15 Rim-Shattering Facts About Shaquille O'Neal

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The only thing bigger than the 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal during his playing career was his outlandish personality. After a remarkable 19-year tenure on the hardwood, these days, Shaq holds court on TNT's Inside the NBA, bringing his trademark humor to the floor and verbally dunking on his preferred sparring partner, Charles Barkley. But well before he hung up his Shaqnosis sneakers in 2011 and stepped behind the commentating desk, the larger-than-life basketball legend had created a sizable name for himself as well. Here are a few things you may not know about this American icon.

1. Shaq was estranged from his biological father until he was in his forties.

Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal was born on March 6, 1972. (He weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces—about average for a baby.) His mother, Lucille O'Neal, had just graduated high school, and his biological father, Joe Toney, was an all-state high school guard who lost his basketball scholarship to Seton Hall because of drug addiction. While Shaq was still an infant, Toney was sentenced to federal prison, and when he was released, Lucille got Joe to legally relinquish his parental rights to Shaq's stepfather, an Army drill sergeant named Phillip Harrison, who raised him from the time he was 2.

Shaq's resulting childhood was a fulfilling one, though he would often return to Vonda's Kitchen, a diner in Newark, New Jersey located right below Toney's apartment, and wonder if he was going to run into his biological father. Once he started to make a name for himself, Toney tried reaching out—one time in Orlando, Shaq left a basketball arena through a back entrance to avoid having to have any interaction with Toney, who had shown up and wanted to meet. Shaq even publicly outlined his feelings about their intentional estrangement in a 1994 rap song, "Biological Didn't Bother." But, with his Basketball Hall of Fame induction on the horizon in the summer of 2016, Shaq finally agreed to meet Joe, then nearing 70, at that restaurant. "I don't hate you," Shaq told him. "I had a good life. I had Phil."

2. Shaq's stepfather once lost some teeth to a Boston Celtics legend.

Harrison, who was also known as Sarge, was a gruff parent who often relied on physical discipline for the young Shaq, claiming he'd rather punish his son himself than see it done on the streets of Newark, beyond his purview. Though tough, Harrison was a pillar in Shaq's life, and Shaq frequently praised Phil for keeping him out of trouble and giving him direction.

Luckily for little Shaquille, Harrison was a ball player himself (he'd actually played against Toney in high school), and he coached Shaq's youth basketball teams throughout his childhood. Harrison would also sometimes brag about the time Dave Cowens, the future Celtics Hall of Fame center, knocked out some of his teeth during a particularly aggressive game of pickup. In August 1969, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, Cowens, who was then a star at Florida State University, happened to be in the Newark area because he decided spend a few days with a fellow FSU teammate who was from nearby. That game of pickup only happened because Cowens decided to bail on his original plan: attending Woodstock.

3. Shaq was already 6 feet 4 inches tall at age 10.

No one was more responsible for kids quitting youth basketball in the greater Newark area than the Big Shaqtus in the mid-'80s. In fact, Shaq remembers a rival's father once storming the court and removing his son from the competition mid-game, shouting, "He's not 10. Bulls***. He's 10, he gonna be the best big man in the world." The man, while enraged, was not at all wrong. By 13, Shaq had grown to 6 feet 6 inches and wore size 17 shoes.

4. Shaq's jersey number was inspired by an NBA legend, with a twist.

Shaquille O'Neal playing for the Orlando Magic in 1995.
Shaquille O'Neal playing for the Orlando Magic in 1995.
TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images

Harrison was responsible for Shaq embracing his size and using it to score under the basket, rather than deferring and shying away from his clear physical advantages. By Shaq's teenage years, Harrison had been restationed and moved the family to San Antonio. A now poised and confident player, Shaq led his high school team to a 68-1 record during his junior and senior seasons. The school didn't possess a No. 33 jersey, so Shaq's attempts to honor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the trailblazing NBA center, were thwarted. Hence, his famous No. 32 jersey was born. When he played at LSU, he was able to nab 33, but in his rookie NBA season in Orlando, veteran Terry Catledge refused to give up his 33 jersey, so it was back to 32 for life for Shaq for the remainder of his time with the Magic.

5. Shaq led his college's conference in basically everything his sophomore year.

The 1990-91 season was Shaq's coming out party. During his second collegiate season at LSU, the Diesel was a man among boys, becoming the first player to ever lead the SEC in scoring (27.6 points per game), rebounds (14.7), field goal percentage (62.8 percent), and blocked shots (140 on the year). And he took his opponents by surprise. Those who expected a round mound of rebound (i.e. another Charles Barkley) were taken aback by his sheer power. As rival Darryl "Ice" Jones of Southeastern Louisiana so eloquently put it, "I thought Shaq would be fat. But he's got no fat, none whatsoever. He's just seven feet of muscle, a muscle monster."

6. Shaq was famously left off the original Dream Team.

Shaquille O'Neal is shown on a TV monitor as the U.S. Olympic basketball team is introduced during a press conference in 1996.
Shaquille O'Neal is shown on a TV monitor as the U.S. Olympic basketball team is introduced during a press conference in 1996.
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And yes, he was upset about it. While the powers that be attempted to choose the best NBA talent possible to represent Team USA and take on the world at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, they reserved one roster spot for a collegiate star. Shaq was a junior at LSU at the time and fully eligible, but the spot instead went with Christian Laettner, a Duke standout who was thought of as more polished. At the time, the international free throw lane was designed differently, and the committee filling out the roster believed that would cause traditional post-up centers (like Shaq) to lose their effectiveness.

Of course, the young Shaq didn't take it well. "I was pissed off," he recalled 20 years later. "I was jealous. But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player, but Christian Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was." Luckily, the snub only motivated him: Team USA took home the gold in '92, and they did again in Atlanta during the '96 games. Shaq was on that team.

7. Shaq's LSU teams weren't successful in March Madness.

Somehow, despite featuring the monstrous 7-foot-1-inch, 294-pound Shaq for three full SEC seasons (the Southeastern Conference, the division LSU competes in), his LSU Tigers only went 2-3 in three seasons in the Big Dance, never advancing past the second round. Shaq ended his 1991-92 SEC Player of the Year season with a remarkable 36 points and 12 rebounds (while stunningly going 12-for-12 from the line—a feat he'd never accomplish once he went pro) in an 89-79 loss to Indiana. But these early exits certainly didn't deter NBA scouts; he was still the first overall draft pick in 1992, heading to the Orlando Magic.

8. A rookie Shaq was sickened by the smell of alcohol.

Shaq was immediately the toast of the NBA. Among his many accolades, he was named Rookie of the Year for the '92-'93 season and he nabbed a starting spot in the All-Star Game his first four seasons. But though young Shaq was the new face of the game and the life of the party, at 21, he couldn't stomach alcohol. "Can't even tolerate the smell of table wine," his teammate Dennis Scott used to say. Turns out, there was a good reason for that.

"My father caught me sipping a beer with my cousins when I was, like, 13," O'Neal told Vanity Fair years later. "He made me drink a 12-pack right then. Not only did I get drunk, I hated beer, and I never had the urge to drink again."

Despite his distaste for the stuff, Shaq eventually marketed his own line of vodka, the excellently named Luv Shaq.

9. As Lakers teammates, Shaq and Kobe didn't initially click on court.

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal during a game in 2001.
Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal during a game in 2001.
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

The most prominent portion of Shaq's career was spent in Hollywood, and his eight seasons with the Lakers brought three NBA Championships to the city. But while Shaq's L.A. years are known for being unfathomably dominant, many wonder how fruitful they could've been if he and teammate Kobe Bryant hadn't been so incompatible off the court.

Bizarrely, the two couldn't sync their play properly from the outset based on talent alone. Long before their famous feud and struggle for credit and control of the locker room began, two of their first three campaigns together ended in embarrassing playoff sweeps. It wasn't until head coach Phil Jackson arrived prior to the 1999-2000 season that anything seemed to click. Once Jackson installed his famous triangle offense (emphasizing perfect spacing and high-IQ passing decisions), everything changed; an unstoppable three-peat followed, highlighted by Shaq's averages in the 2000 Finals (45 mins, 38 points, 17 rebounds per game).

10. He destroyed so many backboards the NBA panicked and changed the rule book.

Shaq soundly defeated many inferior opponents over the course of his career, and a few of those opponents were made of solid metal. In one infamous game against the Phoenix Suns in 1993, a particularly thunderous dunk caused the entire basket and its stanchions to collapse; the hoop's whole apparatus had to be wheeled into the tunnel for some mid-game welding. The big man made such a habit of terrorizing the equipment that the NBA freaked out and came out hard in favor of reinforcing their centerpieces. Said competition committee chairman Rod Thorn, "Whether it was Shaquille O'Neal or someone else, with the size of these guys, it was just a matter of time. He just happened to be a little bigger and stronger than most."

The league eventually turned breaking the basket ring or backboard into a technical foul.

11. The New York Times hated his acting performances.

In a cinematic version of love the player, hate the game, The Times's review of 1997's Steel praised Shaq's "endearing smile" and "genial personality," but felt compelled to admit he had an "almost total lack of charisma and acting skills." The year before, they weren't quite as kind to Kazaam (not to be confused with Sinbad's non-existent Shazaam). "Mr. O'Neal can't hold a flickering lamp to Robin Williams," the paper of record claimed (which, to be fair, who can?), and bemoaned that he didn't "slam-dunk the script into the nearest wastebasket." Shaq hasn't done many acting roles since then, but he's done plenty of cameos in everything from The Simpsons and The Real Househusbands of Hollywood to The Lego Movie and What Women Want.

12. Shaq loves nicknames.

Shaquille O'Neal onstage during his Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony in 2016.
Shaquille O'Neal onstage during his Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony in 2016.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Shaq has propensity for clever nicknaming, and it crosses genres: He's had nicknames and alternate personas spin off into a video game (Shaq Fu) and a rap album (his early nickname "The Diesel" became Shaq Diesel, a 1993 rap album featuring Phife Dawg). Other legendary monikers include "The Big Aristotle" (self-christened in 2000) and "M.D.E." (Most Dominant Ever, which he crafted after his second Lakers title). He called his pool at his former Miami home Shaqapulco.

But the Big Fella (that's another one) isn't just giving out lasting pseudonyms for himself—he's the one who coined "The Big Fundamental" for San Antonio Spurs legend and constant Western Conference rival Tim Duncan early in his career, which has stood the test of time.

13. Shaq once blamed his real-life divorce on his on-court ex, Kobe Bryant.

And we all learned about it in a 2008 freestyle rap. While defending himself against a 2004 rape charge, Bryant alleged that Shaq had paid up to $1 million to various women in order to keep them quiet about his own affairs. "This whole situation is ridiculous," Shaq told ESPN at the time.

A few years later, however, when Shaq and his wife of nearly five years, Shaunie O'Neal (née Nelson), separated in September 2007, he was singing a different tune. Quoth Big Shaqtus in verse: "I'm a horse, Kobe ratted me out, that's why I'm gettin' divorced."

Shaq and Shaunie, who had four kids together during their decade-long relationship, officially ended things in November 2009. And though there was no word on seven-figure payouts, Shaunie alluded to the breakup of her marriage during an episode of VH1's Basketball Wives, which she created and is the executive producer on. "Our Blackberries got switched," she said of a time she went to an event at their kids' school, "and I was like, 'Damn, my phone is going off a lot.' Just girl, after girl, after girl—like, 'Baby, last night what you did.'"

14. The "Hack-a-Shaq" technique was actually invented to stop Dennis Rodman.

Blame former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson for this one. In a December 1997 road game against the Chicago Bulls, Nelson asked rookie Bubba Wells to foul Rodman as many times as possible in order to send the poor-shooting Worm to the line and steal a few possessions. Nelson's ingenious (and incredibly annoying) strategy worked. He went on to victimize Shaq, who was a brutally low 52.7 percent career free throw shooter. The strategy spread through the league like a disease, but in 2016 a rule was approved to curb intentional fouling. The term Hack-a-Shaq, though? Brilliant.

15. Shaq has a major stake in eSports.

Shaquille O'Neal watches the Brooklyn Nets play the Sacramento Kings in 2014.
Shaquille O'Neal watches the Brooklyn Nets play the Sacramento Kings in 2014.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Call him The Big Controller. Shaq was early to eSports as an investor; in 2016, he, along with Yankees vet Alex Rodriguez and former Phillie Jimmy Rollins, got involved in an ownership group that has a stake in NRG Gaming, a prominent organization of eSports athletes. Now, Shaq is the general manager of Kings Guard, the Sacramento Kings' entrant into the NBA's official 2K league, where competitors face off in NBA 2K, the league's preeminent basketball video game.

And in case you need a soundtrack to your gaming, Shaq has reentered that space as well—he recently teamed with DJ NGHTMRE and Lil Jon to produce the EDM track "BANG," his first new single in 20 years.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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