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why people love shaq

 
Published Feb. 20, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

As if it weren't enough to be one of pro basketball's wildest sensations, Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot-1-inch, 303-pound center for the Orlando Magic, has become his own cottage industry.

"The Shaq," as O'Neal is known, seems to be scoring on all fronts. There are Shaq posters, an autobiography called Shaq Attaq (Hyperion, 1993), a Shaq basketball line for Spalding, a sneaker and clothing line for Reebok and television commercials for Pepsi.

O'Neal's first rap album, Shaq Diesel (Jive Records), has become a hit since its release late last year.

Now the 21-year-old is making his acting debut. O'Neal stars with Nick Nolte, Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard in Blue Chips, which is scheduled to open nationwide Feb. 18.

Set in the world of college basketball, Chips features Nolte as Pete Bell, coach of the one-time college basketball champions, the Western University Dolphins.

After his first losing season, Bell reluctantly gives in to pressure from some of the school's alumni who want to foot the bill _ illegally and secretly _ to secure the talents of three young hoop phenoms (Anfernee Hardaway, Matt Nover and O'Neal) who can help reverse the Dolphins' fortunes.

O'Neal portrays Neon Bodeaux, a New Orleans wunderkind who is the only one of the three star recruits to refuse any under-the-table money or gifts.

Today, just a little more than an hour after playing a real-life basketball game against the Knicks in New York's Madison Square Garden, O'Neal saunters past dozens of sports and entertainment journalists to join Chips director William Friedkin and several others involved with the film for a press conference.

Despite the presence of basketball legend Bob Cousy, (who plays Western's athletic director) and actor J.T. Walsh (who portrays a slimy alumni booster), most of the reporters' questions are directed to O'Neal.

One of the first issues raised is the film's depiction of illegal player recruiting.

"In some programs this goes on," says O'Neal, who played college ball for Louisiana State University. "It never went on for me. I was taught by my mother never to sell my soul, but it does go on. I remember going to some colleges, and guys drove up in Benzes and BMWs, wore nice clothes. It does go on, and I think Billy (Friedkin) did a good job of reflecting it."

When asked about the challenges of acting, O'Neal flashes a big smile.

"I was being a basketball player," he says. "I think I do good at basketball, so it was pretty easy for me."

Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection (1971), is a major basketball fan and had long wanted to make a film about the game.

When a script by Ron Shelton, who wrote Bull Durham (1988) and White Men Can't Jump (1991), landed in his hands, Friedkin jumped at the chance to direct.

The experience was as enjoyable as he had imagined it would be. Putting his eclectic mix of movie and sports stars through their cinematic paces was actually pretty easy, Friedkin says.

"There was very little direction, to be honest," he said. "The main thing you try to do is provide a climate where everyone is comfortable.

"That's all I tried to do. If these guys are good _ and I think they're great _ it's because they felt relaxed enough to bring to it what they know."

O'Neal compares Friedkin to his father, Phillip Harrison, an Army sergeant who encouraged his son to be all that he could be.

"If I didn't do it right the first time (my father) got on me," O'Neal says. "I didn't want Billy to get on me, so I tried my best.

"At times, when I messed up, Billy pulled me to the side and said, "Shaq, relax. Do this; do that.' He was real flexible."

O'Neal so enjoyed his time before the cameras that he plans to take on more acting roles in the future, perhaps beginning with Terminator III.

"I think I'd beat Arnold (Schwarzenegger) up," he jokes. "I'd like to do an action-thriller type of movie, but at this point in time I'm not going to sign a big, lucrative, seven-movie deal."

That's because basketball remains the most important of his many activities, he says.

O'Neal is quick to dismiss those fans and critics who say the endorsements, the movie and the music endeavors are distracting him from his game, and it's hard to argue with him since he is averaging 20-plus points a game and was named to the NBA All-Star team as a starter for the second year in a row.

"Despite what I'm doing I think I'm doing pretty good at basketball," he says. "You guys look at a 21-year-old and say, "He's doing a lot of things and doesn't know what his priorities are.'

"This summer, I woke up at 10, worked out from 11 to 1, and everything else went on after that. There's only so much playing you can do."

Born in Newark, N.J., the Army brat spent his youth in New Jersey, Germany and California. It was while attending high school in San Francisco that he made his mark as a budding basketball prospect.

He attended LSU for three years, departing after his junior year when he was the top pick in the 1992 college draft. Since joining the Magic, O'Neal's name has become a household word.

As his fame grows, however, so does the expectation that the basketball star will serve as a good role model for children. O'Neal says he is aware of the situation and is prepared to hold up his end of the bargain, though he has some reservations.

"There are many definitions of a role model," he explains. "When I was coming up, a role model was a person you could talk to when you had a problem with the birds and the bees, about why not to use drugs, why to stay in school.

"My role model was my father. Parents need to do a little better job of being their child's role model instead of saying, "Be like Shaq.'

"

The Shaq can relate to being a role model because he has served as one to two younger sisters, a younger brother, a niece and a nephew, he says.

"Some guys who don't have siblings can't relate so I think athletes need to stay out of trouble, do the right thing and say the right things."

What of the pressures that come with being young, black, talented and successful?

"Believe it or not, I really don't believe in pressure," he says. "Pressure is when you go home and don't know where your next meal is coming from. That's pressure.

"When you don't know where you're going to stay the next night, that's pressure.

"Me, I just keep things simple, try to stay out of trouble, play ball, have fun, be young and ... drink Pepsi."

Ian Spelling is a New York-based free-lance writer.