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50 Years of Shaq

Shaquille O’Neal has made a name for himself in the sports, entertainment and investment worlds. On his 50th birthday, we review his storied rise.

At February’s NBA All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, Shaquille O’Neal took center court at the NBA 75 ceremony, shimmying his shoulders in shaded glasses. The big man was recognized as one of basketball’s best to ever do it, and his sense of showmanship is signature to the master marketer now reportedly worth over $400 million.

Today, Shaq turns 50.

And he is as relevant as ever. His staying power over a decade removed from his Hall of Fame playing career is a marvel, but it isn’t an accident. Shaq was playing the long game all along.

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Tiger Beat

  • 1989: Named Texas Mr. Basketball
  • 1991: Led NCAA in Rebounding
  • 1991: Named AP Player of the Year

In 1989, Shaquille O’Neal made his first big investment at the tender age of 18.

He enrolled at Louisiana State University, effectively banking on himself.

Using his basketball scholarship as a bridge, O’Neal studied business. In only three years at LSU, Shaq built both his game and his brand — attracting national attention to both.

Battling Stanley Rodgers in practice while making the most of his marketing courses, the 7-foot center who once dreamt of dancing on Fame suddenly saw a world where selling Shaq meant more than just blocking shots and grabbing boards.

Shaq was inspired by Michael Jordan’s entrepreneurial efforts, and he leveraged his singular ability at the rim to put some funk on his dunk and own it just the same. In the midst of his undergrad, O’Neal started stuffing the ball like the former Syracuse standout Rony Seikaly while creating his own emblem like Mike.

(John Biever/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

“When I saw Michael Jordan dunk, his legs spread, and that became a logo,” O’Neal told Nick DePaula in 2013. “My dunk is with my knees up. I was in college when Michael really got huge, and we were in class learning about trademarks. Right afterward, I went down to the Baton Rouge office, and I trademarked my dunk.”

As only an amateur athlete, Shaquille O’Neal had his eyes on the bigger business prize.

His second investment, that of a logo, would pay off just as nicely.

“It cost me like $60 dollars,” O’Neal continued with DePaula. “I said, ‘If Jordan is doing this and has his logo, this is my dunk with the knees up.’ When I turned pro, I did it big time, did it right, and got all the correct trademarks. Good thing I learned that in college.”

After a matter of months at LSU, Shaq soared as the nation’s leader in blocks and boards. After declaring for the 1992 NBA Draft, Shaq’s brand would soon soar not just to the NBA but Blockbuster and Billboard.

Because for Shaq, going pro always entailed more than sports.

The Big Marketing Machine

  • 1992: Inks historic 7-year, $40 million rookie deal after Orlando Magic draft Shaq No. 1 overall
  • 1992: Signs $15 million endorsement deal with Reebok
  • 1993: Releases debut album on Jive as part of $10 million record deal
  • 1996: Banks $7 million starring in Kazaam

Coming out as a junior in a 1992 draft class led by the likes of Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner, Shaquille O’Neal outshined all by going No. 1 overall to the Orlando Magic. Going to work in Walt Disney’s backyard, O’Neal quickly proved the star of stars in his rookie debut.

(Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

On the court, Shaq won Rookie of the Year honors and was voted an All-Star starter. The last player to do so before Shaq? Michael Jordan.

Off the court, O’Neal brought in the big bucks as an endorser.

Early on, Reebok and Pepsi paid Shaq handsomely for his personality and pitchman skills. It was often reported that Shaq didn’t spend a dollar of his NBA paychecks for much of his career thanks to all his other earning endeavors.

While MJ paved a path for athletes to become endorsers, Shaq took things to new heights as an entertainer.

During his early days in Orlando, O’Neal released rap albums on Jive. His 1993 Shaq Diesel debut went Platinum, and ’95’s Shaq-Fu: Da Return is Gold-certified. Additionally, he supplied Michael Jackson — music’s MJ — with a verse, while recording songs with the likes of Redman and the RZA.

Shaq’s appeal expanded from the booth to the big screen. He famously (or infamously) starred in films such as Blue Chips (1994) and Kazaam (1996).

Despite a 5% Tomatometer score on Rotten Tomatoes, Kazaam netted nearly $19 million worldwide. Blue Chips scored slightly higher on Rotten Tomatoes, yet still not great, and raked in $23 million worldwide. (Both figures c/o IMDb Box Office Mojo.)

Just the same, Shaq was a mainstay in the world of video games, appearing in NBA Jam and even headlining his own martial arts franchise titled Shaq-Fu.

Over the course of his four-season tenure in Orlando, the stage was set for a Hollywood relocation.

After leading the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals and making the NBA All-Star Game in each of his first four seasons, a fan poll from local papers and the wooing of Jerry West led O’Neal to the bright lights of Los Angeles. In the midst of a gold-medal run with Team USA in Atlanta, Shaq made waves by abandoning his massive Magic contract.

Eyes on the prize, he signed an even bigger deal with the Lakers.

Years removed from LSU, Shaq’s return to rocking purple and gold provided even more lessons in business — and a bigger leading role.

Getting Centered

  • 1996: Signs 7-year, $121 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers
  • 1999: Invests in Google via Series A funding
  • 1999-02: Builds basketball equity by winning 3 NBA titles & 1 MVP in L.A.
  • 2000: Graduates from LSU
(Sporting News via Getty Image)

With platinum rap albums, box office offers, and a major market at his feet, Shaq was set to seize Los Angeles as the world’s biggest entertainer — both literally and figuratively.

However, the superhero movie Steel and Shaq’s third album You Can’t Stop The Reign all underperformed.

While Shaq was still putting up major numbers in his new home, he was finding himself at home early in each of his first three postseasons in LaLa Land.

Because of this, the Lakers brought in a new director: Phil Jackson.

The Zen Master behind Michael Jordan’s iconic Chicago three-peat was no stranger to corralling egos and finding focus. Despite MJ’s star power and appeal in an array of arenas, Jackson found it fit for Shaq to focus firmly on hoops and leave the side gigs aside.

No movies. No albums. No video games.

Suddenly, the man with more nicknames than Sean Combs was as unstoppable as ever on the court.

The Lakers won three-straight NBA titles in 2000, ’01, and ’02. Shaq won NBA Finals MVP each of those three times, and he also claimed NBA MVP in 2000.

Shaq took a chance by leaving Reebok to join Dunk.net, an athlete-backed internet start-up intended to be the Amazon of athletics. Much like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky’s MVP.com, Shaq’s Web 1.0 venture flopped. However, he learned all the while.

Despite Phil’s direction to focus on hoops, Shaq still flirted with off-court fame.

Amidst the three-peat, Shaq indulged his mass appeal by appearing in music videos for Diddy and Aaron Carter. (Carter’s song was even titled “That’s How I Beat Shaq.”) On the silver screen, he made guest appearances as himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm and My Wife and Kids. Mature or family-friendly, audiences loved Shaq.

O’Neal also eyed a return to music.

Unbeknownst to most, the release of Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriends, Vol. 1 was set to have a Sept. 11, 2001, drop date battle with Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Fabolous‘ debut, Ghetto Fabolous.

Despite Dr. Dre‘s production and features from Ludacris, Black Thought, and Nicole Scherzinger, the compilation project was shelved.

After three-straight titles in LA, internal friction building between the superstars led to eventual losses and the departure of Shaquille O’Neal. The brand built by Shaq in Orlando and Los Angeles was suddenly on the move, meaning less continuity on the court but more opportunities for exploration off of it.

Traveling Salesman

  • 2004: Partners with Payless Shoes
  • 2005: Makes $27 million in first season with Miami Heat, signs a five-year $101 million extension that summer
  • 2005: Earns MBA online at University of Phoenix
  • 2006: Goes global by way of Li-Ning deal
  • 2011: Signs multi-year TV deal with Turner Sports

The remainder of O’Neal’s on-court career would see highs — capturing his fourth title, this time in Miami — and lows. By the end, with his seventh franchise, he was coming off the bench in Boston for the 2010-11 season.

Shaq still served as an All-Star fan-favorite, pitching products for Icy Hot and turning on his charm at every opportunity.

Making moves in the worlds of pro wrestling and reality television introduced O’Neal to audiences removed from hoops. The new platforms played to his personality and sense of humor that had long been his selling point.

In that era, O’Neal also re-found his footing in footwear. He brought his Dunkman brand to pricepoint retailers in the United States by way of a 2004 partnership with Payless Shoes. Shortly after, in 2006 — the year Shaq won his fourth and final NBA title alongside Dwyane Wade with the Heat— he signed an endorsement deal with Chinese brand Li-Ning. This move forecasted the future of footwear deals in Asia for NBA athletes, once again opening up O’Neal to a market of over a billion buyers.

Once retiring from the NBA in 2011, Shaq quickly pivoted to TNT where he still works on-air today. By appearing on television twice a week as a personality, his voice as an endorser for products and services such as Papa John’s and The General rings louder.

As the face of many projects in front of the camera, Shaq has greater leverage to move the needle as an investor and board member behind the scenes.

Big Man, Bigger Bank

  • 2011: Retires with over $290 million in NBA career earnings
  • 2018: Amazon buys O’Neal-invested company Ring for over $1 billion
  • 2019: Joins board of Papa John’s, receives $4.1 million for three-year deal
  • 2021: Becomes second-largest individual shareholder at Authentic Brand Groups, a company valued at $9.5 billion

Dominating his day job as a hooper set Shaq up for financial success, but leveraging his talents and diversifying his investments took him from rich to wealthy.

All the entertainment exposure in the ’90s and ’00s has made Shaq a palatable pitchman for families buying pizza for dinner or adults suffering from joint pain. Shaq’s storytelling ability adds authenticity to his endorsements, many of which he’s spun into equity.

Like any good entrepreneur, Shaq’s prowess as an investor and businessman was built off years of experience and willingness to take risks. Undeterred, his history of deals includes moves that were either unpopular or unsuccessful. Sure, 1999’s Dunk.net was a flop. However, investing in a search engine called Google proved a pretty good gamble.

O’Neal’s ability to be curious and malleable has allowed the rapper that exchanged bars with Biggie to now reside as a club DJ that rocks festivals.

The Laker legend who once sneered in Sacramento eventually owned a stake in the Kings from 2013 until January. It should be noted that the only reason Shaq walked away from the Kings is that he became the “ShaqPot” face of WynnBet ad campaigns.

Despite his enormous size, Shaq is as flexible as they come when it comes to making money. He’s savvy enough to reach the middle-American market through food franchises and viral videos, and he’s curious enough to put money into tech platforms like Lyft and Ring.

Since trademarking the Dunkman logo back in college and signing with Reebok as a rookie, the prospect once touted for his body is now profiting off his mind.

As an investor in Authentic Brand Groups, O’Neal is reeling in royalties from all angles.

“Who owns Marylin Monroe?” Shaq asked on the Earn Your Leisure podcast. “Who owns Elvis Pressley? Who owns Forever 21? Who owns JCPenney? Me. My real business is I own 50 brands.”

At ABG, Shaq can make money off the sale of an Elvis Pressley souvenir the same way Michael Jackson made money off The Beatles’ catalog. If a t-shirt with the image of Marilyn Monroe sells at JCPenney, Shaq makes money twice.

“When I was retiring, I was looking around asking how Michael Jackson lives forever,” O’Neal continued on EYLP. “Joint ventures. So I called the three companies that help people live forever, and they bought my brand for a lot of money. I took half that money, put it back in the company, and now I’m the No. 2 guy in the company.”

In 2022, Shaq’s seat at ABG proves even more powerful as the group just brought the brand that paid Shaq all the way back in 1992: Reebok.

Because of Shaq’s own likeness and leverage, he’s a favorite among ABG brass. Naturally, his big network and big personality possess the power to move mountains with one quick dial.

“Everyone takes his call,” ABG President and CMO Nick Woodhouse told Complex. “Everyone stops talking when he talks, and everyone listens. Having Shaq on your squad is unbelievable from the door opening, from the press, from publicity. He’s a great businessman. He has a lot of tremendous ideas and connections.”

From FaceTiming corporate colleagues to personally delivering pizzas, Shaq is a force of nature in the front office just like he was in the frontcourt.

At 50 years of age, he’s as accomplished as much as any athlete can when crossing over from basketball to business.

Only one question remains: When it’s all said and done, which arena will Shaq have dominated the most?

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