Read an Excerpt
Shaq Uncut My Story
By Shaquille O'Neal
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2011 Shaquille O'Neal
All right reserved.
JUNE 4, 2000
Los Angeles, California
Game 7, Western Conference Finals
The Portland Trail Blazers strode to their bench with a 71–58 lead over Los Angeles after three quarters of the winner-take-all Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. The boasts of the Lakers, who vowed to steamroll the competition on their way to the NBA title, suddenly rang hollow.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson gathered his assistants on the court for a conference while Shaquille O’Neal and his teammates plopped onto the bench and waited.
Jackson prepared his team long ago for this moment. His instructions were succinct: “When all hell is breaking loose, go to your ‘safe place,’ a personal image or memory that will exude serenity, happiness, and peace of mind.”
“Shaquille,” Jackson asked shortly after he accepted the Lakers job. “Where is your safe place?”
“In my grandmother Odessa’s lap, while she’s sitting in her rocking chair,” the big man answered.
“And how did that come to be your safe place?”
“She would find me after I messed up when I was a kid,” Shaquille said. “After I did something really stupid and my father gave me a beating.
“When he was done hitting me, she’d sneak into my room and slip me a piece of pound cake and rock me and tell me, ‘It’s okay, baby. Everything is gonna be fine.’ ”
As Shaq fidgeted in frustration on the bench on the night of June 4, absorbing the catcalls and boos from LA’s angry and shocked fans, his first thought was if the Lakers choked away this series, he knew who would get the blame.
It would be him, just as it had been in Orlando, when they failed to win it all.
Not again. O’Neal closed his eyes. He conjured up an image of Grandmother Odessa, just as Phil Jackson had instructed him to do. He focused on her soft voice, her gentle smile, her soothing words.
The Lakers broke from their huddle, but not before veteran Rick Fox challenged his teammates, “Is this how we’re going out? Is this how it’s gonna end?”
No, the big man told them. Not again.
Portland pushed the lead to 15 points with 10:28 left in the game. It was then that Shaquille O’Neal, double- and triple-teamed for most of the night, broke free and dunked on their heads. His basket ignited 15 consecutive Laker points, a stunning comeback punctuated by another O’Neal slam, this one expertly delivered by Kobe Bryant in the form of a slow-motion, looping lob.
Usually Shaq cooly turned after such demonstrations of dominance and jogged up the floor, expressionless, as if to say, Been here. Done this. Not this time. He exuberantly thrust his fingers aloft as he sprinted down the floor, his mouth agape and his wide eyes shining.
Grandmother Odessa was right. Everything was gonna be fine.
MY GRANDMOTHER CALLED ME SHAUN—NOT SHAQ, NOT Diesel, The Big Aristotle, Shaqtus, or The Big Shamrock. Back then, I was just a little boy running around the projects in Newark, New Jersey, who needed someone to look out for me.
I may have looked big, but I was just a kid. I was surrounded mostly by women, and if my grandmother or my aunt Viv or my mother saw the drug dealers slinking around our apartment they came out and told them to keep moving along. They warned them they better not mess with their Shaun. Once, when one of those shady guys started talking to me, my aunt Viv came flying out the door and started throwing punches.
“You leave him alone!!” she said, pounding her fists on the dude’s back. “That boy is going to be a ballplayer!!!”
I was going to be someone special. That’s what my mommy always told me.
I was going to be Superman.
My full name is Shaquille Rashaun O’Neal. My mom, Lucille O’Neal, was on her own when she had me. She was seventeen years old when she got pregnant. I never knew why my mother gave me a Muslim name. I guess it might have been because she felt like an outcast, or thought nobody loved her. Shaquille meant “little one” and Rashaun meant “warrior.” I was her little warrior. It was going to be me and my mom against the world.
My grandmother Odessa Chambliss was a Christian woman, so she insisted on calling me Shaun. My grandma was the one who always told me, “Believe in yourself.” Odessa always talked in a low voice, kind of like I do now, and she was always smiling.
Grandma Odessa looked like the perfect church woman. She wore a dress all the time. She never cursed, never raised her voice, always had a Bible nearby. I never really saw her hair because she wore these curly wigs all the time.
Grandma was a dreamer, and she let me know it was okay for me to dream, too. I always felt safe when I was with my grandmother. Of course, she used to sneak up on me and give me cod liver oil. I hated that stuff, but she swore by it. She was sure it would cure everything. I’d be filling up a big bowl of Trix cereal in the morning and just about to dig in when she’d slip that teaspoon of cod liver oil under my nose. A perfectly good breakfast ruined.
For the longest time I didn’t understand why my last name was different from everyone else in the family. My mom and dad were Lucille and Philip Harrison, but I was O’Neal. So how does that work? Turns out that O’Neal was my mother’s maiden name. When my mother married Philip, she took her husband’s last name, but she kept me as O’Neal. I really didn’t care too much, I guess, but one day in school one of my teachers asked me, “Shaquille O’Neal? How come your name is different from your daddy?” I went to my mom for some answers.
She decided I should go meet my biological father. His name was Joseph Toney. I think I was about seven years old. I remember he was tall, a nice-looking guy, but he didn’t have a whole lot to say to me. They told me he had a scholarship lined up at Seton Hall to play basketball but he got into drugs and blew his chance.
The day I went to meet him he was nice enough. He said, “What’s up? Hey kid, how are you doing? I’m your daddy.” I wasn’t really sure what to think. I had this other guy at home who sure acted like my daddy. Philip Harrison had given me a place to live, some toys, and even though I got in trouble a lot, I was cool with my life. When you are a kid, all you know is what you’ve got. After I met my “real” daddy, I went home with my mom to Philip, who as far as I was concerned was the only father I was going to pay any attention to.
The area of Newark that we lived in was poor, with mostly black people on every corner. It was dangerous, there was lots of crime, and it was the greatest place on earth if you were a drug dealer. Business was always booming for those cats.
I was born five years after the Newark riots, which was one of those memories that all the grown-ups talked about in real serious tones.
The riots apparently started after this guy named John Smith—like the English guy who loved Pocahontas, only this cat was a black taxi driver—passed two cops driving on Fifteenth Avenue. The two cops are white, and they arrest John Smith because he passed them on a double line, so they drag him down to the precinct, which is right across the street from the Hayes Home housing project. Everyone in the projects is watching the police beat this guy as they haul him in, and they’re convinced those white cops are about to kill a black man for a traffic violation.
The place explodes.
For the next six days Newark is a war zone. There’s rioting, shooting, and looting. People are throwing rocks through windows and tipping over cars. Too much poverty, anger, drugs, and inequality.
My parents were in the middle of it. They couldn’t leave their house because it was too dangerous. They had relatives who were killed during the riots and some uncles and cousins who were arrested and thrown in jail for no good reason at all. But even so, they never talked about racism too much with me. I didn’t grow up in a home where white people were the enemy. My parents didn’t feel that way, and they didn’t teach me to hate anyone, even after what they had seen with their own eyes.
Besides, do you think when I am eight years old that I care about the Newark riots? All I want to know is how do I get myself a skateboard.
I didn’t know I was poor. I guess I should have. We moved all the time because we couldn’t make the rent. My mom tried to feed a young family of six on Chicken a la King out of a can. We ate a lot of franks and beans and noodles. Lots of noodles. I was hungry all the time, but I figured that was just because I was so damn big. Every morning that I woke up it seemed like I had grown another couple of inches.
That was a problem for two reasons: shoes and clothes. I kept growing out of everything. I had to wear the same stuff to school over and over again because we couldn’t afford to keep buying me new threads all the time. I heard about it. Kids would say, “Hey dawg, didn’t you have that shirt on yesterday?”
Nobody was shocked that I turned out to be a big guy. My natural father was tall and my mom is six foot two. Lucille O’Neal is my best friend. My mom has always, always, been there for me. She learned to be tough at a very young age. Life wasn’t always very kind to her, so she did her best to protect me from all the bad things that could happen to a wise-ass kid like me.
She knew how difficult it was to be taller than everyone else, because she had to deal with the same thing when she was growing up.
For example, my mom had to bring my birth certificate everywhere with her. They didn’t believe I was only nine. The bus driver, the subway conductor, the guy behind the counter at McDonald’s. Can’t a kid get a Happy Meal without all this hassle?
I got teased a lot for my size starting when I was around five or six. I remember walking down the street one day and this kid called me Big Foot. I looked down and he was right: my sneakers were huge.
As I got older, the names got nastier: Sasquatch, Freak-quille. Shaquilla Gorilla. I didn’t like that last one at all. I figured out I had a couple of choices. I could learn to be funny to get kids to be on my side… or I could just plain beat them up.
I did both.
When I started growing bigger I realized I had to master the little things. I had to be able to do all the things regular people did so they’d stop concentrating on my size. That’s why I started break-dancing. I just loved to dance. I had good feet, so I could really move. We used to have contests and I became a really fabulous dancer. I could twirl around, spin on my head, all the stuff you see those little black kids do on television. I was so good all the kids forgot I was tall and goofy, and they started calling me Shaqa-D cuz I could move.
I was dancing all the time. Everyone loved it. I loved it. But one day when I was dancing I hurt my knee. It was really bothering me so I went to the doctor, and he told me I had Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is something kids get when they start growing way too fast for their bodies.
When I got home, I told my father I had Osgood-Schlatter disease. He punched me and said, “You ain’t got Osgood nothing! You’re out there break-dancing and that’s why you’re wrecking your knees!” So I got a good ass whupping for that.
The truth is, my dad spent a lot of time beating me. If I did something wrong, he’d smack me and say, “Be a leader, not a follower.” I was really scared of my father. He beat me all the time, but I would never call any of those whuppings unjustifiable. I deserved it. He did it to keep me in line. I swear, if he hadn’t, I’d probably be in jail right now—or worse. Without my father staying on me, I never would have become Shaq or The Diesel or any of those other crazy names I’ve invented for myself.
Philip Harrison was a military man all the way. His friends called him Butchy, but all my friends called him Sarge. He was very, very big on discipline. Things had to be done his way, or else.
Ironically, that kind of tough-love approach hurt him in his military career. At one time he was a drill sergeant, but he spent so much time challenging people and cussing them out he was demoted. They put him in charge of running the gym on the base, but his temper got him into trouble there, too. They got tired of him cursing at people, so they made him a supply sergeant.
Nobody messed with Sarge, especially me. His family was Jamaican and when he did something wrong as a kid, he got a beating. He just did what he was taught.
And it’s true—I did a lot of stupid stuff when I was a kid because I wanted to be cool. I’d carry chains in my book bag. I’d go to the store and steal stuff. I’d break into cars, just because I could. I’d break into people’s houses and take little things, nothing big, then brag about it after I was sure I wouldn’t get caught.
That kind of stuff drove my dad crazy. He wanted me to make something out of myself. He made mistakes when he was a kid and his father beat him within an inch of his life. So that was what he was going to do with me. He’d get me with his fists, his belt, a broom, whatever was around. It was his version of corporal punishment. Whenever I did something stupid he’d beat me so hard I’d have to think twice about doing it again.
Sometimes fear really is the best weapon.
Because my dad was in the military we moved a lot, so every time I went to a new school I would find out who the toughest guy was and I’d measure him up. I’d test him out first by being funny, then I’d beat him up. That way I’d be the New Guy in the school, instead of being the “new guy” in the school. Big difference.
When I was really small we lived on Oak Street in Jersey City. We were living with my grandmother Odessa, and she lived across the street from a park. She was a nurse and my mother was right there, with the TV in the window, so they were watching me all the time. It was safer in Jersey City than in Newark; there were only a few juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood instead of one on every corner.
There was this guy Pee Wee who lived right near the park, and I was scared of him because he had this big dog, a German shepherd named Sam. Every day like clockwork around 4:15 p.m., we’d be in the park and Sam would come charging out of the house and chase all the kids. Pee Wee and his brothers were drug dealers. I hated that dog. I was scared to death of it.
Now, my father came home from work one night and he brought me a present. They were Chuck Taylor sneakers, brand-new, the original white canvas ones. I couldn’t believe it. I never had shoes like that. I knew we couldn’t really afford them. So my dad tells me, “Hey, you’ve got to wear these shoes to school, to play ball. You’ve got to wear them in the summer. They’ve got to last. Don’t mess them up, you hear me?”
I go outside in my new Chuck Taylors and I’m strutting around and I’m feeling good. I am The Man. But at 4:15 the screen door opens and that damn dog Sam starts coming right for me. I start running and I try to jump the fence, but I’m so big I’m having trouble scrambling up there. My feet are dangling and I’m trying to hoist myself over, but the dog gets the back of my shoe and rips it. So I go home and tell my dad and he says, “I don’t want to hear that crap!” and he punches me.
The next day I get myself a stick, and when Pee Wee’s dog comes out I try to break his neck. I’m so mad about the Chuck Taylors I’m trying to kill that dog Sam. The dog runs back in the house and Pee Wee comes out acting real tough and I hit him with the stick, too. Next thing you know his three brothers come out and they beat the stuffing out of me. I am so messed up my father doesn’t even bother to whip me again.
I was on punishment a lot. I used to be sent to my room, and to keep myself from going crazy I’d close my eyes and create all these dreams. In one dream I was the Incredible Hulk, so I’d close my eyes and start growling, “Aaaaaahhhhh.” In my next dream I was Superman, so I’d close my eyes and flex my muscles and then I was flying. Next time, I was a hero in Star Wars.
Once in a while, I’d close my eyes and I’d dream I was one of those drug dealers on the corner. They always had money. The wads of bills would be sticking out of their pockets so we could see how well they were doing. I’d think about what it would be like to be them for a second, but I was always on punishment so I couldn’t even get out of the house to do something stupid like that. See, Pops? Your “tough love” worked.
Grandmother Odessa hated it when I was on punishment. Funny thing was, I was on punishment in her house, because we couldn’t afford our own place. After I screwed up and my dad beat me, she’d wait until he left and that’s when she’d sneak in with a glass of milk and a slice of Entenmann’s pound cake and tell me in that low voice, “Here, have this. Stop crying now. It’s going to be all right. You’re my baby. Don’t worry.”
I used to tell my grandma, “When I get rich, I’m going to buy you a house.” She’d smile and tell me, “Baby, I don’t need a new house. This one is just fine.”
We lived with my grandmother for a while, but she and my father didn’t really get along that well so we ended up moving to Newark, on Vassar Avenue. My grandfather, my dad’s father, was this hard-core Jamaican man, and we moved in with him. We also lived with my dad’s brother and some of my aunts and a ton of cousins. The house was full. It was a pretty big house, nine or ten rooms, but there weren’t enough beds to go around. I slept on the floor with a bunch of my cousins.
My grandpa had dreams of being rich, so every day he’d give me and my cousin Andre a dollar to go buy the Quick Pick lottery ticket and another dollar to buy bread. My cousin and I were entrepreneurs. We’d buy the Quick Pick, but then we’d buy the cheap, stale bread that cost sixty cents and use the other forty cents to buy gum. We did that a few times before someone in the house said, “How come this bread never tastes fresh?” We got found out and got a whupping from my crazy grandpa.
By that point we were used to having our gum. We had to have it. So we stole it. We’d develop all sorts of elaborate plans to distract the guy at the cash register so we wouldn’t get caught. One day, Andre and I were chewing our gum and my grandfather said to me, “Where did you get that gum?” I didn’t want to tell him I stole it, so I told him a nice lady gave it to me. My grandfather said, “How many times do we have to tell you not to talk to strangers?” So Andre and I got a whupping for that, too.
When I was about eight I started going to the Boys and Girls Club and we played basketball for hours and hours. On the weekends my dad started teaching me the fundamentals. Philip Harrison was a very good city ballplayer, or so all the people in Newark tell me. They say Sarge and my natural father were the two best in the area growing up. My uncle, Mike Parris, once told me Philip Harrison was a cross between Robert Parish and George Gervin.
Philip taught me how to box out and shoot with my elbow tucked in the right way. One of the first books he ever gave me was a story of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s life. I read the whole thing, and one part of the book was about how Kareem lost all his money investing in soybeans. I told myself, “When I get rich, that’s not happening to me.”
Looking back, at that age I wasn’t very good at basketball. I was clumsy. I hadn’t really grown into my body yet, so I fumbled around with the ball at first. Of course everyone expected me to be excellent because I was so big. Good luck explaining to people it doesn’t work that way.
Newark was a tough city. You didn’t have to look for trouble; it found you the second you got up out of bed in the morning. I think my parents knew we needed to get out of there. The problem was we didn’t have any money. My dad was working so hard, but it was never enough to feed and clothe us and pay the rent. He used to drive U-Haul trucks to and from New Jersey and New York for extra cash, and he was just tired all the time.
Then, in 1982, when I was ten years old, my dad came home one day and said, “We’re moving.” He packed me, my mother, my sisters, Ayesha and Lateefah, and my little brother, Jamal, into his Toyota Corolla, and we drove to Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia. I cried all the way there. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to leave my friends.
And yet, that move was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. I was in trouble all the time in Newark. I was hanging out with the wrong kids.
If it wasn’t for us moving around so much, then I wouldn’t be the people person I am today. I really believe that. I had to learn how to make new friends, adjust to new places. What if I had to grow up my whole life in the projects of Newark, New Jersey? I would have never seen any white people, Jewish people, Spanish people. Because my dad moved so much, it forced me to learn to live with all kinds of kids.
Hinesville, Georgia, was nothing like Newark. We’re living on the army base there and it was very, very Southern. We walked to school from the base, and one day I met this kid named Ronnie Philpot. He’s a little guy, and he’s very dark skinned, darker than me, so we start ranking on each other about how black we are. He’s my first friend in Georgia and I’m going to be his bodyguard. His mother had died and kids started messing with him. They’d say stuff like, “Hey Ronnie, the parent-teacher conference is tonight, too bad your mom can’t be there.”
I heard that and I was going off the wall. It was just so cruel. This kid is teasing Ronnie about his mom and I shove him and say, “After school. The basketball courts. You and me. I’m going to mess you up.” The kid knows he’s got to show up because news of the fight is all over the school. Plus, I knew where he lived. He had to go home past the courts unless he went the long way around. So I’m waiting, and he shows up, and the first thing I do is smack him in the head.
My mentality was always to strike first. So I punch the kid in the face and then it’s on, and I just start beating him. He can’t do anything. All the kids are there watching, so now I’m The Man. I’m the bully in the school and everyone knows it.
My father isn’t happy with me because I’m goofing around in class and I’m still getting in trouble all the time. He’s taking his belt to me just about every day because I keep screwing up. Finally he says, “If I get one more note from school, I’m going to mess you up.” I knew he was serious.
But I can’t help it. I’m Shaquille, the funny guy, the bully, The Man. I was so self-conscious about my size, goofing off was the only way I knew how to fit in. So one day I bring my water bottle to school and I’ve got these tissues my mom put in my backpack, and I start making spitballs and throwing them at the blackboard. I get one big old glob and I fire it and it just misses the teacher. So the teacher whips around and says, “Who did that?” Everyone is cracking up except for me. I’m sitting there real serious.
So class is over and this kid rats me out. He’s an officer’s kid. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked. So I go to the principal’s office and I get suspended for three days. I know my father is going to beat the tar out of me so I grab this kid and I tell him, “Three o’clock.” I figure I’m going to go home and get an ass whupping anyway, but first I’m gonna give one of my own. I’m gonna kill that kid.
School is over and I’m waiting for him. Three o’clock, four o’clock, and he doesn’t come, but I’m still waiting for him on the corner. By then the other kids have given up and gone home. Finally the kid comes out of the school around five o’clock. He’s looking around all nervous and then he sees me. I start chasing him. He doesn’t realize that I’m pretty quick for a big kid. I track him down and I start punching him and hitting him. I’m kicking him in the ribs so hard he starts having some kind of seizure.
All of a sudden I’m real scared. This kid is foaming at the mouth and his eyes are rolling back in his head and I’m thinking, Oh no, I really have killed him. I’m terrified.
One of the officers from the base is driving by and he sees the kid lying on the ground, so he stops the car and runs over and says, “What the hell are you doing?” He runs back to the car and puts a pencil in the kid’s mouth because the kid’s having this epileptic seizure. The man calls 911. So the cops come and the ambulance comes and now I’m really in trouble. The cops drive me back to the base, and they find my father and they blast him for having such a rotten kid. They come down on my dad pretty hard. I’ve embarrassed my father and I’ve pissed him off. I’m thinking, This isn’t good.
My father beat me silly for that. Every time he hit me he said, “You idiot! You could have killed that kid. You’d be in jail the rest of your life. How many times have I told you? Be a thinker! Be a leader!” Then he’d get mad all over again and whack me some more.
I didn’t care, because I was terrified about what I did to that kid. For a long time afterward when I turned out the light, all I could see was his face with his eyes rolling back in his head.
That was it for me. From that day on, I was done being a bully.
Now, I know my dad sounds like a violent guy. I’m sure people have a problem with it, but they shouldn’t. My father made me who I am. He always told me, “You are going to be better than me.” He did some stuff when he was young. The story he always told me was his friend had a piggy bank, and Sarge stole the piggy bank and broke it, and when his father found out, he tried to kill him. He told me that story a lot. It really stuck with him.
Everything Sarge did to me was for a reason. Now, would I do that to my own kids? Absolutely not. Never. But my kids are coming from a completely different place. They don’t live in the projects. They haven’t been poor a day in their lives. They aren’t coming from the same place as their daddy Shaun did.
Phil Harrison is a good man. He raised me, he loved me, he challenged me. He knows how much I love and respect him.
People like to tell me I need to make peace with my biological father. Those people should mind their own business. I didn’t hear anything from that guy for years until I started dunking basketballs and becoming famous. Then he’s on the Ricki Lake Show telling everyone he misses me and how come I won’t have anything to do with him, and he wants me to meet my half brother.
Maybe at some point I would have been willing to see him, but I didn’t like how he came at me. On a television program? Really? It was very disrespectful. He’s from New Jersey, and all my relatives are there. He could have easily called one of the cousins and said, “Hey, I want to hang out with my son, have him call me.” I probably would have done that, but on the Ricki Lake Show?
We’re too far down the road now. I think it would be awfully disrespectful to the man who made me who I am, Philip Harrison, who raised me from the time I was two years old, to turn around to some other guy and say, “Hey, Daddy!” It’s not happening.
One time, when I got to the pros and started playing for the Orlando Magic, they told me my biological father was at the game and he was waiting on me. When I heard that, I ducked out the back door. That’s not usually my style, but I had nothing to say to Joe Toney. Sarge finally went over to the dude’s house and told him to leave me alone.
My mom wanted to protect me from all that stuff. She loved me so much, and all she wanted for me was to be happy. When things got bad, she’d always tell me, “Hey, you’re going to be fine.” My mom and my grandmother were the ones who kept me smiling and believing.
When I got into trouble, my mom kind of stayed back. She let my dad handle the discipline. Even though he wasn’t my real father, he paid the bills, took care of the house. He loved my mother to death. There was no question about that. He was crazy about her.
We stayed in Georgia for a couple of years, but being from a military family, we knew we wouldn’t be there long. The next move we made was in 1984, to Wildflecken, Germany. I didn’t want to go there, either, so I cried all the way to Europe.
It didn’t take long for me to find some kids to get in trouble with in Germany. At that point of my life I didn’t want to be Shaquille. The kids there started calling me JC, but it’s not what you think. I wasn’t no Jesus Christ. JC stood for Just Cool.
I was about thirteen years old and I started wanting stuff, but I had no money. My father said, “I’m not buying you anything unless you work for it. So you go out and get a job or you are going to work for me.”
I applied for a job at the Burger King on the base in Germany. I lived on A Street, so I had to walk up a couple of hills to get there, but I didn’t care because I wanted my own money so I could buy the Air Jordans I had my eye on.
The idea of a job seemed good but I didn’t like it. They made me do all the jobs nobody else would do, like mop, clean, wash the counters. I wanted to flip burgers, run the cash register, talk to all the customers, but they handed me a mop and told me to wipe up all the ketchup on the floor. I said, “Screw this,” and I quit.
But now I’ve got to go home and tell my daddy, and he says, “You’re not going to be a quitter. Now you will work for me.” Uh-oh. That didn’t sound good.
So now all of a sudden I’m in charge of my brother and my sisters. I’ve got to get them up in the morning, get them dressed, walk them to school, then get myself to school. After that, I had to pick them up, get them home, feed them. I became an expert at grilled cheese and Top Ramen, the hard noodles you boil in water. I had to feed them, get them going on their homework, make sure the house was clean. My mom had taken a job to help pay our bills, so I was Mr. Mom.
It was a lot of work. My dad warned me I better do a good job or he was going to whip my ass. In fact, I think the reason I’m so good with kids today is because of all the time I spent taking care of my siblings. Even now I can look at a kid and know what it takes to make him or her smile. I had to make up games for my younger siblings to keep them happy. At night, when there was a bad storm, I knew Jamal would be crawling into bed with me. He was afraid of lightning and he was sure I’d protect him from anything.
I tried. I danced for them, sang for them, made them giggle.
I also would beat up anyone who gave them a hard time.
My dad didn’t pay me any money, but if I needed a new pair of shoes, he’d get them for me. I was so excited when I finally got my Air Jordans, but they only went up to size 13, and by the time Sarge bought them for me I was already a size 15. They were so expensive I didn’t dare tell him they didn’t fit me. I walked around wearing shoes two sizes too small. My feet were killing me. Had to do it, dawg. If you had Jordans, you rated.
Not long after we moved to Germany, I met this white guy named Mitch Riles and he looked exactly like Larry Bird. He had the long hair and the same ugly nose, and he could shoot his ass off.
So he’s got the Bird thing down, so now I’ve got to get the Magic Johnson routine down. That means I’ve got to learn how to dribble, make the no-look pass, all that stuff. We’re out there every day playing Magic vs. Bird, Celtics vs. Lakers, and I’m learning skills that big men don’t ever show. I’m developing some moves.
I’m well over six feet tall at this point, but I’m still awkward, still haven’t grown into my body. My footwork is good, and I’ve got my “Magic” moves, but I can’t jump that well and I can’t dunk. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s ever going to happen for me.
So one day the officers on the base are all excited because this basketball coach from Louisiana State University was coming to put on a clinic. His name was Dale Brown and I had never heard of him, but I liked him right away. He had a lot of energy and his message was “Discipline and hard work are both great gifts. If you use them properly, you can be anything you want to be.”
I wrote that down and memorized it. I went up to him afterward and asked him if he had any drills for me. I explained that even though I was big and tall, I was clumsy and had trouble jumping. He was very nice.
He said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, soldier. When I get back to Baton Rouge I’ll send you a weight-training program. How many years have you been in the service?”
I answered, “I’m not in the service. I’m only thirteen years old.”
Dale Brown’s eyes opened real wide when he heard that. He said, “Well, son, I’d like to meet your parents.”
My dad, I knew, was in the sauna. I could go get him, but what the hell would he say to Dale Brown? I never knew what my daddy was going to say to anybody. Sarge came out and I introduced him to Coach Brown, and he was trying to tell my dad that if I ever developed into a player he would be interested in coaching me, but Sarge cuts him off and says, “That’s all fine and good, the basketball business, but I think it’s damn time blacks started developing some intellectualism so they can be presidents of corporations instead of janitors, and generals in the army instead of sergeants like me. If you are ever interested in developing my son’s academic future, then we’ll talk.”
I was thinking, Well, that’s the end of it. We’ll never see this guy again, but Coach Brown seemed really pleased with what Sarge said.
Sure enough, when he went back to LSU, Dale Brown sent me a weight program. I started doing it, and when I became a freshman in high school, I tried out for the high school basketball team on the base in Germany.
I got cut.
At the time I was probably six foot eight, but they didn’t care. There was another guy named Dwayne Clark who was also about my size, and he was better than me.
They matched me up against Dwayne, and he could do everything. He could dunk, hit fadeaways, dribble. He was an upperclassman and he used to laugh at me. He’d do simple stuff like throw me an upfake, wait for me to jump, then go around me like I wasn’t even there. That guy abused me.
The coach of the team never even acknowledged me. He never looked at me, never bothered to learn my name. I don’t blame him, I guess. I was terrible. My knees were really bad at that time, and I had one of those brown knee braces with the hole in it on one knee and metal braces on the other because of my Osgood-Schlatter disease. I couldn’t do anything. It hurt too much.
Here’s the other problem: I was lazy. I liked to do it my way and I didn’t use my size. I just didn’t know how to play mean. I was going at half speed and everyone else was going a hundred miles an hour.
They had a junior varsity team, but I was too embarrassed to be on it. I came home and told my dad I got cut and I thought he’d be really mad, but he said, “Go back up to the gym and keep working.”
I was crushed that I didn’t make that team. I pretended it was no big deal, but it was. I didn’t cry, but I was devastated. I went into my room, looked at the ceiling, and said, “I’m never going to make it.” I was really down on myself.
After a while I tried to put my own positive spin on it. I’m telling myself, Maybe I’ll be a deejay, maybe I’ll be a rapper. But those were long shots. I knew that.
Almost all of my friends made the team, which made it worse. I laughed it off, made a joke about the coach. I was still a funny guy, a great dancer. I was still JC—Just Cool.
My father wouldn’t let me quit. He had me play on the base with the enlisted soldiers. He threw me in there with these military guys who were grown men. They banged me and knocked me down and messed me up. If nothing else, I was going to be tough.
I wrote to Coach Brown to tell him about getting cut. He sent me back a nice letter about how I should keep trying, keep working.
Shortly afterwards, this guy named Ford McMurtry, who was the assistant coach of the high school team, quit that job and started a team on the base. He said to me, “Come play for us.”
Ford was nice to me. He raised my confidence level. He worked on my conditioning and my footwork. When I got discouraged with my clumsiness, he was patient. “Try it again, Shaquille,” he said without ever raising his voice. We got lucky because my friend Mitch Riles didn’t play on the high school team, either, because of bad grades, so the two of us were together again, Magic and Larry.
My sophomore year I didn’t even bother to try out for the high school team. By then Coach McMurtry had put together such a good team we could have beaten Dwayne Clark and those other guys. He was determined to make me a player.
I got some help from another guy who worked on the base. His name was Pete Popovich. He was watching me in the gym one day and he said, “Why aren’t you dunking the ball?” I told him, “I can’t jump. It’s my knees, I think. I just can’t get off the ground.”
Later on, when I went upstairs to lift some weights, Pete said to me, “I can help you with your vertical leap.” He showed me how to do calf raises and told me do them every day. I did those damn things until my legs felt like they were going to fall off. From the end of my freshman year to the end of my sophomore year in high school, my vertical leap went from eighteen inches to forty-two inches.
In 1987 my father was transferred again, so we moved back to the United States. I was fifteen years old and halfway through my sophomore season in high school with Coach McMurtry, and I just hated to leave. I thought I was finally getting somewhere with the basketball.
We stayed in New Jersey for a few weeks visiting family before we reported to our new base, Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. My uncle Mike Parris came by. He hadn’t seen me for a couple of years. He took me to a park down in South Orange, New Jersey, to play some pickup. There weren’t a whole lot of guys around, but there was this one fairly big dude who played a little one-on-one with me. His name was Mark Bryant. He later became a big star at Seton Hall and played eighteen years in the NBA. I didn’t have the skill that Mark had at that point, but now that I could jump, I held my own.
Uncle Mike was impressed with how I improved, I could tell. Whenever we played before, he could shoot over me all day. But now all of a sudden when he pulled up for that jumper, I could actually contest it. My wingspan was always pretty impressive, but I had never used that to my advantage. I was discovering how to block shots. I figured, If I’m not scoring much, then nobody is going to score on me.
We were leaving the park that afternoon, and my uncle Mike put his arm around me.
“Something has happened, Shaquille,” he said.
He was right. Something had happened. I was finally becoming a baller.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, 1989
Shaquille O’Neal was lacing up his basketball shoes when Cole High School coach Dave Madura and his assistant, Herb More, approached him.
Both men were agitated. They told Shaquille about a conversation they’d had with the referee moments before.
“We just heard the funniest thing,” the official told Coach Madura. “Those guys from Southside just informed us we’re about to witness the biggest upset in high school basketball.”
O’Neal didn’t even look up. He merely nodded.
In truth, Shaq didn’t need any additional motivation. Minutes earlier he had walked into the gym, ducking under the door as a pretty young cheerleader smiled at him. As Shaq grinned in return, her face contorted into a look of disgust.
She shrieked so loudly, he wanted to cover his ears.
He had grown accustomed to verbal assaults, but he still couldn’t fathom why people were so cruel. Did they think because he was so big and so strong that he had no feelings?
O’Neal said little in Cole’s pregame huddle. He pointed to his chest and said softly, “Get me the ball.”
The first time down, he grabbed it on the block, wheeled and jammed so hard the rim bent forward. When he got it again, he slammed it with such force the rim drooped to the right.
“By the third time he dunked,” More later recalled, “the rim looked like a roller coaster.”
The biggest upset in high school basketball would have to wait another day.
NOBODY KNEW WHERE THE HELL I HAD COME FROM WHEN I showed up at Cole High School in San Antonio, Texas, in 1987. I wasn’t an AAU lifer or a summer camp gym rat. I was a military kid coming from Europe who had some size but wasn’t sure what to do with it. That was my self-published scouting report.
I moved there too late to play basketball in my sophomore year. I even wanted to play football at my new high school, but Sarge wouldn’t let me. He was worried I’d get hurt. He was planning on my basketball skills paying for my college.
One of the first kids I met at Cole was Joe Cavallero, this little guy who was the sixth man on the basketball team and also the school’s starting quarterback. He was a very good athlete, a born leader. Joe saw me in the office when I was registering and he gave me a little crap and that was it—instant friends. Joe got me the job as football team statistician, just so I’d have something to do. I’d walk up and down the sidelines intimidating the hell out of the other team. They’d look at me and say, “Shit. When is that kid coming in the game?”
Even though I wasn’t on the team the football coach made me run all the off-season drills. I even did the log drill, which I absolutely hated. You had two logs parallel to one another with ten feet in between, and you had to do bear crawls across them. You were expected to zigzag across, then roll at the end.
I’m almost six foot ten at this point, and they have me rolling around in the mud. By the time I was done I was covered in dirt. I really did look like Sasquatch!
Of course I complained a lot about doing those damn log drills, but it really helped me with my agility and my footwork.
Joe introduced me to the guys on the basketball team, and I liked them right away. Doug Sandburg, who became my best friend, was a smart player, a good point guard who could shoot, too. If he had a little more size he probably could have gone on to play Division I. Robbie Dunn was funny as hell. He was a little guy with herky-jerky moves who didn’t get to play a whole lot, but he was still a big part of our group.
Our motto back then was “Fake it until you make it.” We used to go to the Eisenhower Flea Market, about two miles from the base. They sold all sorts of junk nobody really needed. Me and Joe would go around looking for the fattest plastic gold chains we could find, since we couldn’t afford the real stuff. We’d buy these big-ass plastic chains, then we’d troll around looking for a Mercedes and steal the emblem off the top of the car and paint it gold. Then we’d string the emblem through the plastic chains and there you go. What’s cooler than that?
I always wore a Gucci hat back then. Hey, I was already tall, so why hide it? I’d take that hat and make it sit high on my head like a shark fin. I swear, I was about seven foot eight with that thing on.
We used to do a lot of low-level juvenile-delinquent stuff. Outside the base we were surrounded by mayhem—guns, drugs, violence. We stayed on the base, for the most part, and did stupid things like knocking on people’s doors and running off. We used to egg people’s cars.
One of our favorite tricks was to have three guys on one side of the road and three guys on the other. The speed limit on the base was about thirty miles per hour, but people were always driving too fast. We’d have guys on either side of the street and pretend like we were pulling a rope. A car would come flying down the street and see us pulling this imaginary rope and they’d lock up their brakes. We got them every time with that one.
There was a pool on the base, and on weekends in the summer it would close around ten o’clock. We’d wait until the lights were out and the officers went inside to have their cocktails, and then we’d hop the fence and do cannonballs in the pool.
The officers would hear us splashing around and call the military police. The cops would then come and try to chase us, but they’d have their combat boots on. We were a bunch of athletes, and we knew they couldn’t catch us. We’d park Robbie’s car on the corner, sprint out of sight, and jump in the car and take off.
Most of the time, they knew it was us. I mean, there weren’t a whole bunch of six-foot-ten kids roaming around the base. But we were kind of famous for the athletic stuff we were doing, so they cut us some slack. If the other kids on the base did something like that they’d be lined up and paddled.
I got paddled a few times by teachers on the base in Germany, but not in San Antonio. By then I was too big. Nobody was brave enough to come at me with a paddle—except my father, of course.
The paddles were a part of life on a military base. If you screwed up by breaking a rule or failing an exam or getting in a fight, they’d call the whole school together and line you up in the middle of the gymnasium and have you straddle the line, and the principal or the athletic director would start lighting you up. It hurt, but mostly it just humiliated you. Plus, your parents always heard about it—and if your father was a commanding officer, then look out.
Cole High School was really small and had never won a championship in basketball until I got there. We had seventy-six kids in our class, and we were playing against schools three times that size. I was still learning the game of basketball, still developing my style. My coach, Dave Madura, was a no-nonsense guy. He had me do leg squats in front of a mirror until they were burning. He was trying to improve my flexibility, especially in my hips.
There was only one problem: I still hadn’t dunked in a game yet. I was getting close, and physically I finally had the coordination to do it, but part of it was psychological. I just wasn’t sure about it. What if I missed? I didn’t want anyone laughing at me.
Joe was trying to help me out. We started out by dunking a sock. Once I got comfortable with that, I tried dunking a tennis ball. Next it was a softball, then a volleyball, and then, finally, a basketball.
But dunking in an empty gym with my friend Joe was a lot different than pulling it off in a game in front of fans and family—especially my father.
Early in my junior year we were trying to break the press, so Doug Sandburg threw the ball to me in the middle, and I decided to take it all the way. I’m dribbling up the floor and I lay in a nice little finger roll, only there’s a little too much spin on it, so it kind of falls off the rim. All of a sudden I hear my father in the stands yelling, “Call time-out! Call time-out!”
I refuse to look up at him. I know it’s him—everyone knows it’s him—but I’m not the damn coach, so how the hell am I going to call a time-out?
But Sarge isn’t taking no for an answer. Now he’s coming down out of the stands, and thank God the other team calls time-out. We’re about to get in our huddle but my father grabs me and says, “What’s with the finger roll?” I told him, “I’m trying to be like Dr. J.”
“What the hell did you say to me?” he screamed. He grabbed my uniform and hauled me through a side door out of the gym. My coach is standing there and all the players are watching, but no one is going to mess with my father.
We are standing in the hallway and the buzzer is sounding because the time-out is almost over but Sarge doesn’t care. He’s banging me in the chest. “The hell with Dr. J!” he roared. “You start working on being Shaquille O’Neal. Now you go out and dunk the ball!”
He knew. He knew I was afraid to dunk it. He knew the only way he was going to get me to do it was shame me into it.
I went back on the court and I got the ball and I threw down a monster dunk. I mean, it was vicious. And then I realized, Man, this isn’t so hard. I can do this.
Once I started dunking I couldn’t stop. I loved the power of it, and I was addicted to the looks of terror on guys’ faces when I slammed that sucker over them.
It couldn’t be the only part of my game, I understood that—but it could be the part of my game.
My learning curve was still going up, up, up. When I wasn’t in the gym I was stealing a little bit of something from all the great players I was watching on TV.
One of the first guys I can remember paying a lot of attention to is Patrick Ewing. I just loved him because he was so mean. He ran around the court with a scowl on his face, and he always looked like he was ready to beat the crap out of everybody. You could tell people were afraid of him. I’d watch him and think, Yeah, I need some of that.
When I was in high school and stuck inside on punishment because I did something Sarge didn’t like, I’d sit back and watch Michael Jordan and Ewing and take all sorts of mental notes. Now when I closed my eyes, I wasn’t dreaming about the Hulk or Superman anymore. I was dreaming about Ewing and Jordan.
At this point people are saying I’m not going to make it as a basketball star, but they don’t know I’ve decided to kidnap Patrick Ewing’s mean streak.
I was a rookie with the Orlando Magic the first time I ever met Patrick. We were playing at Madison Square Garden, and my plan was to shake his hand and say, “Hello, Mr. Ewing,” but before I got the chance he punked me. I went to shake his hand, and he wouldn’t. So I went to put my fist out and he hit me real hard on my knuckles. Then he said, “I’m going to bust your ass, rookie.”
Ewing was mad because everyone was talking about me like I was the Next Big Thing (which I was). I led the All-Star Game in votes my first year in the NBA, and after that happened Ewing told some guys no rookie should ever be allowed to start in the game. Pat Riley was the coach of the East that year, but he was Patrick’s coach with the Knicks, and he told everyone it was “ridiculous” that I was the starter. So when we got to the All-Star Game Riley started me because he had to, but he played me and Patrick the exact same amount of minutes.
I didn’t like that. I never really forgot it. I was voted in as the starter. Not Ewing. The fans wanted to see me. So give the fans what they want, right?
Ewing wasn’t the only guy I was stealing moves from in high school. One night I was grounded and I was watching some ACC basketball, and there was this dude named Charles Shackleford, a forward for North Carolina State, tearing up everybody in his path. I’m watching him play and I like what he’s doing, and he’s wearing these big knee pads, so I say, “Yeah, I’m going to take that.” They called him “Shack,” so I show up the next day and I’ve got big-ass knee pads and I’m “Shaq.”
So me and my boys on the base keep watching all the college games we can, and I see Sherman Douglas at Syracuse serving up lobs for this cat named Rony Seikaly. I noticed that every time he dunked he pulled his legs up. I’m watching and I’m thinking, That’s me. I’m taking that.
One day I’m at the house and these military guys are talking about somebody named David Robinson, so my father goes out and gets a tape and sits me down and I got to watch film of David Robinson. I’m watching him run the floor and I say to myself, I’ve got some work to do, so I go out and I try to learn Robinson’s spin move.
My dad is working with me and I’m getting better. I’m in between my junior and senior season of high school when my dad comes home from work one night and punches me square in the face. He’s got a program in his hands and grabs me and says, “It’s time for you to get serious. See this guy right here? We’re going to watch him play basketball tonight, and I’m going to teach you how to destroy him. You know why? Because he makes 15 million dollars—that’s why. See how much money you could make if you’d just stay out of trouble?”
The guy he was talking about was Jon Koncak. He was this huge, slow white dude who really wasn’t that good, but he signed this contract for $15 million with the Atlanta Hawks. They nicknamed him “Jon Contract.”
My dad has two tickets to the Spurs game, so we go to watch Jon Koncak. We are sitting way at the top, the worst seats in the place, but I’m watching this guy and I’m thinking, I can be better than him.
So now I’ve got something to shoot for. And that’s when I started to turn it around. When the boys came around looking for fun I told them, “Sorry, I can’t mess with y’all right now.” Even the girls—I cut back on that, too.
Up to that point I still managed to find trouble just about all the time. One spring I played on an AAU team with Charles “Bo” Outlaw, and we went to Tempe, Arizona, for a tournament. We were playing a team from the state of Washington, and this guy kept fouling me really hard. I told him he shouldn’t do that again but he did, so I turned around and I punched him in the face.
The AAU people didn’t like that so much, so they kicked me out. Permanently. I messed up that kid pretty bad, so they sent me home. Luckily for me, my father wasn’t there. He was in training for a couple of months, so he was out of town for a while and he never found out about it—until now. Sorry, Sarge.
Since I couldn’t play AAU, I went to the army base and played with the enlisted men. My dad was running the gym at the base then, and I could always see him in the window watching. He never butted in when those big guys were pounding me, but later that night he’d tell me, “Don’t let those men push you around. Stand up for yourself, son.”
Excerpted from Shaq Uncut by Shaquille O'Neal Copyright © 2011 by Shaquille O'Neal. Excerpted by permission.
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