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Basketball Great Shaquille O’Neal is a TCK, Too

Photo labeled for reuse. Photo credit: Dan Solis courtesy of JBSA Photo Gallery.

Better known simply as “Shaq”, Shaquille O’Neal is famous worldwide for being a professional basketball player. But, people tend to overlook his Third Culture Kid (TCK) experiences — experiences that have helped him navigate diverse situations before, during and after his National Basketball Association (NBA) career.

Born on March 6, 1972, in Newark, New Jersey, the 7-foot-1-inch United States NBA Hall of Famer has used his size and personality to become successful in music, education, acting and business. O’Neal’s successful career was partially shaped through TCK experiences during childhood. Being a military brat and having a multicultural family (more on that later) helped add dimension to O’Neal’s personality. No doubt, the layering of experiences allowed him to reach an audience beyond professional basketball.

Courtesy of Oprah Winfrey Network.

New Jersey Beginnings

O’Neal’s biological father Joe Toney played basketball at Seton Hall but was imprisoned for a drug possession charge when O’Neal was a toddler. As a kid, though, Shaq discovered the Boys and Girls Club of America, which gave him a safe place to stay while his mother and stepfather worked to provide for the family.

“I was already a low-level juvenile delinquent. I mean low-level, I was a little mischievous, getting into trouble. Stealing gum, a follower and not a leader.”

O’Neal in a 2016 interview on NJTV News (New Jersey Television News).

According to an NJTV News article, O’Neal attributes staying on the right track to Cynthia Banks, who at the time of the interview was vice president of operations at the Newark Boys and Girls Club of America. “She’s like everybody’s aunt, everybody’s mom, everybody’s grandmom,” Shaq told the outlet. “She just made sure that all the kids went in the right direction.”

Third Culture Kid Experiences

Eventually, Toney was released from prison but relinquished his parental rights to O’Neal’s stepfather Phillip Harrison. Harrison is Jamaican and O’Neal’s mother is from the United States. Having access to these cultures within his household provided a multicultural family experience that most likely helped Shaq become more empathetic and understanding of different cultures. Harrison’s career as an Army drill sergeant required the family to move to Germany when O’Neal was 12. There, he spent three years navigating German culture as a military brat TCK.

“In junior high in Germany, I fought kids all the time. I had such a bad temper, I almost got thrown out of school. A few lickings from my dad got me out of that scene. He wore me out with a paddle.”

O’Neal in a 1991 Sports Illustrated interview.

O’Neal’s bad temper could have resulted from frustration with a drill instructor stepfather. For example, during a high school game, Harrison grabbed O’Neal by the shirt and ordered him to tuck in his uniform shirttail, according to this Sports Illustrated interview. Harrison also believed O’Neal needed a college education in case basketball did not work out. Ultimately, these TCK experiences made Shaq culturally mobile.

Returning to the United States

When O’Neal turned 15, his family returned to the United States when Harrison was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. O’Neal attended Cole High School where his basketball career began to take off after a 32-1 junior year and a 36-0 senior year season.

After high school, O’Neal attended Louisiana State University (LSU) where his basketball career continued, until his skills offered him the opportunity to leave college early and start a career in the NBA. O’Neal was drafted to the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick in the 1992 NBA draft. He also continued his education after becoming a professional player.

To this day, O’Neal praises the Boys and Girls Club of America in Newark for giving him a place to cultivate his dreams, learn how to accept criticism and provide motivation in everything he did at a young age. O’Neal has continued to support and provide fundraising leadership for this organization.

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