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Shakull O’Neal: ‘The big men in the NBA today are powder boxes’

Shaquille O’Neal is one of the greatest NBA players to ever play, a bigger figure than life and one of the faces of the league during his playing career. This was largely due to the fact that he was consistently winning, winning three titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-2002 and winning a fourth championship with Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in 2006. This level of consistency deserves respect. among the NBA’s elite, which is why he admires the current Golden State Warriors dynasty.

“It was very impressive because no one expected it,” says O’Neill. “And second, they beat LeBron, they beat KD, they beat all the greats. They actually changed the league, now you have teams playing the way they play.”

We caught up with Shaq to discuss his Comebaq Court initiative, collaboration with his Shaquille O’Neal Foundation and Icy Hot. He understands his importance in the communities he has lived in and despite being a great athlete, Shaq is also one of the biggest philanthropists in professional sports. He touched on the importance of this new beginning, growing up in New Jersey, the Golden State Warriors’ pursuit of immortality, and the modern NBA landscape. The Hall of Famer also notes that his Lakers have been called one of the greatest teams of all time.

(This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.)

This is the second Combaq Court event between your Shaquille O’Neal Foundation and Icy Hot. For those who may not understand, and this may be their first exposure to it, can you explain what it is and how important it is?
Well, we just started this initiative. We want to visit certain areas, renovate the courts and give the kids a place to walk, socialize and play ball. I played these courts when I was a teenager, so hopefully we can find the next LeBron. [James]next Kobe [Bryant]next [Michael] Jordan. Hopefully just give the kids a place to play basketball.

The first Comebaq court was in Las Vegas. What was special about this time that made you come back to Newark?
Well, that’s where I’m from. I lived in Las Vegas so I wanted to do something there, it was a certain area where the courts had not been touched for 50-60 years. I live there and will be passing there every day, so I said let me do that first as a trial study. And then I said, well, I’ll come home, and then I’ll go to Atlanta, Louisiana and Texas. I have lived in many places where the kids know me and they know that I am from certain areas so they know that I will take care of them first. But who knows, maybe I’ll be on the block next week.

You can come to St. Louis and build it if you want.
Oh yes, easily. Jason Tatum and I can build it there.

You just said you might be able to find the next Kobe, LeBron or whatever. You yourself talked about the importance of the Boys and Girls Club that you grew up playing in Newark. Did your personal experience motivate you to come back and do something similar in Newark?
I’ve been doing some stuff here since I left, but yeah. I want to be able to look at these kids and say that I am you in the future. I’m from the same place, should have been doing the same thing as you. I always give them the blueprint because I’m not the kid who made it because of the academic scholarship. I made it through hard work, perseverance and faith. So when I come back here, I let them know, “Hey, you remind me of myself.” That’s how you get out and it starts here on these courts. This is a good opportunity for children.

How important do you think it is for children not only to see someone like you, but to be close to you personally, and for them to feel you, touch you, know that you are real.
I think this is very important, so every time I see a child, I give him the answers to the test. The way I did it is a certain way for them to do it. The first thing I tell them is to listen to your parents, listen to your teachers. The second thing I tell them is to follow their dreams and being from this field we are already aware of the trials and tribulations so we are not soft. We can handle this part. You just have to follow certain rules and I did it and anyone else can do it too.

You yourself have played for a dynasty that many consider to be one of the greatest teams to ever exist on your three-peat Lakers teams. You also played in two other NBA Finals with the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat. How impressive has this Warriors run over the past eight years been for you because you know what it takes to win at a high level for an extended period of time?
It was very impressive because no one expected it. Second, they beat LeBron, they beat KD, they beat all the greats. So, if you look at a guy like Steph Curry, who was undrafted, who wasn’t talked about much when he was first drafted, and everyone said, “He’ll never do that.” And then a guy like Mark Jackson saw something to say, “You and Clay.” [Thompson] you shoot him every time you touch him. You guys are going to be the best backcourt.” And then they started with that, and Steve Kerr added that championship flavor to the mix. Then a guy like Draymond came along, a Dennis Rodman-type player, and they could win, they could win big. They actually changed the league, now you have teams playing the way they play. Guys who can’t shoot at all are now shooting 3-pointers.

When you played it was inside out, now it’s outside-in.
Yep, inside out. Most of these big guys they have now are powder puffs. They want to shoot jumpers.

There is always a debate about who is the greatest team of all time and like I said, you played for one of the greatest teams. Many consider the 2001 Lakers to be one of the greatest teams of all time.
If we hadn’t lost that first game [Allen] Iverson, and would go 16-0, then I would arrogantly say that we are the best team. I’m just happy to participate in the debate. Sometimes it’s fun to go to the barbershop and find out who’s the best player? LeBron, Kobe or Mike? Who is the most dominant big man, Shaq or Wilt? Who is the best shooter, Steph Curry, Jerry West, Reggie Miller? So I’m just happy and blessed to be part of the debate.

You tweeted that one person can’t win a championship without another star. Why do you think it’s important for a championship team to have multiple stars?
No star can win without the other guy. How much would the Magic win without Karim? How old would Kenny be without Hakim? I was just at the point where sometimes on Twitter people just start talking and think they can say anything. But those conversations don’t matter. Saying, “He wouldn’t have won without Kobe,” I know it. And guess what? I wouldn’t have won without Rick Fox, Brian Shaw and Big Shot Bob. I wouldn’t have won without my team, but I was the head of the snake and that’s all that mattered.

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