There’s absolutely nothing relatable about Shaquille O’Neal. He’s 7’1′ with a smile bigger than a Cadillac’s grill. He’s an icon, a walking billboard for his essential Shaqness. And he’s rich, flaunting an estimated net worth of $400 million. When I meet him at Toy Fair 2020, where he’s promoting Tonka Trucks, he’s got a rock on his finger that would tip over a plastic excavator. It’s not so much that Shaq is bigger than life; the three-time NBA MVP is just really good at it.
At 47, Shaq is a quasi-retired stay-at-home dad, who, when he’s not lining up endorsement deals or making Inside the NBA watchable, is schooling his six kids (ranging from college graduate-age to 16-year-old Shaqir and 13-year-old Me’arah) on hard work. Shaq is a wake-up-and-grind guy. When he put on weight during his career, it was to knock other guys around. When he puts on a suit, it’s to increase the market share of Shaqitude. And, yeah, he’s proud that he can offer his kids a lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to do it. The next generation of O’Neals are learning to be big on their own. That’s the expansion plan.
Fatherly spoke to Shaq about his big family and his grand ambitions.
Let’s start with the reason you’re here. You’re pushing Tonka trucks. The first and obvious question is: Why?
Kids don’t play with toys like they used to. I have kids. We’re trying to start this movement — go back to playing with toys. I’m not saying, get off this completely. You can never get off that completely. When my kids were young, I made sure there was an hour or two a day: Basketball, kickball, daddy be the dog and chase me. Something that would get them outside for some physical activity. Tonka has been around for a long time. I had one. Everyone had a Tonka truck. My sons had them. They’re reliable.
I think a lot of parents would agree with you that physical toys are better than digital distractions. That said, it’s hard to convince kids of that. How do you manage your own?
I initiated a rule a couple of years ago. When we’re at dinner, no phones. It drives them crazy. They’re sitting there and don’t know what to do. ‘What happened today?’ Nothing. That’s what I would do when I was young, with my mom and dad, we’d talk about certain things. At dinnertime, there’s always good teachable moments.
I also try not to be hypocritical and hold myself to the same standard, but it is different. For them, it’s games and Snapchat and TikTok. For me, it’s emails and bills and school notices. When I look at my phone it’s basically business. It’s my office. When I wake up at 8AM, I look at my phone. Today, it’s Toy Fair. Then I fly to New Orleans to take my daughter to LSU orientation.
You’re dropping her off tomorrow! Are you going to get all emotional and cry?
No. I never cry.
Ha. We’ll let that slide. But it does seem like you’ve got a lot of reason to be proud of your kids. They have never made headlines in the bad way. What values was it important for you to instill in them?
One, to respect others. To have fun. To follow your dreams. I want to teach my kids the basics of being a good citizen. Respect people, love people, make people laugh.
To you, what’s the best part of being the dad of six?
The coolest part of being a dad is watching them grow. What makes it easier is that they know that I’m Shaq. We don’t need another Shaq basketball player. We need an engineer. We need a hedge fund guy. We need a medical doctor. My oldest daughter just graduated from college. My second son is a junior. My third son will be going to be LSU and my younger daughter will be going to LSU. I have two more left to get out of the house.
There’s also a rule in my house: ‘You can’t touch none of my cheese unless you have three degrees.’ Just because you’re my son, I’m not giving you an envelope full of money. I have three degrees [a bachelor’s from LSU, an MBA from the University of Phoenix, and an educational doctorate from Barry University]. If you have a bachelor’s and a master’s, you can come into my office with a business plan, I’ll fund you.
Wait, what? Let’s go back. I love this rule.
Look, I spoil them at a certain level. But then I bring it down: We’re not rich. I’m rich. ‘Dad, we want to take your plane to go to spring break.’ You better call Delta. I think it will make them tougher and make them appreciate stuff more. I know a lot of guys in my position and they give their kids stuff and it’s sad how their kids are turning out. It’s crazy.
I think it’s impressive that you use limits to build healthier relationships. Are there other tools you use as a parent?
I don’t use discipline to teach my kids lessons. I use stories. My son had to go through heart surgery. He thought he was never going to play again. I didn’t know how that felt. But I told him I had six surgeries that required the same type of mental toughness. I could have never played again, but I persevered. That helped him get through it. At dinner when the phones are off you can tell stories.
And here you are, still working. You’re on the Papa John’s board of directors, and you’re the Chief Fun Officer at Carnival Cruises.
People always ask, why do you get involved with these endorsements? As an honest businessman, I can’t take your money if I’m not familiar with your product. I can’t lie to the people.
So you’re still going to be out there making more cheese?
I’m always working. It’s actually fun.