Former NBA center Shaquille O'Neal—who's 7 feet 1 inch tall—really does tower over almost everything.
But it's not just his height that's larger than life—the four-time NBA champion, Olympian, Rookie of the Year and 15-time All Star's personality is equally outsized. At Ringling College Library Association's Town Hall lecture series, which kicked off its 39th season Wednesday, O'Neal showed off his sly sense of humor and his business acumen, and talked about how he's leveraged both into a career as a commentator, product spokesperson and celebrity influencer—and achieved massive post-NBA success.
The first athlete ever to take the podium at an Library Association talk, O'Neal described his military upbringing (his stepfather was an Army drill sergeant), his education (he has a master's degree in business and an Ed.D. in education), his belief that for a long time, he wasn't good enough to play basketball (it was Sarasota resident and legendary sports commentator Dick Vitale who changed his mind) and his philosophy on selling products, like Buick and Icy-Hot ("I want to make people laugh").
That desire is a recurring theme in everything O'Neal does, from his show Inside the NBA, which he co-hosts with Charles Barkley, to his sizable social media influence. (O'Neal was the first verified celebrity on Twitter.) "On social media, my strategy is 60 percent to make people laugh, 30 percent to inspire and 10 percent to sell something," he says.
He adds that former Laker Magic Johnson taught him the importance of "owning things," and that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' remarks about the importance of making products that can "change people's lives" have helped him choose his investments. For example, O'Neal backs Ring, which makes video doorbells and security cameras and wants to reduce crime in residential neighborhoods. (Ring, in turn, offers a "Shaq-urity" system that's approved by the big man himself.) His one business regret? Turning down Starbucks founder Howard Schultz's offer to launch a group of Starbucks franchises in black communities around the country. "I never saw a black person in my family drinking coffee," O'Neal says with a shrug and that boyish smile. "My mom drank hot chocolate. So I said, 'Black people don't drink coffee.'"
Schultz turned to Magic Johnson instead; Johnson at one point owned 105 Starbucks franchises and sold them back to the company in 2010 for an estimated $70 million. "Every time I see a brother at Starbucks drinking coffee, I shake my head," O'Neal says.
And lest you think his interests end at business and basketball, O'Neal has a deep respect for the military and law enforcement, and is a police academy grad and a reserve officer sheriff's deputy in Clayton County, Georgia, where he lives. He even wants to run for sheriff in 2020. He's also deeply involved in philanthropy. He has played "Shaq-a-Claus" since he was a rookie for the Orlando Magic, buying gifts for needy children at Boys & Girls Clubs during the holiday season, and he hosts an annual "Shaqs-giving," too.
For O'Neal, everything comes back to the lessons he learned growing up. "I've always been a regular person that listened to his parents and followed his dreams and somehow became recognized around the world," he says. "It doesn't mean I’m better than you. I will always remain humble. It’s just the right thing to do."
For more information on the Ringling College Town Hall lecture series, click here. Upcoming speakers include James Comey (Feb. 4), Jimmy Wales (Feb. 18), Caroline Kennedy (March 4) and Ian Bremmer (April 11).