June 19, 2024

When Shaquille O’Neal was a child in Newark, N.J., he spent a lot of time shooting hoops at the local Boys & Girls Club as a way to keep out of trouble.

“Basketball was very, very healthy,” the Lakers legend told The Times during a Zoom call Thursday. “The people, the OGs made sure all the nonsense stayed away.”

As O’Neal grew up, he and his family ended up living on various military bases. Asked to describe the basketball facilities in those places, Shaq gave a chef’s kiss.

“They were perfectamundo,” he said. “It was just beautiful. I could just go there and it actually made me feel like I was playing in a big arena.”

O’Neal is helping to provide children in South Los Angeles with the best of both of those worlds. As part of their “Comebaq Courts” initiative, the Shaquille O’Neal Foundation and Icy Hot paid for a refurbished outdoor basketball court at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles.

O’Neal was on hand Thursday evening to help unveil the fancy new digs.

“I like the purple and gold court,” O’Neal said before the festivities, which also included a DJ and a slam dunk contest for the kids. “I like the brand new, glass Icy Hot backboards. I like the Shaquille O’Neal Foundation logo right there, so kids know Uncle Shaq bought it. Everything about it is great.”

A fifth-grader celebrates next to Shaquille O'Neal after making a free throw.

Nylah, a fifth-grader, celebrates after sinking a free throw that resulted in a $20,000 donation to the Challengers Boys & Girls Club from Shaquille O’Neal.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Tyler Currie jumps in the air with a basketball near a hoop while several people watch at night near some tents.

Tyler Currie participates in a slam dunk contest on the newly refurbished basketball court at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It’s a far cry from how the same court looked just months ago.

“The old court was cracked in many places and we were resistant to use over the past couple of years for safety concerns,” Boys & Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles CEO Patrick Mahoney said in an email. “The new court is an entirely new surface with an advanced supported foundation that will provide a safe experience for our members to play for many years to come.”

Lakers vice president of charitable affairs Kiesha Nix said that the team’s youth foundation has invested in a number of projects at Challengers before, including the installation of a new indoor court a few years back. She said the Lakers Youth Foundation had helped fund repairs on the outdoor court multiple times in the past, only to have the same problems continually resurface.

Wanting to get it right this time, Nix said she authorized various tests to determine what could be done to stop the cycle. The results showed that getting it right this time would be “a big undertaking.”

But then again, she said, “with the right partners involved, it didn’t seem so big.”

That’s right around when Nix got a call from O’Neal’s foundation, looking for a spot for its fifth Comebaq Court, following facilities in Newark, Atlanta, Miami and Las Vegas. What came next was a no-brainer.

Shaquille O'Neal speaks to kids at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club.

Shaquille O’Neal speaks to kids at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club. In addition to helping fund the refurbishing of an outdoor basketball court, O’Neal is donating $20,000 to the club and Reebok sneakers for all the kids.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“It just made so much sense for us,” Nix said. “Shaq had been supportive of that particular clubhouse in the past — they even have a pair of his size 22 shoes up in the lobby in their display case. So it was just like kind of meant to be that they were looking for an opportunity and I was looking for a partner to help redo this court.”

O’Neal said: “When I was here [with the Lakers], I came [to the Challengers club] a lot and handed out toys, handed out bikes, handed out laptops. So I’m familiar with this place. And the court was very, very beat up, so kudos to Icy Hot and the Shaquille O’Neal Foundation for doing the right thing.”

In addition to the refurbished court, O’Neal announced Thursday he would be personally donating $20,000 to the club and a pair of Reebok sneakers to all the 160 or so young club members in attendance.

“All the kids know who Uncle Shaq is,” O’Neal said. “It’s kind of amazing. I haven’t played ball in 12 years but they know who I am — and if they don’t know who I am, they’ll know today.”

A group of children cheer during the unveiling of a new basktball court at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club.

A group of children cheer during the unveiling of a new basktball court at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Shaquille O'Neal poses for photos at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club while shaking hands with a police officer.

Shaquille O’Neal poses for photos at the Challengers Boys & Girls Club.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s what Shaq had to say on a few other topics during his conversation with The Times:

— On how he’s able to balance his roles as TV analyst, businessman, product pitchman, DJ, rapper, etc., and still have time to attend an event like this one

“It’s called delegation. You have to delegate your time where it’s most needed. Like a lot of the stuff you mentioned is easy. Like when you say rap, I do that at the house. DJ — fly in, do a show, come out. TNT every Thursday, commercials — like, [there are] 24 hours in a day. In a perfect world I try to get 8-8-8, but a lot of times it overlaps. Like last night I only got four hours of sleep, so I’m really working, working to do a lot. … I put in some overtime today, but tomorrow I don’t have to do anything till 3 so I’m gonna get 12 hours of sleep tonight, trust me.”

— On his youngest daughter, Me’Arah O’Neal, committing to play basketball at Florida, an SEC rival of his Louisiana State Tigers

“I’m happy. I’ve never been the parent to be like, follow your father’s footsteps. I try to convince them that the pressure that they’re gonna get because of my last name doesn’t really exist. I try to teach them that pressure’s when you don’t know where your next meal’s coming from. It’s their job to be kids, educate themselves and have fun. I’m more happy that she got a scholarship to a great university like the University of Florida and in four years if things are done correctly she’ll have her bachelor’s degree. That’s what I’m more excited about.”

— On Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green receiving a five-game suspension after an on-court fight in which he put Rudy Gobert of the Minnesota Timberwolves in a headlock

“I’m from the old school, so you always stick up for your guys. Like, me and you are doing the interview right now — somebody come put their hands on you, I’m gonna beat them up ‘cause you’re my guy. But you get these people who say it was wrong — like, I try not to be a hypocrite. I would’ve did the same thing. I’m not gonna sit here and say he was wrong, he shouldn’t have did it — he probably shouldn’t have did it, but WWSD, what would Shaq do? Shaq would’ve did the same thing.”

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