words & interview by Nick DePaula
as published in Issue 43 of Sole Collector Magazine
While most retro sneaker stories in the industry are consistently told, re-told and then sometimes completely ran into the ground, there's quite a bit of uncharted territory when it comes to Reebok's classic six-year stretch with Shaquille O'Neal.
We're all familiar with the on-court moments that helped to shape Allen Iverson's career, or the dunks and flair that made Shawn Kemp's signature Kamikaze II a 90's classic. In many respects though, it hasn't been since the original launches that the sneaker community has really looked back on some of Shaq's greatest models, like the Shaq Attaq and Shaqnosis, both returning for the first time in over fifteen years this spring.
Signed right out of college as the #1 pick of the 1992 NBA Draft, the pairing was a first of its kind for Reebok, with Shaq not only the first signature athlete for the brand, but also a signature big man, a rarity then and even all these years since. Worn during his entire run with the Orlando Magic and his first two seasons in LA, Shaq's earliest footwear with Reebok came to define the brand's design language of the decade, featuring bold upper lines for the league's most dominant force in years.
Just after February's All-Star Weekend, we sat down with Shaq for an exclusive interview to talk all about his Reebok Basketball days, a first for the Diesel, Big Aristotle, MDE and any other nickname you want to call him. Whether it was breaking down just how he decided to trademark his iconic Dunkman logo, or how he named his most popular shoe, it was the first time in almost fifteen years that O'Neal discussed his time with the Vector at length.
Read ahead for our wide-ranging interview with Shaq himself, and be sure to check for the Shaq Attaq Retro, hitting stores tomorrow on April 19th for $160, and the grand return of the Shaqnosis on June 16th for $125 at Reebok Classics accounts nationwide.
Shaq: I've been knowing Swizz about fifteen years and we've always stayed in touch. I congratulate him on all of his success, babies and everything. He called me and said, “Hey, we want to bring back that old shoe.” We just had to make sure everything was right, cause you know, I got my own stuff, which I won't really get into here, but everything was good. When you're the owner, you can say yes. [laughs] I own my own line, and everything was good. Shout out to all of the sneakerheads though for wanting them back, and kids are really going all over the place with their fashion now and really know fashion. In my mind, I thought I did a lot of futuristic stuff early on, and it turns out now that my thought process was good because we're going back to the future. Shaq to the future! [laughs]
Twenty-one years ago, when you were the first signature athlete at Reebok, did you have any idea that it would have the success that it did?
In my mind, I did. Because I knew I was good, I thought I was going to be great, and it was my job and my people's job to convince them that I was going to be great and convince them to want to sell the product. The hard thing to do was make them believe in it, because no big guy in the history of marketing from the game [of basketball] has ever sold anything. So I had to convince them that I could sell them, and then I had to convince them that I could come up with all of the campaigns, and that I could show them how it's done. And you guys still gotta pay me a lotta money. [laughs]
So at first they were reluctant, and then we told them we were going to Nike and kinda made them believe that Nike was going to give us big money. Nike actually didn't want anything to do with us, and they definitely weren't going to give me my own signature shoe. I'm known for wearing all my Reebok shit to Nike and getting kicked off the campus. True story. [laughs] When I came back to Reebok, [former CEO] Paul Fireman loved that story and he threw in an extra few on top of the contract. I damn near had a tear in my eye, and I just said, “I won't let you down.” The Reebok brand was well ran by Paul Fireman, and I don't know how other sneaker companies were ran, but he gave us the ability to see and do how we wanted to do it.
Not only were you the first signature guy there, but it was also usually only guards that had their own shoe.
I remember being in marketing class one day and my professor said to me, “Big men can't sell. I don't know what you're doing in this class.” That's what he told me. I was so fucking pissed, I almost got out of the class. I said, “Ok then...” and I actually got an A in the class. I wanted to learn all of the concepts. What I took out of the class, and what I knew I wanted to do, was that I've gotta create commercials that will get people to have a reaction.
In 1991, Reebok was beating out Nike as the #1 company, but they weren't getting the respect in the basketball area. For me, to have my own shoe was always my dream, and we went on this big huge marketing campaign. I directed, came up with and shot the whole commercial, and it was a huge success. This was the first shoe that we came out with, the Shaq Attaq, in the Orlando Magic blue and black. We had the Pump on it, we sold a lot of shoes and it was hot. I have to give a shout out to all the kids that wanted Reebok to bring these back.
So the first commercial we did, Reebok was real pissed about because it cost like a million dollars, which no one had ever done before. Most of the money was spent on bringing all of the legends in. I had just gotten done watching Terminator, and it had all that futuristic and gooey shit. So I said, “Ok, I need a commercial and I want to walk through something like that.” Everyone was all, “What the fuck?” [laughs] That's when we came up with “Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.” It was a good commercial, because no one had ever seen nothing like that before. Then, for the older crowd, you had four of the legends, and that introduced people to who I am, but it also told them, “Hey, if he continues dunking like that, he can be like one of them one day.” That was my first commercial, designed and written by me. I just always had to create campaigns like that, to let people know that I was a people person and a friendly person, and I've always been able to do stuff my way.
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You were dunking on literally everyone in the Shaq Attaq when you first came into the league. What do you remember about your first few seasons?
Yeah, in 1992 I was. I ain't doing that shit no more. [laughs] I was a monster. I actually used to pump these joints up twenty or thirty times, and they were just real comfortable. I just had it going, and this was during the time when I didn't have any championships, and everyone was saying, “He's good, but he can't win a championship.” It'd be like people saying about Swizz, “Well he's a good producer, but he doesn't have any platinum plaques yet.” I was just letting people know who the Shaq Attaq was.
The idea of doing things your way and proving people wrong is something that you really seemed to enjoy doing throughout your whole career.
Oh yeah, all the time, and growing up as a minor and a juvenile delinquent, I was always being told I couldn't do it. It just makes me who I am. I don't get off when people tell you how good you are. I actually fucking hate it. I'd rather you tell me I'm nothing and I'd rather you tell me these shoes aren't going to do well. That's when you'll see me carrying a hundred pairs of these motherfuckers all around the Reebok booth here and be out there telling everyone when they're releasing and be out there promoting them. [laughs]
How does it feel now to be wearing the shoe again in size 22 and see the response to the Shaq Attaq coming back out?
It feels pretty good that they're bringing them back. I have six children, and one of my sons knew about them, but none of the other ones did. Now they're onto it, and that feels real good. At the All-Star break, they were asking me, “Can you get me them first?” That kinda brought a tear to my eye, because even though I'm Shaq and I'm their dad, they're still on those other cats, you know. [laughs] So when they're asking for their father's shoe, that's great.
What do you remember about the Shaqnosis and what the initial response was to that shoe?
I've always been unorthodox, and I've always liked to do stuff different. When I brought that shoe to the big time people upstairs, they didn't like it. What was great though, was they always gave me the ability to really build my own joint. When I came with it at first, a lot of people didn't like it, and they thought it wouldn't sell. But all the retailers liked it and it was selling right off the shelves. People would always ask me, “Well, how'd you come up with the name?” And I'd say, “Look at that shit long enough and you'll be hypnotized.” [laughs] Seriously though. One day I was looking at it, and I was like, “Well what am I going to name it?” And I got real dizzy almost. [laughs]
I've always thought it was real interesting that you own the rights to your own logo. How'd you know to even do that?
Want me to be honest?
Yeah. Of course.
When I saw the Michael Jordan dunk, his legs spread and how that became a logo – you know, my dunk is with my knees up. I was in college when Michael really got huge, and we were in class learning about trademarks and all of that stuff, and right afterwards, I went down to the Baton Rouge office and I trademarked my dunk. It cost me like $60 dollars. I just knew. I said, “Ok, if Jordan is doing this and has his logo, this is my dunk with the knees up.” Then, when I turned pro, I did it big time, did it right and got all the correct trademarks and that stuff. Good thing I learned all of that while I was in college.
So you trademarked it while you were in school.
Yeah, while I was still in college.
Wow, that's pretty cool. Now, with all of the different business opportunities that come up, how do you pick what's right?
I have to believe in the product. I also got a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership, and I'll figure out ways to own things without doing any work. For example, the magazine that you run. I could buy the magazine, let you run it and then make all the money. I won't fucking call you, I won't micromanage you and I won't even say anything to you. But if I see a problem, then we'll fix it. General Eisenhower said, “The greatest leaders are the ones smart enough to hire people smarter than them.” Even though I'm in a lot of businesses and I own a lot of stuff, where people like me and athletes go wrong, is when they try and do shit they can't do.
You hear about all of these guys running a restaurant. If you're not a restauranteur, don't try to run a restaurant. Call Bobby Flay, do a deal with him, and let him run a restaurant that you just put your name on. I got a lot of businesses where I've hired great people, I let them do all of the work, and then I just help to manage people. I've always been a good people person, and that's where I focus my skills now that I'm done playing basketball. It's been working, and I don't have any problems with any of the businesses. I'm educated to go in and look at the books and see what's really going on. If I show up at the office one day to see the books, I'll just say, “Well lets see what's happening in this mother.” [laughs] “Motherfucker you did what? What's this?” [laughs] Luckily all of the numbers are all good and I don't have to get mad, and I'm able to just sit back and relax and live a pretty comfortable life.
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What advice would you give to players coming out of school now as they're looking at all of the different shoe companies out there that they can sign with?
Well it depends on who you're talking to. If they have the ability to have a large brand and have the ability to create their own shoe, they should always take advantage of that opportunity first. Also, it depends on what you're looking at. When I came up, I wanted to be socially conscious, and I wanted to have a shoe that was affordable. That's why I started my own line and had my own brand. I had much success with Reebok, but I always tell people that you have to take advantage of good opportunities that present themselves and just try and take care of your children as much as possible.
The first CD I bought was actually Shaq Diesel, which might or might not be a good thing.
No, but if Swizz puts something together, I'll get down with him. For me as a youngster, it was all about taking advantage of opportunities and having fun. I always liked to challenge myself and see if I could do it. Even with my Doctorate, I just wanted to see if I could do it. A guy told me it was going to take six years here and there, and I said, “Well, I'm not doing shit right now, so lets see if I can do it.” [laughs]
Puffy made an interesting point during the All-Star Game, and it's a point that I was trying to make in 1992. It's a point that everyone knows, “All rappers want to be athletes. All athletes want to be rappers.” For me, I relate to the core. I thought I was LL Cool J or Big Daddy Kane when I was in the studio. Then when I got to the court, I thought I was Wilt or Dr. J. For me doing albums, it wasn't about me trying to do a big time album. It was about a kid from Newark, New Jersey following his dreams, performing with all of his favorite rappers, having a good time and just having fun. I had some success. Two of 'em went platinum. Two of 'em went gold. And two of 'em went wood. [laughs] I've had some of the greatest people in the world in the studio. I worked with Swizz of course, Jay-Z, Nas, Diddy, Snoop and Dr. Dre. Not bad for a juvenile delinquent that was just a pretty good basketball player.
Do you remember working with one of those guys in particular and what that was like?
Working with Jay was a great experience. I called him, and he was excited to talk to me. I was very excited and told him how much of a fan of his I was, and I asked him if he wanted to be on my album. He said, “Sure.” I asked him, “Well how much are you gonna charge me?” [laughs] And he didn't charge me anything. So I flew him down, and he stayed at the crib, and we just had conversations about life, money and about things that we were going through. We had a great time. I actually was in the studio and laid my verse first, and he was like, “Ok, that's cool.” I was in there for like an hour and feeling the pressure, cause I had Diddy behind me watching, and I'm trying to rhyme. [laughs] It took me like an hour and a half to get it. I get done, and he goes in and does it in one take. One take. He took about three minutes. [laughs] And actually, the verse that he spit was real nice, but it was kind of vulgar, so he had to go back and change it up a little. He went back and did it in take two.
This past All-Star Weekend was a huge time for sneakers and now guys are wearing all kinds of crazy colors and materials out there. Is there a certain color or theme you'd like to see on one of your old shoes?
No, not really, because I'm old school and I'm more basic. My son would probably want some loud purple and yellow joints, but even though I'm a Laker, LSU and Q-Dawg, I probably wouldn't rock them. I'm more into maybe just red and black or something easy that can make me the cool dad. [laughs] I'm old school.
In the 90s, Reebok had a bunch of great athletes that had their own shoe. What was your favorite non-Shaq Reebok shoe?
We were in the same Reebok family, and I think Shawn's joint was called the Kamikaze, so he was hot at the time, but I had to let him know that the Shaqnosis were hotter. Iverson always had some hot joints, but I was so mentally focused, and I knew that Mike was the man. It was about Mike, then me, and I wasn't really worried about what the other guys were doing.
When you look back over all that you've done in the last twenty years, what's the biggest accomplishment for you after growing up in Newark?
My biggest accomplishment is listening. I know about a hundred, especially growing up in Newark, I know about a hundred Ifs. I remember the first time I saw someone get shot, and if I would've went that way, or if I would've dropped a bag off with one of my cousins, you know...there are about a hundred ifs that I could've gotten myself into that I never did. Just listening and always being in the right place at the right time and staying out of trouble was my biggest accomplishment. A lot of people think it's all about making money and all of that, but once you experience what I did growing up, that's nothing. I've got thirty cars and I don't drive none of them motherfuckers. I don't. They're just sitting in the garage.
I'm trying to teach my kids now that there are more important things out there, like family, taking care of eachother and giving back. I've got three kids that fight constantly, and I keep telling them, “You guys don't want to grow up fighting eachother. We're not going to keep doing this.” When you're thirty, you want to be able to say, “Hey, I'm making dinner. Bring your family over.” I'm trying to teach them now, and as I've gotten older, I've been able to reflect and know what really matters. My biggest accomplishment was listening to the ones that made me who I am, my mother and father and the people I had around me.