Shaquille O'Neal wants all you kids out there to eat right. And you better listen, because the Big Fella is, not so incidentally, a really big fella.
On "Shaq's Big Challenge" (premiering Tuesday, June 26 at 9 p.m. on ABC), The Diesel will crusade against childhood obesity -- one of the country's fastest-growing epidemics, and a harbinger for weight-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. Beyond designing and implementing a wellness program with Florida school and government officials, Shaq will attack this scourge where it sleeps by whipping six plump youngsters from Broward Country middle schools into healthy, active children -- children, some will point out, that Shaq conceivably could eat if hunger pangs strike him.
Turns out, Shaq is aware his campaign is rife with irony. Throughout his career, O'Neal has been accused by some people of being overweight. So while the Big Do-Gooder's reality TV endeavor might not invite as much ribbing as, say, an American Lung Association spot starring Vlade Divac or an "Athletes for No Child Left Behind" fundraiser co-hosted by Evander Holyfield and Shawn Kemp, it'll no doubt provide solid fodder for late-night TV monologues.
Good thing Shaq enlisted a team of pros to assist him. His sidekicks on the show include his physician and trainer Dr. Carlon Colker, personal trainer Tarik Tyler, celebrity chef Tyler Florence, nutritionist Dr. Joy Bauer, childhood obesity expert Dr. William Muinos, and his former coach at LSU Dale Brown. These fine people will help keep things on the straight and narrow, and maybe, just maybe, teach Shaq a few things about his own diet -- if such a lesson is necessary.
"Shaq is obviously a big guy, but he's not overweight," says Dwyane Wade, who cameos on the show and plays a ripped and powerful Jimmy Olsen to Shaq's on-court Superman. "Shaq trains and works out hard. He's very toned for a 320-pounder."
Could Flash, one of the league's top athletes, stand to learn a few things from O'Neal's regimen? "Hell naw!" Wade replies, giggling at that suggestion. "I should give Shaq some advice, know what I'm saying?"
"Let's just say he still walks around with his little blue bag full of club sandwiches," Wade says. "He loves those things."
I recently caught up with the Big Fella to discuss the plight that begat a reality series, what its star has learned from it all, and whether he plans to put the club sandwiches down and slowly back away.
SAM ALIPOUR: How did you become involved in this important cause?
SHAQ: I've always wanted to become involved in something called "Shaq's Big Challenge," whatever that was. And I felt like this cause is something that needed to be addressed. Obviously childhood obesity is something kids are having a problem with. I learned so much about childhood obesity, the problems that lead to it, and how it can lead to death at an early age. Who wants to die before their parents die? So I wanted to help with its awareness.
S.A.: What, in your mind, is to blame for childhood obesity?
Seems like a natural for a reality show star, right?
S.A.: What are you doing to help these six kids in particular?
SHAQ: We're going into their homes, taking a look at what they eat and teaching them how to eat right. I've got the No. 1 chef in the world, Tyler Florence, and me and him go into the school and get them to cook healthy meals. We got Dale Brown hooking up the motivational stuff, and my two trainers work with the kids at the local YMCA. The school we adopted now takes five minutes before each period to do stretching and exercise. So even though they don't have PE, they get an hour each day. With the wellness program we started, they get to work out in school while my six kids also stay active after school. And I also got the kids' parents helping, and I got myself.
S.A.: You have some impressive sidekicks, but what do you bring to the table, besides looking pretty?
SHAQ: Oh, I'm doing all that stuff. Basically, I'm practicing what I'm preaching. I can't tell them to stop eating McDonald's when I come in with a Big Mac. We're all in this together. Before I forget, I've also got the No. 1 nutritionist in the world Joy Bauer, who's got a book coming out.
S.A.: Nice book plug. What have you learned about your own diet that you can take with you?
SHAQ: I wasn't worried about my own diet because I'm an active person. When I become inactive, then I'll have a problem. But I'm practicing what I'm preaching, so no more sandwiches, no more sodas, no more greasy foods. Now, I'm into healthy stuff, tortilla wraps and all that crap.
S.A.: Aren't you leaving something out? When you answer the next question, beware, I've asked some of your teammates: What's your dietary kryptonite?
SHAQ: (Laughs) My main problem is club sandwiches. That's all I eat.
S.A.: Good man. Soon, you'll be on TV helping fat people get healthy, but you've been accused of being overweight yourself. Not by me -- I don't have the guts, plus fat people aren't typically capable of winning four titles -- but by others. So are you ready for the ribbing?
SHAQ: (Laughs) You're exactly right. You know, I've never been overweight. I'm just a freak of nature. They want me to be like a regular seven-footer. So, you know, these guys see a big number on the scale and they look at me and say, "Holy s---, he's fat!" But they're just uneducated. Never in my career have I been over 14-percent body fat. Never, ever. If I'm 400 pounds but I got nine percent body fat, then you have to understand what that number means. But you're right, they say I'm fat, but I've won four championships. So somebody's not doing their homework.
S.A.: So what's your percentage of body fat now?
SHAQ: I'm at 12 percent.
S.A.: You said your highest was 14 percent. When was that?
SHAQ: The worst I've ever been was when we won my third championship in L.A. I was at 14 percent but that was because I had my foot surgery. I got heavy because I couldn't do cardio.
S.A.: Which tubby NBA player would've benefited the most from appearing on your show?
SHAQ: Well, let's see. There aren't many fat players these days. But how about Oliver Miller? Definitely Oliver Miller. Remember him? And Charles Barkley maybe. If there's a second season, I'll have them on.
S.A.: Around the time you avoided the notorious Freshman 15, your old LSU teammate, Stanley Roberts, was criticized for taking on the Sophomore 30. Did you two ever engage in an eating contest in, say, the dormitory dining commons?
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Shaq's gonna want to keep his weight down, if he's interested in winning any more rings.
S.A.: As your career winds down, what are you doing to get a few extra seasons out of your body? Are you changing your diet at all?
SHAQ: No, not really. I've got three years left, so I'll do what I've been doing. I'm not sure how well I'd perform at 315 pounds, so there's no need to start now. What's the benefit?
S.A.: Typically, do you pay closer attention to what you eat in, say, the Finals? Or on the road?
SHAQ: I've never had to make a drastic change because I've always played at a high level when it counts. I always ate what I wanted to eat. But yeah, the biggest problem is when we go on the road. On the road, it's definitely harder. I have a chef at home but when I'm on the road, I'd always get into trouble.
S.A.: Seeing that you're a reserve police officer, is it safe to assume that the police force doesn't enforce a weight limit?
SHAQ: (Laughs) Looking around, it doesn't seem like it.
S.A.: How about in the second season you help cops battle doughnuts, or is that an urban myth?
SHAQ: I think that's a myth. I've never seen them eat doughnuts. But yeah, hopefully we'll have a second season. Not sure yet what the next big challenge is. I'll have to find something bigger.
S.A.: Some pundits are already giving Greg Oden the tag of "The Next Great Big Man." If he wants to get there, he should probably stay far away from your show. From what you've seen, is the label justified?
SHAQ: I haven't seen much. Oden is a pretty good player, but he's just a young ninja who'll have to go through a lot of big ninjas before he achieves that status. He's got to prove himself against Amare, Garnett, Duncan, Ming. He has a lot of work to do. It could be bad, but it could be good. He'll get beat up, but it'll also be good for him.
S.A.: Will you parlay your exposure from this show into another movie role to help us forget "Kazaam?"
SHAQ: Yeah, its something I've discussed. Hopefully, people will see my charm and I can get another movie out of it.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.