For 20 years, starting in his native Orlando, Shaquille O'Neal has bought toys for underprivileged kids. Now he has teamed up with Toys"R"US to become "Shaq-A-Claus, their spokesperson in their annual campaign with Toys for Tots, an organization that delivers toys to kids in need during this holiday season.
SI Kids talked to Shaq-A-Claus recently about the campaign, his favorite toys, and some things he's working on that may be in your stocking next year.
How did you get started buying Christmas toys for kids?
My mother went to a place with 400 kids, and she didn't want to make me pay for all 400 so she only wanted to pick 20 [kids]. So I told her to go back and talk to each of the 400 kids and write five of the gifts they want so me and my boys can go to the Toys"R"Us. So I was doing that for about 20 years, and then I just partnered up with Toys"R"Us about six years ago.
Now you're working with Toys for Tots.
We're doing a new campaign this year. We urge people to donate to Toys for Tots at Babies"R"Us and Toys"R"Us [stores]. And Toys"R"Us will match donations by people who take part in the #PlayItForward challenge. So take a selfie while donating and tag it with #PlayItForward and Toys"R"Us will match the donation. It's a shame that 14.6 million kids will wake up [on Christmas] without a toy. All it takes is one toy to change a person's life. I didn't get a lot of toys growing up with brothers and sisters and I was the oldest one. And my father used to be, like, "I gotta take care of the little ones. I'll get you later." Then one day, when I thought I wasn't getting anything for Christmas, he surprised me with a Dr. J basketball. That changed my life. And that was just one toy. Imagine 14.6 million kids waking up with no toys. I wish I could eradicate that problem myself.
Was that basketball your favorite toy growing up?
Yup. My only toy.
Now that you've been shopping for other kids for 20 years, how have you noticed toys change?
I'm super jealous. They have remote control cars and the ones that fly. They've got boats. I'm super, super jealous
So what's the hot toy this year?
Well, I'm dealing with a lot of young children, so they wall want Legos. So I went to the Toys"R"Us the other day in Orlando and just wiped them out. The manager was kind of happy, but he was kind of like, "Shaq, you didn't leave any toys for anyone else."
What's Christmas like in your house now?
I'm teaching my kids the same things my parents taught me. When I give them new toys, I tell them to round up all the old toys into a box and take them to a local shelter, along with some new stuff. They understand it's always good to give back. I try not to spoil them too much.
Is there anything they're holding out for?
They want the iPhones and Xboxes and Samsungs. It's a technology-run world. When I was coming up it was all about board games, maybe a bike here or there or a skateboard, but not Xboxes and all these games and watches you can talk to. I'm jealous.
Will Shaq-A-Claus make an appearance on the TNT Christmas game broadcast?
No, but I'll be doing stuff locally here in Orlando on [December] 20th. I think we picked a couple of schools [to deliver gifts].
How much do you enjoy meeting the kids?
I love meeting the kids, making them smile, [seeing] them have a good time. I want them to look at me as a example that they can make it. A lot of these kids don't really think they can make it, until they see someone similar to them.
I know you're working a series of children's books called "Little Shaq,” which are in development. How's that coming along?
It's going pretty good. We got a proofreading session in a couple months. It deals with today's issues: Bullying, parenting, that stuff. It teaches kids to be leaders and not followers.
You've also got the sequel to the Shaq Fu game coming up.
I'm coming up with the super-top of the technology. Prior to that game, I was on the end of the old technology. The new technology came [along] that made my game look very analog. A lot of people wanted it to come back. We did the Indiegogo [campaign] to raise some money, and, of course, I'm going to put up all the other money. But we just wanted to see if there was a lot of interest out there. So we put a teaser out there and people really liked the teaser. And I've been keeping a close eye out and it looks excellent.
One last question I've got to ask before you go… How about your boy Odell Beckham Jr.?
Probably one of the greatest catches we've ever seen. And the crazy thing is he's always been like that, since he was a little kid. His dad and I were best friends, roommates in college. Of course I've seen him grow up, and when he went to LSU, I was ecstatic. He's definitely going to be a star. When you go by Richard Sherman a couple times, and Richard Sherman tells you "good job," as a rookie that means you're going to be somebody. I'm proud of Odell Beckham Jr.. But I've seen so many amazing things out him, it reminds me of the things [Michael] Jordan used to do. He does so much amazing stuff, that's just part of his DNA.