By Michael Hill
He can still nail a jumper from 3-point range and talk a little smack about it, too.
Newark native Shaquille O’Neal — one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers, a champion and most valuable players. He retired after 19 seasons. He now analyzes the game on TNT and has become a developer in downtown Newark where he plans to live part-time on the top floor.
“I’m supposed to do it because my mother told me to do it. My mom says you need to go back and fix that place up. You need to go back to Newark and fix Newark up,” he said.
Shaq spent his early years at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark on Avon Avenue.
What did it mean to him to have this club?
“This is the place where it all started. Both parents had jobs, couldn’t afford babysitters. Good thing for me I lived right across the street, Clinton and Avon, right there, those projects right there. So I was instructed to after school come here and wait until one of us can come get you,” he said.
He says it was at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark that at an early age he found himself and realized that whatever he did would stand taller than the height he would ever reach.
“This was my safe haven, but it’s also a place where I could cultivate my dreams, because I go home, Doctor J and I come over here and practice. I go home, LL Cool J and then I come over here and we’d be over in the corner break dancing, having a good time so I owe this place, I owe the Boys and Girls Club of America. That’s why I keep coming back. Also, you know, it’s my way of telling kids that hey, if I can make it you can make it. I wasn’t the smartest, I didn’t make a 1900 on the SAT. I wasn’t a great athlete from age 9. Hard work, perseverance, being a leader and not a follower and anything is possible so I always come and give kids the secret,” he said.
He learned a lot about himself in Newark.
“The first thing I learned was how to carry criticism and motivation. I was coming over here at 9, 10 years old bigger than everybody so of course when you’re bigger than everybody, everybody expects you to be Michael Jordan already, but terrible. I couldn’t dribble, couldn’t play, couldn’t dunk, but always had that drive and that determination so I was able to turn criticism into motivation,” he said.
Shaq credits Cynthia Banks — now the VP of operations — with putting and keeping him on the right track.
“She’s like everybody’s aunt, everybody’s mom, everybody’s grand mom. She just made sure that all the kids went in the right direction. So hers was very simple: ‘Let me see your homework first.’ So education was very important and after we show her the homework we get to come up here and play,” Shaq said.
When asked if he was not here, and the Boys and Girls Club were not here, where would he be, he said, “Well I was already a low-level juvenile delinquent,” he said. “I mean low-level, I was a little mischievous, getting into trouble. Stealing gum, a follower and not a leader.”
You couldn’t chew that gum at the Boys and Girls Club because Banks wouldn’t allow it.
“Oh yeah, she didn’t play that at all, but where would I be? I think about it all the time. I had to learn the hard way on how to become a leader and not a follower. Probably, 50, I got friends and family who didn’t make it, who decided to go the easy route and didn’t make it. I could have possibly gone that route. I could have possibly went the route I went before but this was here. I took advantage of it. Thank God for organizations like this and people like Miss Banks. She knew that I was a little mischievous kid so she would always be around the corner, ‘What are you doing, boy?’ ‘Get over here,’ ‘Stop that,’ and sometimes as a child you need that, you need that guidance. That’s why I come back here to the one that I grew up at and, you know, pool, gym refurbished, dentistry center, computers, because if it wasn’t for this place there wouldn’t be Shaquille O’Neal or a Shaquille O’Neal brand.”
Through his support and fundraising leadership, the vision center offers free eye exams and free eyeglasses to children who see Shaq as more than a celebrity.
“Some people may call it giving back, but I’m taking orders from the person who raised me — Lucille O’Neal Harrison,” he said. “You have to [vow to keep promises]. Any man that doesn’t keep a promise to his mother isn’t a real man. Any man that doesn’t honor and love his mother, or any woman, is not a real man. So her mother told her when I was born, ‘This one’s special. Watch out for this one. This one’s going to be world known.’ One year old. My grandmother told me that everybody’s going to know this guy’s name.”