me. Chuck is the big drinker, so probably Chuck.