Shaquille O’Neal is 45 years old now, a retired Hall of Famer who lives in the countryside just south of Atlanta, where he works as one of the stars of TNT’s Inside the NBA. The self-proclaimed MDE—Most Dominant Ever, in case you forgot—is just as comfortable in this life as he was in the last one, sparring with Charles Barkley with verbal jabs instead of literal ones.
And while it seemed like O’Neal’s primary role on Inside would be as just another joker, six years in it’s apparent he’s taken his his analyst job seriously, watching plenty of games and providing plenty of insight. This in itself was a big change for him—“I never watched games when I was playing,” he says.
Why would he? O’Neal at his peak was an utterly unstoppable force, freezing opposing centers with cat-quick spin moves and dunking on, well, everyone. He didn’t need to watch film of the opposition—the opposition needed to watch film of him. He won four titles, three NBA Finals MVPs, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
Last night on Inside, the crew celebrated Small Business Saturday (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) by buying each other gifts from, you guessed it, small businesses. We asked Shaq about his shopping habits, who he’d build a team around, and exactly what his definition of a great player is.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
When I heard we were gonna talk small businesses in Atlanta, the first one I thought of was Friedman’s. How did you learn about it?
I found out about them in high school. I was going to the prom and I needed some shoes. We went everywhere around San Antonio, no one had shoes. So we went to the Spurs practice facility, my father was in the military, [Gregg] Popovich was in the military, they knew each other. Popovich gives us the number to Friedman’s. So my father calls Bruce [Teilhaber], the owner of Friedman’s and said “Hey, my name is Sergeant Philip Harrison, my son is a size 18, do you have any?” Bruce says “We got a lot of 18s,” so we got some pennyloafers. The pennyloafers were like $200. And my father was like, “Sir, can we put them on layaway?” And Bruce was like “Sarge, I know who your son is, I’ve seen him play, he’s a fabulous young man, we’re gonna give you the shoes for free, just tell your son if he ever makes it big time, just buy some shoes from me.” So when I was 18 and I didn’t have a pot to piss in and my parents would have to put the $200 shoes on layaway, Bruce, who had never met me, was gracious enough to say “Here you go, young fella, take the shoes” and I was the sharpest thing at the prom. I had on a burgundy tuxedo with some burgundy pennyloafers with the shiny pennies in ‘em. I was so proud because actually those were my first pair of dress shoes. Ever.
How many pairs have you bought from there since?
Oh, since then I’ve probably bought over a million dollars worth of shoes there. I actually still order shoes to this day. I refuse to do what everybody else is doing and order shoes online and go to different people. When it comes to quality dress shoes? I get ‘em from Friedman’s.
I know you’re buying gifts for guys on Inside the NBA—who’s the toughest to shop for?
Ernie. Because Ernie is a guy who doesn’t really ask for much, he’s very modest and very generous, so he’s the toughest guy to shop for.
when you’re the greatest player in the league you don’t always have to bust your ass during the regular season to get the number one spot.
What are your go-to small businesses in Atlanta?
I go to a lot of small shops. I go to a lot of soap shops. I don’t have one in particular, if I’m riding around and I see it’s a small shop, I try to stop in and show my support and buy something, Where I live at in the country, there’s one called Country Store, they have everything you need in there. Eggs, bread, trinkets, sausage—it’s right around the corner from my house. And across the street is a Publix, but I refuse to go to Publix because there’s 100 million people in there, but the Country Store has got everything that I want. And I go to a place called Southern Belle Farm in McDonough, Georgia. That’s where I get all my produce from. It’s awesome.
I wanted to switch over to some NBA stuff—Lonzo Ball has been struggling a little bit early on. What have you thought of him so far, and what do you think he needs to do?
I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, I’d say he’s just playing safe. The first game when Patrick Beverley embarrassed him, and he responded the next game in Phoenix, 29, that’s what everybody expected him to play like. So if he plays with that aggression, I think people will give him a little more respect. Right now he’s just playing safe, coming down, calling plays, real nonchalant, passing the ball, not shooting a high percentage—I think he has the worst percentage in the NBA, the second-worst inside the paint and all that—he just needs to be more aggressive. Seems to me his awkward shot he can’t get it off, because he can only go left to come back right and pull up and shoot, and the defenders are waiting for that. At some point in his career he’s gonna have to change that shot and get a quicker release. Before I knew who he was and I finally decided to Google him, if you Google him now it’s gonna show all these little high school and college clips where’s he’s shooting 40 feet behind the three-point line and coming behind the back and dunking backwards, that’s what Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson thought they were getting. So hopefully, it’s a lot of Laker greats over there, hopefully he has the right people getting in his ear. I’m actually surprised Magic hasn’t come out with a statement saying that hey, you know, we need the kid to be more aggressive.
In other surprises, the Celtics made all these changes and came out super hot. Did you expect them to be in the position they are, especially after losing Gordon Hayward in the first game?
Yeah. Kyrie is a stud type of player and he has a triple green now, in Cleveland he only had the double green. Now he has the triple green. Brad Stevens really trusts him and is doing a great job of keeping everybody involved, keeping everybody happy. [Aron] Baynes, who you don’t really talk about had a hell of a game the other day. They’re doing much better than Cleveland. So right now Boston is the team to beat in the East, until Cleveland gets their act together.
The Cavaliers have been the surprise the other way. Did you expect them to come out a little soft?
It happens. I think right now they’re just bored because they know once the playoffs come if everybody’s healthy they’re gonna turn it around. The good thing is you can’t really judge ‘em until Isaiah [Thomas] comes back. They’re not really playing well now, but listen, they’re just bored. LeBron been to the Finals the last seven times, it’s a new team, a new culture, so they just need to learn how to develop that winning culture.
You’ve played with LeBron, you’ve been in the situation LeBron is in right now, what do you think he’s going through right now?
Well, before you succeed you must first learn to fail, so what’s going to happen is they’re gonna probably lose some more games they shouldn’t, they’re gonna have a heated discussion or a heated argument and then everybody gonna get back on track, they’re gonna go on a little winning streak. See, the mentality is when you’re the greatest player in the league you don’t always have to bust your ass during the regular season to get the number one spot. As long as you get one of those four spots—and Cleveland will have one of those four spots because the East is not that tough. As long as they have some type of home court advantage and start the playoffs in Cleveland they’re gonna be fine. They ain’t gonna be trying to go 72-10 and all that, you just pace yourself.
Two guys who’ve been getting a lot of attention early on are Giannis in Milwaukee and Kristaps in New York. Did you think you’d see these guys hitting this point so fast? Giannis seems to have made a giant step every year.
He’s definitely been working on his game, developing his game. But at some point it’s all about winning. I think a lot of people throw that word “great” around a little too much, a little too fast. Those guys are good, solid players, but I need to see them lead their teams deep into the playoffs and really become great players. I’ve always said if you put up great numbers and you don’t lead your team to the playoffs, does that make you a great player? Does it?
Would you say you need both of those things, definitely?
Well, that’s how they always treated me. So that’s the blueprint I’m going off of. When I was in Orlando putting up great numbers they always said ‘well that’s good, but you ain’t won a championship yet.’ Or ‘that’s good, but you lost in the first round of the playoffs.’ That’s how I’ve always measured greatness, not by shooting a lot of shots, shooting an OK percentage and putting up a lot of points.
By that measure, how many ‘great’ players do you think there are in the NBA?
Not a lot. Golden State got four on their team, you got Kawhi on the Spurs. Any team that makes it and goes deep in the playoffs and they got a big-name player, I would consider those the great players. The Westbrooks, Durants, all those guys. But if you put up numbers and you don’t really make your team make the playoffs, I’m not too quick to give you that great title. That’s just me.
If you were looking to put a team together and you could pick anybody, who would you build your team around for the future?
I would try to do something to put Ben Simmons, Greek Freak, and Kawhi Leonard together. I’d try to put together a hell of a package—let’s just say that I bought the Miami Heat. You’re in a city that’s very exciting. Those are the three that I’d go after. You’ve got Ben Simmons who’s a heck of a point guard to keep everybody involved. You’ve got Kawhi Leonard who’s the best both-way player in the game. And then you got Greek Freak who’s absolutely a freak with the ball. And then I’d probably get a hell of a shooter and six or seven role players. My style would be the same as the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs—if you look at these guys that they draft, you never hear from them but they see something that people don’t see. Putting together a championship team is like putting together a puzzle. You can’t have two of the same pieces if you want your puzzle to be complete. So I would get four bonafide superstars and seven role players.
Do you have any interest in being a GM and actually doing that someday?
Hell no. Nope. My basketball reach is only from Turner. Other than that I just chill out.
You always seemed like the guy who would do be comfortable in a studio role. How has that been for you transitioning into that role?
It’s fun. We came to the collective agreement that if we’re gonna keep you up at 1:30, 2 a.m. we’ll entertain your first and then give you basketball second. Our show is more like a Saturday Night Live, In Living Color type show before it is a sports show. But it’s fun.