You Don't Know Shaq! NBA Icon Shaquille O'Neal Is a Man of Many Talents, 'Shaq Life' EP Reveals
Shaquille O’Neal is arguably one of the most famous basketball players who ever lived. During his 19-year career playing professionally, the Hall of Famer earned four NBA championships and dazzled millions of fans with his dunking skills.
But as viewers see on TNT's unscripted series Shaq Life, the retired athlete, now an analyst on Inside the NBA, has passions far beyond dribbling. Cameras follow the 48-year-old father of six as he trains with UFC fighters to prepare for a mixed martial arts match, builds a career as a DJ, and branches out into the business world, sitting on the board of Papa John's pizza franchise. Through it all, he strives to find a happy balance between his personal and professional lives.
“He is someone who transcends sports. He has moved into that pop culture echelon,” explains executive producer Rory Karpf, known for his award-winning work on projects like ESPN's 30 for 30 series. Though Karpf was admittedly looking to branch out of the sports realm, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to work on Shaq Life with the legendary baller. “For me, to have the chance to spend time with him, especially the amount of time to do a show like this where you really get to know someone...Not many people are like him in that they are so successful while they were playing as an athlete and arguably have matched that success or exceeded it after they retired.”
We caught up with the award-winning producer to talk about what it was like to get to know Shaq in a way very few get to do.
We come into Shaq’s story as he is wrapping up another season as an NBA analyst on TNT, and he wants to further explore different interests. From the time you’ve spent with him, what in particular struck you?
Rory Karpf: He is at an age where a lot of people, not just athletes, are looking more to be comfortable in his life. He is in his late 40s, and he is challenging himself as if he was in his early 20s. I don’t mean physically but emotionally. He is trying to get out of his comfort zone. He is doing these pursuits at a time where he can look very foolish. A lot of people in his position have a huge ego, not saying he doesn’t have a healthy ego. But others may not be willing to put themselves in a spot where they may feel humiliated. With Shaq, he’s okay being not necessarily humiliated but humbled. He is in these pursuits like DJing where he is taking a lot of backlash, performing to an audience that are of the age of his kids.
It can be easy for a lot of people to throw shade on him, which they do. Even with getting involved with mixed martial arts, a lot of people don’t really start to pursue this type of passion later in life, which is what he is doing. I was impressed he was willing to get out of his comfort zone. The thing that made him the most uncomfortable in certain ways was being this father involved with his kids because a lot of athletes or former athletes in his position didn’t get to see their kids grow up too much. They were usually the providers, always traveling, always a game to play. Shaq has made his kids a priority. So much so he had his youngest son Shaqir move to Atlanta to live with him, which we document in the series.
He is this larger-than-life figure, but this show puts his softer side on display. I love when Shaq says, “Just because I have more than the other guy doesn't mean I’m better than the average guy.” In another moment, he's shown consoling his daughter.
We had to push Shaq to let us include those moments. He was a little more guarded when it came to vulnerability. He has his public persona and his personal life. He likes to keep it separate. For me as a filmmaker, I like to push people in a way to get out of their comfort zones and find ways to make people relatable. To me, when you have children it makes you instantly relatable. Shaq has never really gone in depth and shown the relationship with his kids on camera before. It was just getting him comfortable with myself and our crew to let that in.
With his daughter Mimi, when he is consoling her, we’re filming it inside while they're outside so we’re not being intrusive and can still capture everything. It’s about getting him to open up. Some of our later episodes, seven and eight, he gets in-depth with his father and the relationship he had with him. Not just some of the good parts, but the bad parts. Shaq mentioned his stepfather, who he considers his father, never told him he loved him until he won an NBA championship. I had never heard that before. He revealed that in probably the fifth interview we did with him on camera. We had been filming a few months, so I think he felt a little more comfortable at that point.
Samuel L. Jackson narrates. What did it take to get him on board?
It’s really rare when, before you even start a series that you have a goal or dream of the show, and it actually happens. When myself and The Content Group and the people that put the show together first met with TNT, I was trying to think about what would make this show different. I knew Shaq didn’t want to do a typical reality show. He didn’t want to do anything that would be staged. We didn’t want a lot of talking heads in the series. Shaq himself is a little bit dry in his interviews. He is also a little low energy with how he speaks, so we wanted someone who can bring the energy.
I remember Samuel L. Jackson at the NBA Awards. He was a presenter. I know he is a huge fan of basketball and Shaq, and I’m a huge fan of Samuel L. Jackson. So, I thought what if we had a narrator who was like a character on the show. He could be the voice of the audience in the way and react to Shaq. Here you need a personality almost as big as Shaq. We all felt he fit that mold because he is such a unique personality. He is really a superstar, so maybe because he is a fan of Shaq and the NBA he would consider doing it.
Normally it’s unusual to get an A-list movie star to narrate a television series like this. We brought it up and did a sample of what the narration would be like. Kind of meta and that he is a character on the show voicing it as himself. Not trying to be the voice of God or anything. We brought it up as our wish list. He loves Shaq and saw a rough cut of the first episode and loved it and said he was in. It was that simple. To me, it’s probably one of the best parts of the series. Audiences have really responded to it.
I have to ask about the grappling session you had with Shaq on camera during a recent episode. That looked painful.
It was painful and scary. You don’t realize how big the guy is until you’re on the ground with him. We’re at the UFC Performance Institute. I just playfully jumped on him because I had a GoPro in my hand and thought it would be a fun point-of-view. I didn’t realize he was going to pick me up off the ground and slam me like he did. That was definitely a little frightening. Then the next time we were at the UFC Performance Institute he thought it would be funny to grab me from behind and put me in this rear naked choke. It wasn’t the choke as much as him putting all his weight on my spine and twisting. I could almost hear my bones cracking if I didn’t tap out. Shaq’s friend said to me that he still doesn’t understand his own strength.
On one of the later episodes, Shaq walks into a martial arts studio grapples in a row [with] four black belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Black belts, people who have been doing it for upwards of 20 years. He taps them out instantly because Shaq knows just enough and is so big that all he needs to do is get his hands on you. I feel thankful I didn’t die. After the network saw the footage, I got this email that I had to agree to stop wrestling Shaq. The legal department was concerned for my safety. I said, “Look, this isn't’ my choice. The guy is grabbing me. Once that happens, it’s on.”
The show has done well from a ratings standpoint. Are there plans for Season 2?
He told me he is definitely on board for it. We have to look into new storylines. Shaq jokes in the series that he wants more babies. He just needs to find the right woman. He has said to me a few times we should film him going out on dates to find the future Mrs. Shaq. That’s a show right there. Especially if we did it in a way that was real and not staged. Real people he was dating. For a network, a lot of times they get nervous where they will shoot some storylines and see what happens. They were incredibly supportive that things would work out because we had a documentary crew that knew how to film these things . Hopefully, we get to do Season 2. He also told me he was thinking about becoming a sheriff. He is a deputy already. Imagine that, Sheriff Shaq? I think there are a lot of possibilities.
Shaq Life, Thursdays, 9/8c, TNT