Six Pack of Pop: Shaquille O'Neal
July 31, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
One of the great big men of his era, Shaquille O’Neal was a force on the hardwood for nearly 20 years before retiring from professional basketball in 2011. Best known for his four NBA championships, three coming with the Los Angeles Lakers, O’Neal has long had side projects in film, music and television. Starring alongside Adam Sadler and Kevin James in the film “Grown Ups 2,” O’Neal helped his comic co-stars deliver the command to start engines for the July race at Daytona International Speedway.
"I don’t really get scared by a lot of stuff, but I was freaking terrified. You definitely have to be a great shape to do this."
-- Shaq on racing Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You played in Orlando, Fla., for several years. Did you ever make it over to Daytona International Speedway in those days, and get to know any drivers?
I’ve been a big fan of NASCAR for a long time. Never made it over this way. Had a chance to spend a couple of weeks with Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- when I was doing ‘Shaq Vs.’ I raced him. Whoever said these guys aren’t athletes are out of their minds. That was the toughest three hours I’ve ever had in my life. I was fitted for a car, me and Dale raced 50 laps, and I slept for two days after that. I really did. Being in a hot car, the AC thing blowing in your face, it’s very, very exhausting. And I was terrified. I don’t really get scared by a lot of stuff, but I was freaking terrified. You definitely have to be a great shape to do this. And you’ve got to be small. I don’t think a big guy like me would really survive out on the track. You’ve got to be smaller. But it’s a great sport.
Surely you’ve met drivers from time to time, either in your basketball days or other activities. What do you talk about?
I think when we meet people of our kind, my thing is, like when I was playing in L.A. and I’d see Adam (Sandler), I have to give him the same kind of enjoyment he gave me. It was like, ‘Oh, Adam is there, I’ve got to put a show.’ Because when I get home and I want to put on a great movie, I’m watching these guys. Chris Rock. Those other superstars, hopefully I gave them the same enjoyment that they give me. I’ve met Jimmie Johnson, I’ve met the people from team Hendrick. It’s just about enjoyment. I love race car drivers, I love gymnastics, I love UFC, I love police officers, I love firefighters. I just try to give them the same enjoyment they give me.
Did you have a notable first car?
My first car was a Bronco II. I’m only driving Buicks now, baby. But actually, I’m kind of upset with myself because I had a chance to take automotive shop when I was a youngster. I don’t know anything about cars. I can promise you that. I’ve heard of things like a 350 engine block, but I don’t really know what that means. I don’t know anything about cars. I just turn the key and go. I wish I had paid attention.
Do you like to drive fast?
A little bit. I have a Ferrari, a Lamborghini. But now that I’m old and I’ve got kids, I don’t do that. Fastest I’ve ever been is 220. I was driving.
You’ve been retired now for two years. Have you adjusted to life off the court? Any bucket-list items you now have time to chase?
It’s good. As a youngster, my mother and father always drilled into my head having something to fall back on. My father was kind of funny. I’d score 40 points. I’d come home and say, ‘Look dad, I scored 40.’ He’d never have a smile on his face. He’d be like, ‘I saw that move you did. What if you’d hurt your knee?’ The thing was, what if, what if, what if. So I went back to college, got a bachelor’s, a master’s, a doctorate. Learned a lot about business. I was ready to retire. I have six children, and I just wanted to be there for them. My son right there is 13, and he’s a hell of a player. So it was time for me retire.
I was fortunate enough to see and handle and take in everything I could while I was playing. So right now, I’m just going to focus on (the kids), focus on taking care of business. I’m 40. I can’t do the young stuff anymore. I went to a club a couple of days ago, and those young 20-year-olds and everything, and I was like, what the hell am I doing here? I left. I had to leave.
Adam Sandler said that during the filming of “Grown Ups 2,” you were “shockingly funnier than any comedian out there.” You’ve always had a great sense of humor and comedic timing. Where does that come from?
My timing came from being nervous. I had to put myself in basketball mode. When you’re on the court with (Michael) Jordan or LeBron (James), you have to step up or get out of the way. (Sandler and Kevin James) are hilarious. I didn’t want to look like an idiot on the screen, so I had to dig deep. Had to dig deep down. The good thing about Adam is, he lets you try it your way first. If he doesn’t like it, then he’ll tell you how to do it. Most of the time, the way I did it, he liked it. And Adam is just like me -- he’s a guy who’s paid to be stupid. We were doing our own stunts, driving around in race cars, dancing around naked. It was great.
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