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Retired NBA Star Shaquille O’Neal Defends Against a New Opponent: Heart Disease

Former professional athlete and celebrity is using his platform to urge for better health and lifestyle choices.


Disease Prevention

Shaquille O'Neal speaks at an event in Los Angeles last month, and has become a spokesperson for health and other causes he's passionate about. (Photo by Anushka Hauerstock for Direct Relief)

Before retiring in 2011, Shaquille O’Neal made his mark with an overpowering on-court presence, which led to four NBA championships, three Finals MVP awards, a regular season MVP award, and 15 All Star Game invitations.

Off the court, the 7-foot-1-inch PhD-holder reflects his game-time seriousness when it comes to health issues disproportionately affecting the African-American community, specifically heart disease, as well as community service, and his overarching goal surrounding interactions with others.

“I wanted to be the one to help educate people out there,” O’Neal told Direct Relief during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

The American Heart Association reports heart disease rates of 60.1% for black males and 57.1% for black females compared to heart disease rates of 50.6% for white males and 43.4% for white females. The Centers for Disease Control stated that, from 1999-2017, non-Hispanic African Americans were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, the ethnic group which experienced the fewest heart-related fatalities over the past two decades.

Being a spokesperson for that message of health and prevention is something O’Neal takes as a personal mission — beyond his partnership with a pharmaceutical company that owns a heart failure drug, which he did not pitch during the interview.

“If I partner up with people that are experts who give me information, I can break it down, give it to the homeboys and homegirls. It’s very simple you just gotta get checked out, go see your doctor,” he said, adding that he’s part of the impacted community and understands the challenges.

“We do things different, we eat a lot of different foods, because that’s what we were raised up on, but when you get older, a lot of times, that stuff’s not healthy. So you go out, you get checked, you get a diagnosis from your doctor, he can help you go longer and that’s what we want.”

Despite advocating for more doctor visits and early screening, Shaq said he grew up without having a doctor he saw regularly, and even today is reluctant to visit doctors for routine ailments.

“I’m raised by a military drill sergeant, we don’t get sick,” he said. “We don’t. We don’t have time to get sick, we don’t have time to mess around, we don’t have time to complain.”

Instead, he tries to stick to the basics by eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, and not drinking nor smoking cannabis, he said.

“Doing What You’re Supposed to Do,” for the Good of Others

In addition to his high profile business moves and TV hosting gig, Shaq is also active as a philanthropist but, as he is wont to do, follows his own playbook, starting with terminology.

“Well, I don’t call it giving back, I call it doing what you’re supposed to do. This is something I was taught to do. I’m going to do it until the wheels come off,” he said, noting that he has been giving since he was drafted and gravitates towards initiatives that look out for kids, teachers and police officers.

He said he prefers to donate goods and his time surreptitiously, giving an example of simply going to a store, purchasing some printers and dropping it off at a school that needs them.

Isaiah Pickens, PhD, is a national board member for Communities In Schools, one of the groups Shaq is involved with. The national organization tries to remedy discrepancies that exist in disadvantaged schools, whether it’s resourced-based, connecting students with mentors, providing care for PTSD-afflicted students. The goal, Pickens said, is to avoid “Lost Einsteins,” a term created by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, which refers to kids who could have created great things, if only they had been given the necessary support.

“Shaq has always been into education, he’s big on school and I really appreciate that. He’s really onboard with all of us,” Pickens said.

Even as Shaq might prefer to give without fanfare and live like, what he called “regular people,” it’s impossible to ignore the gravitational impact he has on others, both young and old in a room, drawing easy smiles and laughs. This influence, which cannot be explained simply by his playing career and size — plenty of hall of famers and former centers elicit no such response — did not emerge by accident.

As his former teammates win Oscars, coach, and buy esports teams, Shaq said, strongly, that he harbors a goal that is no less lofty.

“I want to make people happy, I don’t care about any of that. At the end of the day, when people say, ‘I met Shaq,’ I want them to say he was cool, period, end of discussion,” he said, before sharing that his championship rings are buried with his father, and “resting in peace with him.”

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