By A.Sherrod Blakely
As dominant as Shaquille O'Neal was on the basketball court, he was an even larger-than-life figure away from the game.
Now that the Boston Celtics big man -- make that, former Boston Celtics big man -- has called it a career, we're bound to see even more of the market maven we have come to know, love and maybe most significant: Buy the products and services that he pitches.
In an earlier wide-ranging interview with CSNNE.com, O'Neal gave his thoughts on the various keys to establishing one's brand away from the game if you're a professional athlete.
"A lot of so-called experts may disagree with this statement I'm about to give you, but image is reality," O'Neal said. "When you have guys and they have guys that make up their image, it always catches up to them. I'm not going to say no names, but you have to be who you are. Everything that I do in the community, it's always how I've been."
O'Neal then repeats one of his favorite tales, the one about what how his dad gave an Army veteran his last 5.
"So I'm like, 'Why you do that?'" O'Neal recalled. "He was like, 'Yo man, if you ever make it big you have to help those in need.'"
Having a charitable heart only adds to the attraction that fans across the globe have to O'Neal and the dozens of products and services he has pitched over the course of his 19 NBA seasons.
Making his marketing success even more remarkable is that for so many years, players with his size were viewed as unmarketable.
Because most people aren't 7-foot-1 or weigh 300-plus pounds or wear a size 23, how could they possibly relate to O'Neal?
Even while at LSU, O'Neal recalls professors reiterating that big men aren't marketable to the masses.
So as he went about preparing for his career as a professional basketball player, he looked around at the great players and those that seemed to manage being great pitchmen as well.
There was Michael Jordan.
"They like Mike. Why? Because he's out there killing them," O'Neal said.
He looked at Magic Johnson.
"They like Magic. Why? Because he smiles. He ain't got the best vocabulary," quipped O'Neal. "But they like him."
So O'Neal reasoned that he could dominate the game like MJ and he certainly could flash an ear-to-ear grin with the best of them -- Magic included.
Convincing companies that he was the man to pitch their products.
In hindsight, you would think it was a no-brainer.
But as O'Neal soon discovered, his perseverance -- maybe more than his personality -- would ultimately be the key to his marketing success.
"I was the one to break the theory that big men can't sell," O'Neal said. "I went to Reebok and they didn't want to give me a commercial. I said, 'Listen, give me a budget. I'll do my first commercial, and if you like it we'll do more. If not, we'll shut it down.' "
O'Neal's first commercial was the 'Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk' campaign that featured Hall of Fame big men Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as former Celtics Bill Walton and Bill Russell.
"It was designed, written and directed by me," O'Neal said. "I wanted to do that to let them know, these are the best, and I'm coming for your ass. I want to be mentioned with you all."
His career numbers say it all. His 28,596 points rank fifth all-time in NBA history. He's collected 13,099 rebounds which ranks 7th all-time. And the 13 seasons averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds is an NBA record.
But as much as he'll be remembered for what he achieved as a basketball player, he has given even more to the game in the way he paved the door for NBA big men such as Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin and Celtics perennial all-star Kevin Garnett to have opportunities to establish their own brand beyond what they have achieved on the floor.
"Marketing-wise, I had to push myself, push the product and at the end, make somebody laugh," O'Neal said. "Everything I do is just real. A lot of guys have a successful real brand. A lot of guys don't have a successful brand. To me, branding is reality. Those guys that are what they are, go far. Like Jordan has been Jordan since '87. It's working for him. Magic has been Magic since '85 and it's working for him."
He added, "I'm Shaq . . . and it's working for me."