If there is one thing you can say about the rebuilding effort in Newark, it’s that it comes in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps none is more distinct than that of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, who spent the formative years of his young life in Brick City. Shaq’s regular visits—to connect with friends and family, to evaluate real estate projects and to host public events—have made him a critical bridge between business, politics and the community. Few if any public figures bring his particular blend of street credibility to Newark, and no one can touch his star power. O’Neal was in town this past October to launch a children’s book series at the multiplex theater on Springfield Avenue that he built in partnership with Boraie Development (the two are also teaming up on the $60 million market-rate rental building scheduled to go up near NJPAC). Zack Burgess managed to pull him away from the kids for a few minutes to talk about what keeps bringing him back to town.
Radius Growing up here in the 1970s, what are some of the moments that stand out in your memory?
O’NEAL: My most vivid memories are family-orientated. And while there were a lot of problems…being raised in a loving family, you don’t see them.
Radius How so?
O’NEAL: Our parents were working. I had a ton of cousins. There were cookouts, sleep-outs, swimming—we were so active that we never noticed that sometimes there were 15 kids in one house. We were just having so much fun that it didn’t matter to us. I had the best cousins. I had the best aunts. My mom would be working and need a babysitter, so she would call my Aunt Ruby. My Aunt Ruby had foster kids and there might be 30 of us. We all bunched up in there, eating macaroni, chicken and Kool-Aid, having a good time, fighting, playing, just having a good time. It was all fun. That’s why now, at the age of 43, I could never be materialistic. Long as you have that love, love is better than anything.
Radius When did sports become an important part of your life?
O’NEAL: Sports became an important part of my life when my father took me to Madison Square Garden and we sat in the top row. Dr. J went baseline and dunked and the crowd went crazy. I was saying, “I want that. I want to be just like that. I want to be like Dr. J!” When we got home, my father explained to me, if I wanted that, I needed to work hard and listen. And it worked.
Radius You also a stimulating place to be when you weren’t in school.
O’NEAL: Yes. For me, it was the Boys and Girls Club on Clinton and Avon. I lived right across the street, so it was a short walk away. Keep in mind, there was a lot of trouble to get into. So my rules were I’m working today ’til 5:00, go over there and stay in there ’til I get home. If I was not there, I was going to be in trouble.
Radius And did you get into trouble?
O’NEAL: A couple of times. I had to test the waters out. But when I’d get home and get disciplined, I understood it was about doing the right thing. And from that, I created a dream. I created a dream without even knowing what it was at the time—a “dream full of attraction.” I’m going to buy my Mama a house! I’m going to have my name on a shoe! I’m going to be a rapper! Everything that is happening to me today started at Clinton and Avon. It all happened right there.
Radius What were your feelings about moving away at age 12, when your Dad was reassigned to a military base in Germany?
O’NEAL: I thought the world was ending! Not that I know what depression is, but I think I went into a mini-depression. No cousins—couldn’t call them, the phone bill was too much—didn’t hear from them for a while. We would write every now and then, but it was tough for me.
Radius Did you think about finding a way back to Newark?
O’NEAL: I tried to rebel there and hopefully get sent back, but my father wasn’t having it. He said I was not going to be living in Newark without him to guide me. The good thing for me is that he ran the gym [at the base]. Whenever I got in trouble, I would have to clean the gym. So whenever I was cleaning the gym, I would go back to my “dream full of attraction”…I want to be just like Dr. J. I would just shoot and shoot, and one thing led to another. The move turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Radius You’ve been involved in the rebuilding of Newark for two decades now—sometimes very publicly and sometimes very quietly. At what point did you feel that this was a place that you could come back to and make a difference?
O’NEAL: My whole life I knew I would come back. I like to tell the story: After being drafted [by the Orlando Magic in 1992], I came back to the family reunion and my mother—who was born and raised here—was looking at our old streets and she had a tear in her eye. She said, “Somebody needs to fix this place up.” I started to look at things a little closer, often saying to myself, I remember this block and that block. I remember this store. So I first started out doing homes. We would fix people’s homes for them. We’d buy them from the bank, fix them and resell them back to the people at a low cost, because we knew that was what needed to be done. I didn’t care about what people had in their bank account. It needed to be done. We started off doing that, and then we got with the Boraie Group. We started doing high rises. We built this theater.
Radius Why a movie theater?
O’NEAL: I was here one time and we wanted to take my little cousin to the movies. We were in the car and I realized that there was not a movie theater around here. I asked my cousin where were the movies, and he said that the nearest theater was 45 minutes away. I thought that has got to change. My cousin said, “Somebody needs to build a movie theater here.” And I was, like, I got it. That’s why this is here. It’s nice and clean. And it’s safe.
Radius What is it that appeals to you about working with developers like the Boraie group?
O’NEAL: My goal is to help rebuild Newark, period. I’m big on teamwork and I don’t have enough expertise to do it. So I hired a helluva point guard and a helluva shooting guard. All you have to do is throw it inside to me [laughs] and I do what I do.
Radius I got you. So what are your goals for these projects? Is it about profit?
O’NEAL: I know that the houses and streets that I used to walk here were nice and kept neat. If I have a chance to build something and bring that back and make it pretty, then that’s what I’m going to do. Yes, I’m a heckuva business man—but when I make a business decision with good intentions in mind, then it usually turns out well.
Radius Are you thinking about your legacy?
O’NEAL: My legacy is already set. Kids call me Uncle Shaq, and they probably never saw me play. I’m focused on giving children the opportunity to see what can be done. You can come from the projects or the inner city and do great things. It’s just that simple. I don’t want to be known for how many points I scored or how many championships I won. I’m just trying to spread the message of fun. [laughs] I want to be known as the Doctor of Fun. Long as you can say that Shaq was a nice guy, I’m happy with that.
Radius So what are the pros and cons of building in your home town?
O’NEAL: I don’t believe in “cons.” You’re going to deal with the business people. You’re going to deal with the bureaucracy. But I’ve seen it all before. I just want everyone to understand that I’m doing it for the people. I want these kids to grow up and understand that they, too, can build a Starbucks. I think if you live in a place where you come outside and see nothing, then your mentality starts to become nothing. But when you come outside and see something…then the mentality starts to become something. I want Newark to be even prettier than when I came up. Because it really was a beautiful place to grow up.
Radius So if it’s not about profit and it’s not about legacy, what motivates you to keep coming back?
O’NEAL: I’m wiping that tear off my mother’s face.