For 19 seasons, fans of Shaquille O’Neal came to expect on-court dominance and off-court charisma in equal measure, qualities that helped him transcend the game of basketball.
Following a Hall of Fame career punctuated by four NBA championships, three Finals MVP awards and an Olympic gold medal, the 7’1″ athlete, TNT analyst and popular pitchman has built a business empire worth an estimated $600 million.
“Every time I went to a place, I made my name quickly,” O’Neal says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “I’d find out who ‘the guy’ was, study him, and I’d beat him up. Take his spot. Everybody knew who I was.” After a nearly life-changing schoolyard fight — “I almost killed a kid,” admits O’Neal. “They showed me the jail” — he changed his tactics for fitting in. “I shifted everything into becoming the class clown. Just to make people like me. It was [another] mechanism for [dealing with my insecurity]. I wasn’t a leader yet. I was a follower on the wrong path.”
As a player, O’Neal considered anger his superpower, but that energy could be destructive at home. “After a bad game, especially if it was my fault, missed my free throws, I’d go crazy,” he says. “I’d tear the house up. I was the Hulk.”
That all changed when O’Neal became a father. (Former girlfriend Arnetta Yardbourgh gave birth to their daughter in 1996, and he shares five kids with ex-wife Shaunie Henderson, whom he married in 2002.) “As soon as I saw my children’s faces, I could transform,” he recalls. “You come home, and they don’t care about any of that. Forty points? It’s ‘Hey, Daddy!’ Two points? ‘Hey, Daddy!’ ”
O’Neal and Henderson divorced in 2011 amid reports of his infidelity. “I was a d—head,” he says matter-of-factly. “You don’t know how good you got something till it’s gone.”
These days, O’Neal acknowledges he missed milestones in his children’s lives, but he’s found peace in reconnecting and watching them pursue their passions and education. Taahirah, his 26-year-old daughter with Yardbourgh, is a marketing exec for Pepsi. Sons Shareef, 22, and Shaqir, 19, play basketball in the NBA’s developmental G League and at Texas Southern University, respectively. Daughter Amirah, 21, also studies at TSU, while his youngest daughter, Me’arah, is 6’4″ at age 16 and already getting athletic-scholarship offers. Myles, 25, Henderson’s child from a previous relationship, is a model and, like his old man, a deejay. (Shaq spins regularly under the name DJ Diesel.)
Another great passion of O’Neal’s: charity, particularly a guerrilla-style ambush of giving, usually benefiting gobsmacked children at Best Buy, Walmart and sneaker stores around the country. In a viral moment from April 2021, he even purchased an engagement ring for a young groom-to-be. His desire to help is almost maniacal, but the impetus behind it is uncomplicated.
“One, it’s the right thing to do. It’s what I was taught,” he explains. “And two, that could be me. That was my parents and me back in the day — them trying to give me things they couldn’t afford. I’ve got plenty of money now.”
“Plus,” he continues, “I know what kids like — because I am a kid.”
For much more with Shaquille O’Neal, including memories of Kobe Bryant, his preferred parenting style and his surprising love of ’80s music, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.