Why Shaquille O’Neal Refuses to Call Himself a ‘Celebrity’: ‘I Never Want to Be in That Category’ (Exclusive)

The retired NBA legend explains to PEOPLE why he rejects that label

<p>Ethan Miller - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty</p> Shaquille O

Ethan Miller - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty

Shaquille O'Neal in 2023

Although Shaquille O’Neal has reached that Cher-esque level of notoriety where he’s really known by only one name — Shaq — he will never tell you he’s a “celebrity.”

“You know why I had to denounce myself from being a celebrity about six, seven years ago? Celebrities are a------. They just are. I never want to be in that category,” the NBA Hall of Famer tellsPEOPLE, explaining that “a lot of these people, when they come to a certain status, it automatically gives them the right to think they're smarter than you, they're better than you, they’re bigger than you, and I never wanted to be like that.”

Thanks to his celebrated basketball career, his ongoing gig as an analyst on TNT or many years as a pitchman for dozens and dozens of companies, O’Neal is one of the most recognizable figures in the country. Still, he points out that he never travels with an entourage and doesn’t flaunt his wealth or jewelry.

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In fact, his mom, Lucille O’Neal, made sure of that! “I don't want to be the guy,” he says. “I did it one time and my mother was pissed. She used words I haven't heard her use in a long time.” 

O’Neal then explained how his mom came to his house and made him watch footage of the time she felt he acted out. “She's like, ‘How do you think that look?’ I was like, ‘That looks stupid,’ ” he recalls without detailing the exact moment. “She said, ‘That's not necessary, baby. You don't need to do all that stuff.’”

Since then, O’Neal has prided himself on being something of an everyday man. He’s been known to randomly buy computers or bikes for kids. He plays pickup basketball games from time to time. Even while hosting a party in November 2023 for F1 Las Vegas Grand Prix, he walked around the venue and mingled with partygoers.

On Super Bowl weekend, he’s throwing his annual Shaq’s Fun House party at Wynn Las Vegas’ XS nightclub, and he doesn’t plan to be sequestered away in a VIP area there either. “I have to do regular people's stuff because I'm a regular person,” he says. “I ain’t got no security. I ain't got no entourage. I'm just a guy that played in the NBA.”

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O’Neal was hardly your prototypical basketball player during his career. At 7’1” and listed at 325 lbs. for most of his playing days, he was significantly larger than others on the court. He looked far more like a football player in many ways.

“I played football in high school. I was actually football before basketball and got hurt,” he says. “I was really good at all sports, but football was my first love. [I] got hurt, started late in basketball.”

If things played out differently, O’Neal jokes, “I would've been a tight end for the Cowboys.” A Dallas Cowboys fan, he adds that if the NFL team makes it to Las Vegas for Super Bowl LVIII, he’ll be “wearing cowboy boots with a cowboy hat.”

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