It’s not easy to quarantine and chill day after day after day, but Shaquille O’Neal is making the most of it. Sheltering at home is about family time for the four-time NBA champion and entrepreneur.
“I love getting to spend time with my boys,” said O’Neal, 48, on the phone. “With such a crazy schedule, it’s always been so hard to hang out for long periods of time. Am always goin’ somewhere. So these past few weeks together have meant a lot. We have been making videos, playing around, working out and having fun.”
O’Neal, who stars in the new TNT docuseries “Shaq Life,” has been following COVID-19-era protocol. Like other eateries in L.A. County, his Big Chicken restaurant in Glendale is temporarily offering to-go orders and delivery.
“That’s how we get through this — by being safe,” he said. “I have lived through SARS, MERS, the bird flu and I’ve never seen anything like this COVID virus.”
Despite the uncertainty in the air, O’Neal remains optimistic. “We are going to get through this,” he said. “It’s going to take some time, but as long as we follow directions and stay at home, everything will eventually get better.”
For more of his optimism or Shaqisms, you have to tune in to O’Neal’s new series, which is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and chronicles the day-to-day life of the retired athlete, NBA analyst, TV personality and DJ of electronic dance music. Viewers get to see O’Neal striving to be the best dad to his children, Shareef, Amirah, Shaqir, Me’arah, Taahirah and Myles.
You might call the show a lovely distraction from COVID-19 news. “Shaq Life” is the kind of show you didn’t know you needed. In episode after episode, O’Neal’s big heart, humor, humility and his constant desire to give back are on display.
“I think the fans are really enjoying getting an inside look into every facet of my life,” O’Neal said, “whether it’s my family, friends, business or DJing. I love doing anything I can to make people smile.”
To promote the TNT show, new episodes are kicked off with “ShaqNight,” in which O’Neal’s celebrity friends drop by to watch some of O’Neal’s favorite films. (This week, Cody and Brandi Rhodes from All Elite Wrestling are joining O’Neal to watch “Suicide Squad.”)
“It is impossible to not appreciate the candor, the ferocious energy, the giant heart and tremendous likability that is wrapped in the enormous frame of Shaquille O’Neal,” said Terry Crews, who was a guest on a recent “ShaqNight.”
That’s something showrunner Rory Karpf and his crew learned quickly. They had to be ready to adapt at any time while filming footage for the series, which airs on Thursdays.
“For instance, when we were in Europe with Shaq on his DJ tour, he was walking the streets of Spain and stopped inside an Apple store,” Karpf said. “While there, he met two young impoverished kids who were just at the store hanging out. Shaq decided to buy the kids brand-new computers. They were absolutely stunned. The store staff were all in tears. It was an amazing moment that we captured and really demonstrated the essence of Shaq and why he’s so beloved.”
Karpf thinks O’Neal’s humble demeanor makes fans adore him. “I think Shaq is so beloved because even at over 7 feet tall he comes across as very relatable,” Karpf said. “He doesn’t see himself as better than anyone. He’s also extremely genuine. He doesn’t put on a front. One prerequisite for Shaq to do the series was that none of our filming was staged like a typical reality show. He wanted this to be a real documentary series on his life.”
The docuseries touches on how O’Neal was hired as Papa John’s brand ambassador to help rehabilitate the pizza chain’s reputation after the company’s now-ousted founder used the N-word on a conference call.
When asked in an interview about the companies he partners with, Shaq responds: “I have to believe in your product wholeheartedly.”
Now O’Neal has ties to another troubled brand, Carnival Cruises. Carnival Corp., parent company of Carnival, Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises and others, has been named in lawsuits related to coronavirus outbreaks on ships that set sail after COVID-19 had started to spread throughout the world.
Nevertheless, O’Neal has faith that the the cruise-ship industry can rebound. “This virus could have happened on a plane, a train, a bus — anywhere,” he said. “It’s a terrible tragedy. I believe the cruise-line industry will bounce back.”
Carnival hired O’Neal to be its “chief fun officer” thanks to his prowess and commanding athleticism, which have inspired a loyal fan base.
“My job is to let people know how fun the ships are,” O’Neal said last year during a Carnival event in Los Angeles. “I was a hypocrite. I used to live across from the cruise terminal and see all these ships pass by. And I’d say, ‘Those are for old people.’ Then I got on a cruise one day, and it was like the Grove or Rodeo Drive on water — all the fanciness and with an affordable price. And all-you-can-eat food, which is my favorite part.”
With the loss of his sister last year and Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, in January, it has been a difficult time for O’Neal, one that he’s still trying to process.
“We all end up dying,” O’Neal said. “I understand that. But to lose him in that way was very hard. I am in the wish part of grief. I wish he was still here. I wish I could have talked to him more, say hi ... talk about our kids. ... I wish we could have seen him get inducted in the Hall of Fame.”
While basketball will always be O’Neal’s first love — his 15-time NBA All-Star’s basketball career spanned nearly two decades — O’Neal is on to the next chapter of his life as a businessman. He has had numerous brand partnerships with companies including American Express, Krispy Kreme, JC Penney and Reebok.
“It takes hard work, a lot of determination and never giving up,” he said. “Successful people fail so many times [that] we make it look easy. But it’s never that easy. So you gotta know how to deal with tough situations, persevere and keep it going. To get where I am today, I have done a few things that have contributed to my success, but my two main pieces of advice are: to do your due diligence and create something that impacts others in a positive way.”
Changing foster care
O’Neal, an advocate for children, has worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for the last 15 years. With a PhD in leadership and education, he gives back through annual philanthropic programs including Shaq to School, Shaqsgiving and Shaq a Claus.
The former basketball star also served as executive producer for the legal drama “Foster Boy,” which stars Matthew Modine and Shane Paul McGhie. The film, which won awards at several film festivals, examines corruption in the foster-care system.
In a tweet last October, O’Neal wrote, “The #fostercare crisis in America puts 440,000 kids in the system at any one time. 61% are unemployed & 24% experience homelessness after aging out. Our nation’s youth deserve better! FOLLOW my film @fosterboymovie & join the movement to #FixFosterCare!”
Speaking about the subject, O’Neal said: “All of them are hoping for a better future. It’s time to make our foster children a priority. They are innocent. They have no voice. No one is telling their story until now.”
O’Neal is now tackling his next frontier: the kitchen.
You can find the big guy sharpening his skills on the new ShopHQ project, “Learning to Cook With Shaq,” which allows O’Neal to show off his new line of culinary products. (“Learning to Cook with Shaq” airs on Wednesday nights.)
“I want to learn how to cook for my kids,” he said. “My mom and dad, they used to cook for me, breakfast, chicken, fish, steak ... I had a private chef, but now that I am retired, I want to be able to make simple meals for them.”