Shaquille O’Neal said he used to be a bully, but he sings a different tune now — one of encouragement that he presented for at a Boys & Girls Club of Columbus event.
The four-time NBA Champion spoke in Columbus to the clubs as part of a “Great Futures Start Here” event at Ohio Union Wednesday.
Although O’Neal spoke to roughly 100 children at the Ohio Union, his message was meant for all in attendance.
“Every youngster has had a dream and tried to make it come true, and to make sure to them that it can come true,” the former Boys & Girls Club member said. “You know, we all come from the same place and sometimes you don’t always have the necessities that you want as a child.”
O’Neal discussed his upbringing and how different it was than that of his own children. He mentioned how, as a child, he rarely had a chance to celebrate Christmas, and the best birthday present he ever received was a signed Julius Erving basketball from his father. A gift, he said, that changed his life.
“I had four sisters and a younger brother and I was the third, but I was the most mature,” O’Neal said in an interview with the media. “My father used to have manly conversations with me saying, ‘Son, I’m going to take care of them and I’m going to take care of you once payday.’ A lot of times, children can relate to someone that came from the same place they came from. I want to make sure to give them the same blueprint that I followed, because if it worked for me, it can work for anybody.”
This year’s event celebrated the 65th anniversary of the founding of the BGCC. O’Neal was the keynote speaker, and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman served as the Honorary Event Chair.
O’Neal also spoke on the issue of bullying, and how the topic hits close to home for him because of his youth.
“I was a bully,” O’Neal said. “My thing was because I was different than everybody else. Because I was tall, I had to find ways to get people to fear me or like me. So being a bully, I beat this kid up one day and he had an epilepsy attack and that’s what stopped me from being a bully and then it created my other character, the humorous Shaq.”
Getting the former NBA star to come and speak on behalf of BGCC was a long time coming, executive director of the Columbus clubs Rebecca Asmo said.
“Shaq is a great supporter of the club movement and was a club kid himself,” Asmo said. “We just knew that he would be a great inspiration, not only to our kids but to all of our supporters in the Columbus community.”
Now more than ever, it is important for people to support BGCC, Asmo said. With two new clubs set to open in Columbus, keeping the community involved is as crucial as ever.
“The mission of the Boys & Girls Club is to empower the young people who need us most to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens,” Asmo said.
Having someone with a status like O’Neal’s is something the club realizes lends it a bigger voice.
“It’s huge for us,” said Nick Jones, director of operations for BGCC. “Obviously a national figure like that is great to have here, but when Shaq started off, he talked about what the club meant to him and how it helped him get to where he is and how important it is for our kids to take advantage of these opportunities and resources. Hearing it from me or someone on the staff can get old, but hearing it from someone like Shaq hopefully resonates with the ones who don’t believe just yet.”
O’Neal said he believes in the power of the organization and wants the children involved to believe in it, too. Holding events like the one Wednesday, where children were able to meet O’Neal and take pictures with him, will help instill that belief in the children, Brian Mauntel, board member of the BGCC, said.
“Respect your elders, that was the message he gave earlier, and the second one was to believe in your dreams,” Mauntel said, “and those are the two messages that (O’Neal) and the club really believe in.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Shaquille O’Neal’s name in the photo caption.