When Shaquille O’Neal arrived for his press conference in Orlando, Florida, earlier this week, for a moment it seemed like he was about to make a major announcement. Maybe he was finally ready to reveal which NBA team he’d be signing with this year. But then he walked onstage with teen pop crooner Justin Bieber, and it was obvious that today wouldn’t be a day for answers. It was a day for crazy photo ops. (“Hey look, a really short and skinny white kid and a really tall and muscular black guy are standing next to each other! They’re like a human Russian nesting doll!”)
This was a press conference with the other Shaq. Not the Shaq who’s played for 18 seasons (and counting) in the NBA, with four championships and 15 All-Star appearances, and as of Wednesday is officially a Boston Celtic. This was the Shaq who has wacky celebrity feuds, and sells his likeness to ninja video games and fast- food franchises, and raps about the taste of his asshole, and thought playing a genie in Kazaam sounded like a good idea. He was here to announce his latest non-basketball harebrained scheme/media stunt: starring in the second season of Shaq Vs.
The show, which premiered this week and returns every Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, follows Shaq in a seemingly never-ending quest to prove that he’s not just the greatest in basketball, but the greatest in whatever you got! He challenges spelling champ Kavya Shivashankar to a spelling bee, celebrity chef Rachael Ray to a New York cook-off, and eating machine Joey Chestnut to a hot dog eating contest. Coincidentally, narcissistic personality disorder is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a grandiose sense of self-importance, in which a person is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success and requires excessive admiration from others. I’m not saying the two things are necessarily related. I’m just saying when a man tattoos the Superman “S” shield on his chest, it’s not as a display of humility.
One of Shaq’s non-athletic competitors this season is Justin Bieber, who agreed to a “singing and dancing” contest with the Diesel (which airs on Shaq Vs. later this summer). Thus the reason for the press conference, which was exactly as bizarre as you might imagine. Shaq joked about their age difference (“I had a career when he was negative 10 years old”), said a little too much about his Bieber fandom (“He makes me wish I was 16 again”), and shared some philosophical Shaq-isms (“A bridge is nothing without the legs”). As for Bieber, he confessed that his favorite color is purple, coaxed Shaq into doing the wave, flashed lots of peace signs, and insisted that singing with Shaq is “right at the same level” as meeting President Obama. (And yes, up close his hair practically glistens. It’s mesmerizing.)
After the conference, I got a chance to sit down with Shaq and talk about his show, among other topics. You know how TV usually makes people look bigger than they are in real life? That’s not in any way true with Shaq. He looks big on TV, and in person he’s like a golem in designer clothes. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes from being in his presence, which I guess is similar to what tornado chasers are always yammering about.
Eric Spitznagel: This singing contest you’re having with Justin Bieber, are you sure that’s a good idea?
Shaquille O’Neal: Probably not. (Laughs.)
(Pause.) You know what? You’re right. The small guy always wins in those things, doesn’t he? I didn’t even think about that.
Maybe you can turn it around for the behemoths. This time, the story ends with Goliath actually kicking David’s ass.
Nope. As you know, kids control the world. They run everything. Especially with social media networks like Twitter and YouTube. Justin is just so popular, I don’t stand a chance.
Justin seems sincerely enamored by you. Just a few minutes ago, he compared hanging out with you to meeting the president. How do you win the admiration of a 16 year old boy?
Well, for one thing, I speak his language. And I have six of him living with me.
You live with six white teenage boys with adorable haircuts?
No, no, I have six kids of my own. I got a 13 and a 14 year old in my house. I have wise kids, funny kids, smart kids, kids that talk back, kids that do kid stuff. So I know how to speak his language. And I think that kind of surprised him. Kids don’t expect that from a 38 year old guy. It’s like when you don’t know a person and you have certain expectations of them, and then you finally meet them and they’re completely different than how you imagined.
But isn’t that what every adult thinks? How do you avoid being the guy who walks up to a group of teenagers and says, “What up, dawgs? Just chillaxin’, ROFL! Who’s with me?”
It’s not just what you say. It’s also body language. It’s the way you act around them. Justin’s a child superstar and I know exactly what he’s going through because I was a child superstar. I wasn’t as big as him at 16, but in my city, in my little community, I was the Justin Bieber. So I know what he’s going through. He’s probably got a hundred adults a day telling him what to do. I’m not going to be the 101st. He’d just be like, “Aw, shut up, Shaq!”
With all the speculation about your future in the NBA, some critics have suggested you should retire. Is that what this show is all about? Are you using Shaq Vs. as a kind of televised job fair, to check out your career options?
No, it’s all just for fun. I’m not worried about what comes next because I have so many things to fall back on. I have plenty of back-up plans. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this next year, but when everything is said and done, I’ll be just fine.
When you finally hang up your gigantic jersey, what’s your ideal post-basketball career?
Something in TV or radio would be my first option. Then maybe writing books or public speaking. And I’ve always had an interest in law enforcement.
You want to be a cop?
I do, yes. I was just offered a chief of police job somewhere, which I can’t talk about, but I had to turn it down. I’m a volunteer or honorary policeman in a couple of different states. I have a badge in Arizona, Florida, and California.
So you could totally arrest me right now?
I could. But trust me, you wouldn’t want me to. You really, really don’t. If I’m in your living room, you know you’re in trouble.
That’s the understatement of the year.
I’m not kidding.
Neither am I.
As long as you stay on the right side, you’ll be fine. For the last seven years, I’ve been a detective for Internet crimes against children. So if you ever see me, you know we’ve got you. If we come to your house, it’s all over. You’re going to be arrested. You’ve been having Internet conversations with me, and we’ve got all the evidence we need to take you down.
What’s your arrest catchphrase?
My catchphrase? Like a motto?
What do you say when you’re roughing up a perp? “On the floor, dirtbag!” “Book ’em, Danno!” That kind of thing.
Well, uh. (Long pause.) My job is to be a little girl.
I play a little girl on the Internet. So whatever name I’m going by, that will probably be my catchphrase. If I’m Tanya, then it’ll be something like, “Tanya says hello.” And they’ll be like, “Tanya who?” And I’ll say, “You don’t know no Tanya, huh? I’m Tanya. Let’s go.” And that’s when the cuffs get slapped on you.
I’d be less concerned with the handcuffs than the fact that a seven foot bald man just introduced himself as Tanya.
(Laughs.) Yeah, they don’t like that very much.
When you’re going undercover, how do you get into character? How does Shaq become a little girl named Tanya?
You just have to speak the language.
So… the same way you befriended Justin Bieber?
It’s all about understanding how they talk. You gotta know about texting and Twittering and all the Internet slang, all the OMGs and LOLs. All that stuff.
This is probably not the best segue, but let’s talk about competitive eating.
In an upcoming episode of Shaq Vs., you challenged Joey Chestnut to a hot dog eating contest. Prior to the showdown, what was your personal record for most hot dogs eaten in one sitting?
I could probably eat four hot dogs in a minute. That’s not bad, right?
Not bad at all. Joey’s record is 54 hot dogs in 10 minutes. A little practice and you can beat him no problem.
I don’t want to give anything away, but Joey Chestnut is a monster. He’s an eating monster.
What’s the trick to competitive eating? Is it all about suppressing your gag reflex?
Before I met Joey, my technique was just to eat ‘em. I’d dip ‘em in ketchup and stuff ‘em right down. But Joey showed me how to dunk ‘em in water first. You put the whole hot dog, the bun and everything, right in some water till it gets nice and wet. (Shudders.)
So basically, you give the hot dog shrinkage?
Exactly. Joey’s technique is kind of crazy, but it works.
If I was judging solely by Shaq Vs, I’d think you were the most maniacally competitive guy on the planet. Is that more or less accurate?
I am, yeah. I’ve got this big male bravado that pushes me forward. It makes me say, “I can do that! I can do that!” It doesn’t matter what it is. I could be like, “Rachael Ray, all she does is cook a cheeseburger? I can do that!” Or “Dale Earnhardt can drive a race car at 130 miles an hour? I can do that!” I just want to show everybody how it’s done.
Let’s say you’re at a party, and the host brings out a delicious guacamole dip. Is your first instinct to say, “Well done, can I borrow the recipe?” Or do you say, “You call this dip? I’ll show you how to make motherfucking dip! Into the kitchen, it’s go time!”
Yeah, yeah, probably. The second one. That’s just how I am. My whole life, I’ve always been like that. I can’t help myself.
What about non-competitive domestic things, like washing the dishes or doing the laundry?
Yeah, I can do that. I wash dishes. I can wash the hell out of some dishes.
No, no, I’m not challenging you. I just mean, as an example, could you wash some dishes without saying, “I’m the best dishwasher in the world?”
I guess so. But if there was a dishwashing champion of the world, I’d take him down.
Is there anything at all that you’ll let somebody else be better at?
I don’t know. (Long pause.) That’s a great question. (Another long pause.) I guess I do that when I’m being a father. When I’m teaching my kids how to play basketball, sometimes you gotta let them win. You know what I mean? He’s going for the layup and I know I could block it. There’s no way I couldn’t block it. But I let him have it.
So being a good father means not always knocking the ball out of your son’s hands and screaming, “Booyah! How you like me now?!”
You got to let them win. You got to give him the game occasionally. You know how in the playoffs it’s a best of seven? Well, my son and I were playing a game once and I beat him, and he got that look in his eyes. So I said, “No, man, it’s a best of seven.” So we play two more games and he beats me each time, and then I win a game, and then he wins one, and then I tie it up. Three games apiece. And then I say, “I’m tired. We’ll finish up tomorrow.”
Let me guess. That last game never happens, does it?
I don’t want to lose. (Laughs.) I know it’s going to happen someday. Someday he’ll beat me. Cause my father used to do the same thing to me when I was little, and then one day I just beat him.
Are you ready for your kids to have Boston accents?
Yeah, no, they won’t.
You don’t think so? What are you going to do, put them in speech therapy?
I’ll do whatever it takes.
What happens if one of your kids comes home from school and says, “Aw pop, I had some chowda today that was wicked awesome?”
That’s when they get grounded.
Are you going to do any undercover police work in Boston?
No, probably not. This is going to be my last year in the NBA, so I really want to concentrate and be focused.
But just to be on the safe side, should everyone in Boston avoid having Internet conversations with underage girls named Tanya?
Yeah, they should. Actually, they should just avoid having any conversations on the Internet with underage children.
But especially children named Tanya?
I use many different names. It’s not always going to be Tanya. It could be anybody.
Ah, I get you. So when you’re busting sexual predators in Boston this fall, you may or may not be using your catchphrase “Tanya says hello?”
(Laughs.) No comment.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com