Shaquille O'Neal has just returned from American University, where he spent 2½ hours polishing the skills he uses in his day job as basketball superstar. The morning workout, he explains from his Four Seasons hotel room, is a ritual that can't be compromised.
Yesterday, the L.A. Lakers center descended on Planet Hollywood to bring joy to 20 screaming kids from the Eastern branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. And sure enough, the event didn't commence until after 1 p.m., a bit late because of the workout. Later, he was on the air at WKYS (93.9 FM). And tonight from 7 to 9 at H.D. Woodson High School, he'll coach a team of local players against the radio station's squad. Proceeds will benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and other area charities.
The visit is part of an 11-city tour tied to the Sept. 15 release of Shaq's fourth rap album, "Respect." (Fifth, if you count his greatest-hits collection.) And if you're wondering how a rap career fits in with improving his basketball game though he already is the best center in the NBA he'll explain that too.
"I consider myself a renaissance man," O'Neal says. "My mother and father always taught me to never, ever, limit yourself. The reason I named this album 'Respect' is I want people to know critics, rappers, whoever that this is not a fad for me . . . that this is part of my life."
It's a busy life. To an extent never before seen in sports, Shaq has become a multimedia entertainment enterprise even as he reigns atop his principal profession. Make no mistake: Michael Jordan remains the NBA's best player and the biggest marketing draw in sports. But Shaq is more diversified. Through music, television, film and advertising, the gentle giant is trying to slap the Shaq brand on every form of sound and picture. He has his own record label, TWIsM (This World Is Mine), which teamed with A&M to distribute his new album. Under the TWIsM logo, he has launched a clothing line and is about to branch out into the hotel business. Then coffee shops. "Then I'm gonna try to get a couple of Taco Bells in Florida. Like 15 of 'em. If I get that, I'll be set."
Correction: Shaq is already set. With a $120 million multi-year contract with the Lakers, he doesn't need the Taco Bells. But ever since Magic Johnson visited him when he was an 18-year-old college player in Louisiana, he's been thinking about his role as an athlete. Johnson, the former Lakers great and current talk-show host and theater-chain owner, told him it was one thing to enjoy the fast money and cachet of celebrity. It was another thing to empower yourself through ownership.
"I was like, 'Owning things? What the hell is he talking about?'‚"
Not that every Shaq undertaking outside of sports has been a soaring success. Though his 1993 first album, "Shaq Diesel," nearly hit platinum by selling 861,000 copies, his last two were much less successful. Some rappers and rap aficionados suggested he was out of his league.
His movie experiences have been similar. His 1994 screen debut, "Blue Chips," in which he plays a college basketball player, was marginally successful. But the subsequent "Kazaam," in which he stars as a genie, and "Steel," in which he plays an armored crime fighter, were flops. Film critics have urged him to concentrate on practicing his free throws. The warmth he generates in his Pepsi ads, the presence he packs on the court, the charisma he radiates around children, none of it comes through on the big screen. In essence, crow the critics, he's a terrible actor.
At 7-foot-1 and 315 pounds, the slab-muscled Shaq dominates all occasions. Here in his hotel room he is holding forth in green Reebok shorts and a ribbed white T-shirt about movies ("The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh"), Mike Tyson and the Internet. But before he gets too comfortable expounding on the world at large, he is asked to pose for some pictures. This, he enjoys greatly, as he flexes and mugs and throws myriad hand signs at the photographer. "Man, I'm sexy," he spouts to one of his assistants. Then he smiles.
Shaq is a charmer. With a little work, he could be a comedian. He has perfected the droll Bill Murray deadpan, except his is delivered in a soft bass monotone. When Shaq gets rolling, you'd better not have any wax in your ears. You might miss something. He's one fast-talking all-star.
On the current NBA lockout in which the players and owners are in a snit over money, possibly endangering next season:
"Get the top people in the meetings, put them in a room, lock the door and don't nobody come out until it gets resolved."
On his future as an actor:
On his style and future as a rapper:
Shaq figures five more albums and he's done. "I don't think they want to see a 7-foot, 33-year-old rapper."
On life after retirement:
At Planet Hollywood yesterday, the young people slathered their burgers and fries with ketchup as they waited for the big fella to arrive. The restaurant was packed with the usual touristy lunch-time crowd, but a section had been roped off for the guests of honor: kids 9 to 12 from the main inner city branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs.
"I think it's very important for them to have such a high-profile person come here and spend time with them and let them know that they are important," said Tonya Seavers, the organization's marketing director. "They don't come from the best home situations. And for him to tell them to keep working hard, that they can fulfill their dreams too is just a very nice thing."
Eight-year-old Courtney Law, whose father is the branch director, certainly understood the significance of Shaq's appearance.
"He's a famous basketball star and he has big feet."
With that said, Shaq entered the restaurant to the screeching of some very excited kids. "Shaq! Shaq!" Dressed in baggy bluejeans shorts, white T-shirt and a red baseball cap worn backward, he disappeared after scaling a flight of stairs. He changed into a white Planet Hollywood cap and bounded back down the steps to the kids, who promptly started yelling again.
Shaq hoisted 5-year-old Rochelle Adams into the air with one arm. He kissed 11-year-old Sasha Williams on the cheek.
Shaq said a few words: "My message to all children everywhere is follow your dreams." And listen to your parents and stay off drugs.
Then the Planet Hollywood folks presented him with a cake to celebrate his new album. Written in icing was the word "Respect."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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