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Shaquille O’Neal on What Ben Simmons Needs to Do to Become Great

Lars Brandle speaks to Shaquille O’Neal about the Australian NBA All-Star, the Coalition to Back Black Businesses, and his DJing career.

Image of Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O'Neal recently launched the Coalition to Back Black Businesses in association with American Express

Supplied/American Express

The expression “larger than life” is so often overused in connection with celebrities. In the case of Shaquille O’Neal, it’s utterly inadequate.

Shaq is the largest human you’re ever likely to see. On the NBA court, which he dominated for 19 seasons, nabbing an MVP trophy (2000), four championship rings, and 15 All-Star Game appearances along the way, he was an immovable force. With a playing weight of 325 pounds (147 kg) and listed at a height of 7’1” (216 cm), he was a beast among giants. Shaq was no lummox. In his peak playing years, Shaq was explosive. A guy who’d run all day and dunk over you and all your extended family.

He was too big, too quick, too hungry, too much fun to watch.

Soon after his retirement, Shaq earned his doctorate in education from Barry University. Forget his nicknames Shaq Diesel, Shaq Fu. Shaq Daddy. Dr Shaq is the real deal.

In 2016, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame following a career that netted him almost US$300 million in salary.

Away from the court, everything he does is large. From playing the titular character in the 1996 feature film Kazaam to running his own music festival, Shaq’s Fun House, and launching a new ice-cream flavour, it’s “large” all the way.

It’s no wonder he got the Superman logo tattooed on his arm.

During the pandemic, Shaq has been active in his community with food drops and visits to local schools. He’s behind the newly-launched Coalition to Back Black Businesses, and the associated $10 million grant program, from American Express. The first-ever alliance includes a multi-million-dollar commitment over the next four years to fund a program that will provide grants to U.S.-based, Black-owned small businesses to assist in their recovery and address the challenges they face due to racial and social inequalities.

The former pro-baller is all-in with his many projects. He remains a regular face for NBA fans as a regular analyst for TNT’s coverage of the game, but he no longer misses playing the sport that made him a superstar.

He does, however, miss travel.

“Just let the people of Australia know, that Shaq loves it. I love Australia. I’ve been to Sydney and Melbourne many times,” says Shaq, speaking from his home in McDonough, Georgia. “I love the Australian people. I love you guys.”

Talk turns to Ben Simmons, the 6’10” Melbourne-born star who is now mentioned among the elite in the game right now, and who at the close of the recent regular season earned All-Star, All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team honours, while leading the league in steals per game. No other Australian basketballer has managed these plaudits across a single season. Indeed, no other Aussie has earned “All-Star” status. Though a championship eludes the Philadelphia 76er.

For all his ambidexterity, length and speed, Simmons has one gaping flaw in his game. Shooting.

Shaq, himself a troublesome shooter over his fabled career, has some tips for his Louisiana State University comrade. “He needs to shoot that jumper that he used to shoot in high school. He needs to not worry about people talking about how ugly it is,” he says of Simmons.

“He doesn’t shoot at all, it’s just drive, drive, drive. At some point he needs to add some new elements to his game. I used to watch him at high school in Florida, he would shoot all the time. He would shoot at LSU. But now he’s not shooting it at all. He just needs to shoot the ball. Shoot the damn ball. Shaq says that Ben Simmons from Australia needs to shoot the damn ball.”

When asked if Simmons’ aversion to deep shooting is a confidence thing, Shaq brushes it off. “No, there’s no such thing as confidence. You do it, you practice and correct it the right way so it becomes muscle memory, so when it comes time to perform it’s effortless.”

Shaq spent three years at LSU in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before entering the NBA as the No. 1 pick (taken by Orlando Magic). Simmons also spent a single year at LSU in 2015-16 before entering the league as the No. 1 pick, for the Sixers. He sat out his first full season, but would enjoy a stellar first year proper with twelve triple-double games (typically double figure points, rebounds and assists) and Rookie of the Year honours. His game has steadily improved, his shot has not.

Shaq doesn’t interfere with Simmons’ game.

“Of course we know each other,” he says. “I try to let the young guns just figure it out on their own. A lot of the time they don’t need it or want, or they’ve got it. I just sit back and watch.”

Away from sport, Shaq has a large appetite for music. DJing is a hobby that’s taking up a lot of his time, and space (he has a vinyl room at home with more than 10,000 records). He lists DJs Nghtmre, Skrillex and SAYMYNAME among his fave tune selectors.

Shaq’s rap journey came to something of a halt in the ‘90s after four full-length albums. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon. “I’m almost 50 years old, I don’t think people want to hear a 50-year-olds rapping,” he tells RS Australia. “I’ll just stick to DJing. DJing is a little bit more spontaneous and versatile.”

And when COVID is under control, he plans to relaunch his Shaq’s Fun House festival, perhaps with an international leg. “Shaq’s Fun House Australia will be insane mate,” he says, aping this reporter’s accent.

For a man who’s enjoyed a very large life, there’s only one regret. “I only have one dream. I wish I was 20-something and I could go in there and take all that money and bust all of those players asses,” he says with a laugh. “Some of these bums are making $200 million. If they’re making $200 million, the question is how much should Shaq be making?”