In a year of overcalculated profiles of sports teachers, his HBO series about basketball’s greatest showman outlines what so many of those biographies get wrong.
“Jackknow what Shaq knows: in sports, the only real truth is what you see in front of you. On a field, on a track, in a record book, what you know for sure is the result. Everything else is fodder for a story.
In Shaquille O’Neal’s life, there have been plenty of myth-making opportunities along the way. From a childhood in a military household to high school breakout and college star to a roller coaster, Hall-of-Fame NBA career, O’Neal has a wealth of stories for every chapter. They don’t all make it in “Shaq,” the four-part doc series premiering this week HBObut you could hardly wish for a better guide through a life that spans the worlds of TV, movies, music, advertising and, yes, basketball.
Director Robert Alexander knows that relying solely on a charismatic central figure for a sports documentary like this isn’t enough. The best of these fit the person they profile, rather than the other way around. So rather than trying to use a one-size-fits-all model, “Shaq” approaches each of the four eras of his life – ascension, glory, decline, and reinvention – with a completely unique style. The best example is the second episode, which intersperses each new conversation and introduction with comic book-style animations and speech bubbles, a marked departure from the energetic and determined chapters that precede it.
There are so many sports documents that try to match subject and style the way some people try to match songs with mood. The ESPN series “The Captain” took a stately, measured approach to Derek Jeter, because that’s how you’d expect a media-savvy star-turn executive to present himself, the same way you’d reflexively single out a grouchy minor. -key ballad as a soundtrack to a rainy day. We know how all those things go together.
Instead, “Shaq” recognizes that the Great Aristotle’s personality and range extend far beyond his storytelling technique. His interviews here have the sheen he says comes from having a sergeant father and from years of private media practice during his college days. The timbre of O’Neal’s voice rarely changes, but Alexander is able to tap into the specific energy associated with every slight change in the emotional tones on display. O’Neal is dynamic enough to go from excitement to resentment to goofy just by changing the size of his smile or the length of his pauses. “Shaq” is always ready to switch gears with him.
It’s a fascinating inverse of “They Call Me Magic”, Apple TV+’s Magic Johnson doc series from earlier this year. During his college and NBA days, Johnson excelled in embracing his status as a media darling, more of a golden child than a court jester. More time has passed since the end of his career – O’Neal’s rookie season came not long after Johnson’s last full season – so “They Call Me Magic” has a nostalgic tinge to it. O’Neal’s career is barely over ten years – he was still playing then this one confirmed him as an early Twitter legend – making this project seem closer to a time capsule. O’Neal doesn’t seem wistful. At least he has the ability to make his own past seem much closer.
And all of that is reinforced by the idea that O’Neal has never been known for shying away from the sensational. “Shaq” isn’t exactly the “F for fake” of sports docs, but there’s that quick acknowledgment on top that a good story is what makes for a good story. In a strange way, that’s enough to give this a more natural footing than any of the other single-subject sports doc series coming out in 2022 so far. “Shaq” leaves room for disagreement, alternate memories, and even the moments when O’Neal used the exact same words decades ago to describe something in another interview. That somehow feels a lot closer to the truth.
Another way “Shaq” emerges from the shadows of his doc colleagues is by striking a balance between targeting existing fans and providing a level-headed explanation. There are plenty of little nuggets for those who know where to look and listen. (Perhaps the best example: “Shaq” features audio of Ernie Johnson as a young sports reporter and footage of an on-field shoving match with Charles Barkley. Both would become O’Neal’s desk mates on the TNT studio show “Inside the NBA.”)” Shaq” only really digs his toes into the weeds on technique or the Triangle Offense. But when it comes time to enjoy O’Neal’s championship success, Alexander opts for a more abstract, emotional portrayal of the moment rather than just a series of highlights.
Perhaps most importantly, ‘Shaq’ shares O’Neal’s sense of humor. When he talks about his partying days as a younger player, a giant [REDACTED] flashes across the screen. Alexander outlines sound effects that match O’Neal’s improvisation-worthy space work. No franchise has been so rejected as the Clippers here, when O’Neal casually dismisses them as “bums.” At one point, O’Neal calmly says, “One of my superpowers is that I can stop time,” with the confidence of someone who’s not only done it, but has done it many times.
Many viewers will likely be drawn to this documentary curious about the relationship between O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, his championship teammate from the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant’s death in 2020 means “Shaq” doesn’t quite get the full scope of their interpersonal rise and fall. But as “The Captain” showed with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez (a similar case of generational players whose partnership was broken by public brawls from a shared locker room), those things are ephemeral, even when you get both versions straight from the source. “Shaq” is more effective at drawing inspiration from the subject, rather than giving the impression of being employed by him.
The other insights at the documentary level have not been underlined three times here either. Early on, when describing a time in his childhood in Germany, O’Neal starts it off by saying, “I hate using this word ‘depression’.” He shares a story about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf as if he were giving the public an exclusive story. For him, the gift of a philosophy book from a coach is something that leads to a made-up nickname and a new branding opportunity, all without breaking the pages. With so much already in the public consciousness about O’Neal as a basketball player, “Shaq” takes on a much more satisfying target: how a master showman sees himself.
“Shaq” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on HBO, with new episodes also available to stream on HBO Max.