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Once upon a time, there was a little boy who got to be “Star of the Week” in his elementary school classroom.
He was excited! Who wouldn’t be? The Star of the Week got to take attendance, hand out the treats at snack time, and present his favorite stuff at show-and-tell!
But when the big day came, the little boy, who loved to play basketball, found to his dismay that being Star of the Week wasn’t as much fun as he thought it would be, especially when it came to standing in front of the class and taking attendance.
“As the week went on, Little Shaq tried his best to be a good star. But he wasn’t getting better,” chapter 3 begins.
Shaq? Shaq? Who could that be?
"My name is Dr. Shaquille O’Neal," the story's author says. "I’m a television analyst, I’m a businessman, I’m a philanthropist, and I’m a master at being a nice guy."
Right. Right. Hall-of-Famer, no stranger to the concept of “Star of the Week.” But he’s also an author of children’s books. And when he sat down to talk with me, he was hungry.
"This muffin is awesome," he said.
I like muffins, too, sometimes they’re even awesome. So we have that in common. The 44-year-old Shaq can afford as many muffins as he’d like, and he can do just about anything he wants to do these days. So what makes a man with four NBA championship rings and nearly $300 million in career earnings — not including endorsement income — decide to write children’s books? The answer can be found in Shaq’s childhood.
Little Shaq's Big Heroes
"I had a stuttering problem," O'Neal says. "Because, me being the size that I am, people always expected me to be great, and in my mind I was never that great."
It may be hard now to imagine Shaquille O’Neal, that effervescent NBA seven-footer, with a lack of self-esteem. But when he was a youngster, he feared public speaking, struggled with some of his school work, and had trouble reading. He got help. A lot of it.
"Miss Swann. She was my fourth grade teacher in Hinesville, Georgia. Horace Mann Elementary School. And she used to sit and read all the time. You know, she would give us homework, and I would be like, 'I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t read it.' She was like, 'OK, come back after school' and she would help me read it. And she just passed away. Miss Ann Swann. My 4th Grade teacher. My favorite teacher ever."
So that’s where Shaq got his love of reading. But that didn’t immediately lead him to spend all his spare time in the library.
"I was a medium-level juvenile delinquent," he says. "As a youngster, for me, I was definitely a follower. You know, the things I were doing as a juvenile, just simple stuff: stealing cars, stealing stuff out the store, just really very silly stuff."
Then, a different champion stepped in to help Shaq.
"My mother told me one day," O'Neal recalls, "'if you want to become this big basketball star, like your favorite guy, Dr. J., at some point in your life, son, you’re gonna have to start being a responsible model citizen. A role model/real model.'”
That didn’t happen right away. Maybe that’s because Shaq was moving around too much. He was a member of a military family. After stops in Georgia, Germany and Texas, Shaquille O’Neal arrived at Louisiana State University as one of the most highly recruited high schoolers ever. He was a two time All-American as a sophomore, but he still hadn’t overcome his stuttering problem. Enter LSU head coach Dale Brown.
"I had a speech class that was mandatory. And we had to give a speech. And I was terrified," O'Neal recalls. "So I called Coach Brown in the middle of the night and he made me practice it in front of him 100 times. And then the next day I had confidence, and I just went and I nailed the speech, and I was like, 'Oh. I didn’t know it was this easy!' I could have closed my eyes and not looked at anyone in the audience and still delivered that great speech."
'The Ambassador Of Fun'
Before he would go on to become NBA Rookie of the Year, a 15-time All Star, and four-time NBA champion, Shaq made it clear that he wanted to be a different kind of public figure.
"I said to my people that were representing me, 'I want to be known as 'The Ambassador of Fun,' 'The Overlord of Fun,' 'The Emperor of Fun,'" he says.
He did that by becoming one of the most quotable and quoted athletes of his time. He showed up to kids’ parties as “ShaqaBunny."
"A lot of kids love the bunnies," Shaq explains.
He rapped and acted. He pitched products on television and always tried to make people laugh. And he would become a family man.
"I have six children. I used to read to my kids all the time. Actually, three of my kids would not go to sleep unless I picked up some sort of book and read it to them."
"I have six children. I used to read to my kids all the time. Actually, three of my kids would not go to sleep unless I picked up some sort of book and read it to them," O'Neal says. "And a lot of times I’d go visit kids in hospitals. I'd read to them. I'd go to school programs and read to them. And I just wanted to give ‘em stuff that they could relate to."
In 1999, the Ambassador of Fun decided to write his first children’s book, “Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales," even as he was dominating the NBA.
"So, I wrote it. This was 15 years ago, when my children were very young," he says. "It was very difficult, because being out of school so long, you forget the run-on sentences and where to place the commas and simple stuff like that."
O’Neal retired from the court in 2011 and soon had the idea for a series of books featuring, well…who else could it possibly be?
“Suddenly, Little Shaq remembered the voice of his favorite basketball announcer. It was loud and clear, and always got his attention. If Little Shaq could sound like him, his class might listen. Little Shaq cleared his throat. ‘Douglas Alvarez!’ he said in the best announcer voice. Doug responded right away. Little Shaq tried the voice again. ‘Susie Carmichael!’ ‘Here!’ said Susie. It was working."
"I wanna know if you had a particular basketball announcer in mind when you had Little Shaq go into his basketball announcer voice so people would pay attention?" I ask Shaq.
"Oh, Marv Albert," he says.
"Yes, everybody loves Marv’s voice," Shaq says.
Success, Defined By Shaq
Little Shaq exorcises the demons of stuttering and self-consciousness by imitating his favorite announcer. But what about the struggles Bigger Shaq had with delinquency? Shaquille O’Neal says that there’s a link between taking responsibility when you’re young and avoiding trouble when you’re older. He writes about those things.
A quick check with Amazon earlier this week indicated that O’Neal’s latest book, "Little Shaq: Star of the Week," was No. 30
among “books/children’s books/sports and outdoors/basketball.” But while numbers mattered a lot to the author before he became an author...that is, when he was still a basketball player piling up points and rebounds…they’re not so important now.
"I don’t measure success all the time by the number of books sold or hitting the bestsellers list," he says. "I’ve seen a lot of kids say, 'Uncle Shaq, Grandpa Shaq, I read your book.' 'Mommy, that’s the guy from the bookstore!' Matter of fact, after this, I’m going to my youngest daughter’s school to read. So that, to me, is success."
And that, to me, is a very fine reason to end the conversation. Shaquille O’Neal is going to read to his daughter and her classmates.
I don’t want to be the reason he’s late.
This segment aired on October 29, 2016.
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