June 05, 2023

Shaquille O’Neal: ‘Players now don’t like contact … I’d just beat you up’

The NBA legend reflects on his business career, the modern basketball era and whether Victor Wembanyama is destined for greatness

During his playing days, it was easy to define Shaquille O’Neal – the most dominant center in the NBA and one of the greatest players in the league’s history. It’s not so simple nowadays.

Since he retired from professional basketball 11 years ago, O’Neal has branched out and pursued ventures in all sorts of spaces; so much so that it doesn’t all fit on his LinkedIn profile.

The 50-year-old has an MBA and a doctorate degree (his dissertation was on “How Leaders Utilize Humor or Aggression in Leadership Styles”). He is the founder of the Big Chicken franchise and owns 155 Five Guys burger joints, 17 Auntie Anne’s pretzel shops and multiple Papa John’s establishments. He hits the decks at music festivals around the world as DJ Diesel, and has collaborated on fashion and jewelry lines, technology products and children’s books.

Not that he’s forgotten about basketball: he became a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings in 2013, before selling his stake earlier this year, and is an analyst on TNT’s beloved Inside the NBA and a co-host of The Big Podcast with Shaq.

The list goes on and on.

“I’m just passionate about having the opportunity to do things to touch people, make people smile, have a good time,” O’Neal told the Guardian in an interview in Abu Dhabi, where he was helping promote two NBA preseason games staged in the Gulf for the very first time. “[NBA commissioner] Adam Silver could have called a lot of NBA players but he called me over here and I’m glad I came.”

O’Neal says he started planning for life after basketball as early as the second season of his 19-year NBA career.

“I was raised you always gotta have something to fall back on,” he explains. “My parents were very good at, what if you hurt yourself? What if you’re not that good? What are you gonna do? Save some of this money. No, I don’t want a new car, you bought me one last year, save your money. So we’ll always think about that.

“And then I was like, at some point I’m gonna have to retire, would love to live the same lifestyle. When you come from nothing and then you have it all, you want to keep it all. So how can I keep it all? You have to develop smart and inventive ways to make sure that my mom keeps this house that I just bought her or my sister keeps the car I got her.”

O’Neal places great value on partnering with the right people and made sure he educated himself well on financial literacy.

“The best thing that happened for me is I bought a book, Dummies Guide to Starting Your Own Business, and my favourite chapter was joint ventureships. Because I’m a true believer in things that are hard, you break them down to the simplest form,” he says.

After finding out I am Egyptian, he adds: “For example, if I was going to start a media publication in Egypt, I will call you, because this is what you do. You run it, you’d be the boss, you’d be the CEO and you report to me and everything would be rather than me living in Atlanta trying to figure out what’s going on in Egypt when you’re there.”

Despite his wide range of ventures, O’Neal is still very close to the NBA.

Like the rest of the world, he is impressed by the 7ft 2in French teenager Victor Wembanyama, the most exciting prospect in years and a dead cert for the No 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA draft.

“Fabulous player, the sky’s the limit for this guy,” says O’Neal of Wembanyama. “At some point he’s gonna have to take it to each level. When I came in, I was really good. Then somebody said you’ve got to get better. And then finally they said, ‘Shaq’s a great player’. But I wanted to become greater than that. And then I wanted to become the greatest, and then I wanted to become the greatest ever. So if he has that mentality, he’ll probably be one of the best players ever.

“He has all the tools: [height], dribbles, shoots, fadeaways … if he is playing like that, nobody can stop him. But at some point you gotta keep – you can’t be complacent with where you are.”

O’Neal misses the days where basketball was about battles between big guys under the rim. He blames himself for the evolution of the game away from that physical style of play.

“I do miss those big rivalries and I chuckle at the fact that big guys don’t want to play inside no more and it’s all my fault,” says the four-time NBA champion. “Because you’re a product of your environment; so when I was watching big guys play, they fought in the middle. It was like, get in the middle. Right? But then when I came along and started beating people up, big guys started stepping out.

“So you look at guys like Victor [Wembanyama] now, he grew up watching Dirk [Nowitzki]. He grew up watching Tim Duncan and [Kevin] Garnett; they played out. So that’s all they know.”

O’Neal insists he would still play the same physical game in this era.

“All these jump-shooters … that just tells me you don’t like contact. I would just beat you up. And now you’re trying to guard me, you don’t have those legs and your arms are sore, your shot won’t be falling the same,” he says.

Team rivalries are also not what they used to be in the NBA – something Silver admits “we’ve been thinking a lot about”. While Silver notes that rivalries between teams cannot be artificially created, the league will try to promote “rivalry games” if and when they arise.

O’Neal believes the best players are now under so much pressure to win an NBA title that they move teams too often, searching for a championship victory.

“It’s disappointing to be anointed a great player and not have a championship; especially when you keep trying to do it by yourself and you can’t do it, now you gotta go to what’s easy; ‘Hey, I’ll team up with this guy team or team up with this guy’,” says O’Neal.

“We, us all veterans, we don’t like that because we like competition. I used to love trying to see the Lakers beat Detroit. Trying to see Detroit beat the Bulls, trying to see us beat the Spurs, it’s competition. So a lot of guys now because of the pressures, they’re teaming up.”

One player who is staying put is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been with the Milwaukee Bucks since they drafted him in 2013. In 2021, he helped guide them to their first NBA title in 50 years.

O’Neal is a big fan of the Greek star and the feeling is mutual. When Antetokounmpo was recently asked which attributes he would take from different legends, he chose O’Neal’s dominance.

Is there anything O’Neal would have liked to have from Antetokounmpo when he was a player?

“I was Giannis before Giannis,” said O’Neal. “Just in our era, they didn’t want big guys to dribble. Every now and then I would tell the coach to piss off and I’d take it coast to coast and I threw it down. But I just basically did that for the crowd because it was a point in the game where the game was boring and I felt like dad and son or dad and daughter didn’t get their money’s worth; it was my job to get the crowd back on and get people into the game.”

More than a decade into his retirement, O’Neal is still getting the crowd back on their feet; even in Abu Dhabi, where he was mobbed by fans wherever he went.

Whether he’s Dr O’Neal, DJ Diesel, or just Shaq; he’ll always be successful, entertaining and dominant.