Interview by Jan Osborn. Photos by grant miller.
Aristotle was once credited (not proven) with the statement, “Excellence is not a singular act, it’s a habit. You are what you repeatedly do.” From this belief, Shaquille O’Neal has dubbed himself “The Big Aristotle.” O’Neal, through The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation, creates pathways for underserved youth to help them achieve their full potential. The Foundation works to instill hope and bring about change in communities, collectively shaping a brighter future for our children.
O’Neal resounded this Aristotelian philosophy as he spoke to over 1200 attendees at the St. Philip’s Destiny Award Luncheon. Dallas Doing Good had the opportunity to ask O’Neal about his passion for helping and instilling hope in children.
Growing up in a strict household, your stepfather, Sergeant Phillip Arthur Harrison, played an instrumental part in helping you develop into the NBA Hall of Famer you are today. You have publicly thanked him for his discipline and commitment to basketball. What is your advice to kids today who help them realize their dreams?
Growing up we always talked about practicing good habits. Excellence is a habit. You are what you repeatedly do. I used to say to the mirror, ‘I’m the best big man. I’m this. I’m that. I just wanted to put that out there – and in people’s minds. That’s what I tell children all the time: ‘You are what you say you are. Don’t let other people say who you are.’”
In 2019, you established The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation which provides resources and opportunities for the underserved youth of our country. How did your own experiences growing up help you envision the mission for your Foundation?
Hard work was the rule, not the exception in my home growing up. Even later, when I would bring home a lot of money, my mom would just put her hand on my shoulder and say, ‘Baby, you promised to go back to school.’ Mom and dad always taught me to have something to fall back on in case I blew out my knee or had some other career-ending injury. That’s the mission of The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation. We give kids pathways to not only help them achieve their dreams, but to make sure they are just as passionate about their education.
You have raised millions of dollars for charity and served as a national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. How did the Boys & Girls Clubs of America shape your life as a youth?
The Boys & Girls Clubs of America saved my life. Growing up in the projects of Newark, New Jersey, there were a lot of negative temptations: drugs, gangs, just a lot of bad things. Mom and dad both worked hard to support the family. They would tell me to go play at the Boys & Girls Club. They would say, “If you really want to do this NBA thing, go play basketball with the other kids, but don’t leave this building until we come pick you up.’” There, I learned how to become a people person and team player. How to be a nice guy and a protector. I learned how to be a leader at the Boys & Girls Club.
You serve on the Board of Directors of Communities in Schools (CIS) and your Foundation has teamed up with local organizations including CIS on Shaq-To-School, an initiative that has donated $10 million worth of school supplies across the country. What impact do you hope these supplies have on underserved youth in our country/state?
Millions of kids across this country show up to school on the first day already behind because they can’t afford the supplies they need to learn. Our resolution is to change that. Education is an important foundation for success. We want to get kids these supplies so they can concentrate on their studies. Children today have enough distractions. We don’t want pencils or crayons to be on that list.
Your Foundation works to instill hope and bring about change in communities. How do you hope these changes will create a brighter future for our children?
Our work focuses on kids and making their lives better. But we also work to involve and improve the community where these kids grow up: better access to education, improved athletic areas, clothing, meals and even toys for the holidays. These kids need to know what safety feels like in a community that cares about them; cares that they are practicing good habits. If we can all do that, this would be a better world.
Dallas Doing Good also asked Dr. Terry J. Flowers, Headmaster and Executive Director of St. Philip’s School and Community Center, to tell us why O’Neal was invited to headline the event.
Shaquille O’Neal is one of the biggest names in the world. We know he grew up and started his journey to the NBA in Texas, but how did he come to headline this luncheon?
We secured Shaq through a speaker’s bureau. We reached out to him as we believe he is a great fit to our mission and is beloved by many. In a year where this event was moved offsite and had a big fundraising goal ($1 million), we knew we needed to secure a headliner who could draw a big crowd to help us meet our goal.
The luncheon was a huge success. Congratulations on raising $1.2 million dollars. How will this help the school and the students?
The annual luncheon – this year was a record – helps the school’s annual drive. Beyond operating costs, about half of our enrollment receives tuition assistance. In addition, we are also raising money to expand our school. Over the next few years, we would like to raise $2 million to include seventh and eighth grades.
Shaq is a cultural icon. Why was it important for the students at St. Philip’s School to hear Shaquille O’Neal speak?
Shaq believes education, hard work and dedication are the keys to success. So do we. Shaq encouraged our kids to be a part of something inspiring and to have fun while doing it. He might seem larger-than-life, but Shaquille O’Neal is a gentle giant with a huge heart. We can’t thank him enough for his time and dynamic conversation during the St. Philip’s School Destiny Awards Luncheon.
St. Philip’s Destiny Awards Luncheon raised over $1.2 Million exceeding their $1 Million goal. St. Philip’s mission is to provide an unparalleled education and compatible community services through a faith-based experience, with emphasis on serving low and moderate income families. To learn more about St. Philip’s School and Community Center, go to www.stphilips1600.org.