Shaq on ‘Being Soft’ and ‘Spilling Secrets’ For His New HBO Docuseries

6 minute read

SHAQ, the four-part HBO documentary whose final episode airs on Dec. 14, offers occasional points of revelation from Shaquille O’Neal. One of the most dominant players in NBA history, O’Neal has also been a ubiquitous presence in our cultural lives, given his role in TNT’s wildly popular and influential Inside the NBA studio show and appearances in about a million commercials (for General Insurance, IcyHot, Buick, Hulu, Pepsi, and on and on and on). He opens up about using painkillers, refers to his infidelities, and discusses his inability to sleep after the passing of his sister, Ayesha, from cancer in 2019 and the tragic death of ex-Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant in early 2020.

But the most intriguing character of SHAQ isn’t O’Neal himself. That distinction falls to Army Sergeant Phillip Harrison, the man who raised O’Neal and still holds a permanent seat in the big-man’s psyche.

In the documentary O’Neal says that some people may regard Harrison’s treatment of his son as the “a-word.” “It would be totally unacceptable these days,” O’Neal tells TIME in a Zoom interview. “I got corporally punished. I won’t do that with my children. But it worked for me. He had to let me know, ‘Hey, I know you’re 6’9″ but this is still my house and you’re still going to follow these rules or else. I’m glad he did.”

Harrison, who died in 2013, pushed O’Neal to make the best of himself on the basketball court. “I remember one day, he said, ‘Put your hands to your side,'” O’Neal recalls early on in the film. Harrison threw a ball at O’Neal, who moved. He then threw a chest pass that bounced right off of O’Neal’s face. “The point he was trying to make was don’t be scared of the ball.”

That’s Pressure

Even after O’Neal earned a scholarship to Louisiana State University, where he starred for three seasons, and made it to the NBA, where he was the top pick of the 1992 draft and won won the Rookie of the Year honors in 1993, Harrison still showed tough love. “When I first got some money I bought him a Mercedes,” O’Neal tells TIME. “He’s like OK, thank you, see you later. No smile. He never did any of that.”

O’Neal recalls once having a poor game against the New York Knicks. “He said get your ass on a f-cking plane now,” says O’Neal. He went to meet his father. “I said I couldn’t handle the pressure,” O’Neal tells TIME. “He wanted to punch me. He really did. I know he felt like I was 13 or 14 and he wanted to punch me, but he was probably thinking, ‘This motherf-cker is big. He might punch me back.'” O’Neal said his father made him get in a car and drive to a homeless family living in the streets. “Excuse my French, but he said, you little f-cking p-ssy. You’re making $40 million a year, $30 million in endorsements, that’s 70. Look at these people. They have nothing. That’s pressure. Don’t ever say anything to me about motherf-cking pressure again. Get out.” O’Neal said he subsequently bought the family housing.

Harrison’s example also led O’Neal to disagree with Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who knelt during the national anthem in protest of social injustices “When the flag thing was going on, I got a lot of hate mail. But my reason is the guy that made me who I am, he had a certain way about that flag. You respect that flag, point blank, period,” says O’Neal. “My basic message is, you do what you feel is right. However, me, I’m going to stand. I didn’t say he’s wrong. That’s not my place. If that’s what you feel, cool. But I’m never going to disrespect the Sarge. During that moment, people would like you to stand and put your hand on your chest. If you want to say something, I would have waited until after that moment, at the press conference.”

A Kinder, Gentler Shaq

After Harrison died in 2013, O’Neal says that his mother, Lucille, recommended that he make amends with his biological father, Joseph Toney, who struggled with drug addiction and was arrested for running a check forgery operation when O’Neal was young. (Lucille later married Harrison, whom O’Neal has always referred to as this “father,” when O’Neal was 3). Toney annoyed O’Neal when he appeared on the Ricki Lake Show in 1994 to ask O’Neal to let him into this life. “I was upset because you put people in my business,” O’Neal tells TIME. “This was a family secret.”

But O’Neal heeded his mother’s advice. “It’s a very respectable relationship,” he says of his bond with Toney. One reason O’Neal reached out, he says, is that he knows he’s an imperfect husband and father: Infidelities led to O’Neal’s divorce from his wife, Shaunie, in 2011.

“He lost his family by doing what he did,” says O’Neal. “I did the same sh-t. His was drugs and mine was all your other crazy superstar stuff. I was at that point to where I’m not going to be a hypocrite. ‘Oh, you’re the deadbeat dad,’ when I just did the same thing. Six kids. Gone. Gone. So I told him, ‘Man, I don’t hate you. We don’t need to talk about it. I know the story. I don’t care.’ And we talk every now and then. He’s good.”

While O’Neal has opened up for this project, he warns people to catch this version of himself while they can. “I don’t like being vulnerable,” says O’Neal. “People need to understand that after this documentary, it turns off. Because I’m being soft and spilling certain secrets. But I’m not allowed to do that. For the next documentary, it’ll be Shaq, 70, how’d you do so much? Then I’ll show more vulnerability.”

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