Tragic Details About Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O'Neal may have retired back in 2011, but the 19 incredible seasons he spent in the NBA are still some of the most memorable in history. The basketball legend, who first hit the professional court in 1992, left the sport almost two decades later with three consecutive championship wins and 28,596 points to his name. It wasn't long after that he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech in 2016, he recalled how his father, Phillip A. Harrison, would quiz him about the sport when he was growing up, and he shared his one hope for the future. "When a father is quizzing his son on the great big men of the game, hopefully Shaquille O'Neal's name will be in the answer," he mused.

It certainly is in the answer to this day, but O'Neal hasn't just stayed top-of-mind thanks to his epic career. Since retiring as a professional athlete, he's made a name for himself as a sports anchor while also making headlines for a host of other reasons. Whether it be O'Neal's hilarious friendship with Adam Sandler, his roasting of Kanye West, or his warnings about LeBron James, Shaq is in the news as much as ever. However, despite the decades he's spent in the spotlight, there is plenty fans may still not know about him. Namely that the prank-loving and uber successful O'Neal hasn't always had it easy. Here are the tragic details about Shaquille O'Neal.

As a kid, he had a debilitating stutter

Shaquille O'Neal may be one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but growing up, he felt like an outcast. "When I was little, I stuttered so bad and was really embarrassed by that," he revealed in a 2011 Dove Men+Care ad. He first noticed it around the time he was 5, and things were especially bad at school. He feared speaking in front of a class, so he kept quiet, even when he knew the right answers. "I'd be sitting there like, 'Please don't call me. Imma read it, imma stutter, everybody's gonna laugh at me,'" he revealed. When he was called on, he preferred to get a bad grade rather than participate. As he shared with the Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research in 2023, "[I] definitely got teased a lot, made me not confident in school."

It wasn't until he was in college that he learned to overcome his fear. That's where he took a speech class in which he had to do a presentation in order to pass, and the professor made it a point to work with him one on one. These days, Shaq has come to terms with his speech. "I still stutter to this day but I'm more cool with it," he told Dove. He also wants others to never feel like he did. "I just want children to know it's OK," he told the Blank Center. "Some of the most brilliant people in the world stutter."

His mom kept his biological father a secret until Shaq was 11

Shaquille O'Neal has always been incredibly close with his mother, Lucille O'Neal. As he shared in his 2022 HBO documentary, "Shaq," she always believed in him and told him he was special, but for a long time, she also hid a big secret from him –- and the world. Shaquille was just 2 years old when Lucille married army drill sergeant Phillip A. Harrison. They had three kids together -– Ayesha, Lateefah, and Jamal Harrison –- and the basketball legend never doubted that he and his siblings had the same father. 

As Shaq recalled in the four-part doc, his dad once promised him, "If you listen to me, I'll make you one of the best basketball players ever." And that's just what he did. The two developed an unshakeable bond, and Shaq still credits Harrison for his success. "Everything he said would happen in my life, from 2 years old on, happened," he told Andscape. "Every time he told me [he] was going to do something, Sarge did it."

However, when he was 11, his world was rocked by the discovery that Harrison wasn't his biological father. That's when he asked his mom why his last name was different from his siblings', and she told him the truth. Before that, Lateefah recalled in the doc (via Essentially Sports), "We were just told that Shaquille was born before my mom and dad married" and "He just kept the name O'Neal because it sounded good."

He struggled to build a relationship with his birth father

Phillip A. Harrison told Andscape he thought of Shaquille O'Neal as "my flesh and blood from the beginning" –- the feeling was mutual. When Shaq first learned of his birth father, Joseph Toney, he wanted nothing to do with him. "When I turned 18, the other guy showed up," he once said. "I was kind of upset with him." Indeed, Toney told the Los Angeles Times that Shaq ignored him, while Harrison actively pushed him away. In 1994, Shaq even released a diss track titled "Biological Didn't Bother" in which he proclaimed Harrison "was the one that took me from a boy to a man, so as far as I'm concerned, he's my father."

Toney was hurt, telling the Los Angeles Times that he never expected to be shut out. He dated Lucille O'Neal for three years while she was in high school, and then she had Shaq at 17. Toney is adamant he was at the hospital for his son's birth and said he chose his name. Soon after, though, he got a six-year prison sentence for forging checks. Once he was out, Lucille had a new family. "I didn't run away as much as get myself put away," he told Andscape.

After Harrison died in 2013, Lucille pushed Shaq to meet Toney. At their first encounter, Shaq said, per Andscape, "I'm not mad at you; I don't hate you." As he later told Dr. Phil, "My job is to just love him as much as I can now."

The NBA star was physically abused by his stepdad

Phillip A. Harrison may have helped Shaquille O'Neal achieve greatness, but he did so by relying on his belt and his hands for discipline. Defending his actions (via Andscape), Harrison once explained that his dad was even more physical with him and that his actions were meant to help his son stay out of trouble. "People might say that's wrong, but my attitude was, I would rather have me do it than someone on the street," he reasoned. "Out there, they would try to kill him."

Interestingly, Shaq has praised Harrison's strict parenting on numerous occasions. "I did some stupid stuff, stealing cars, hanging with bad people, being around places where drugs were at," he told the outlet. "I respect him more for raising somebody else's child –- and disciplining that child as if it was his own child." He also defended Harrison while promoting his 2011 book "Shaq Uncut." During an appearance on the "Fearless with Jason Whitlock" podcast (via Bleacher Report), he mused, "He never hit me without cause [and] if it weren't for him, I'd be in prison right now." Jackie MacMullan, who co-wrote the book with Shaq, shared just how physical things would get. "We're not talking about spanking, we're talking about a belt," he clarified. "Beating him badly." According to MacMullan, things got so intense that Harrison's parenting style was a major factor behind Lucille O'Neal's decision to eventually divorce him.

Shaquille O'Neal lost his younger sister to cancer

When Shaquille O'Neal's mom, Lucille O'Neal, married Phillip A. Harrison, they wasted no time growing their family. Shaq and his three siblings from his mother's union with Harrison were all incredibly close. In Shaq's 2001 memoir, "Shaq Talks Back," his sister Ayesha actually wrote about how special their bond was. "Because Shaquille was older, he was either taking care of us or entertaining us," she recalled. "Shaquille taught us how to play basketball. He taught us how to swim. All four of us used to just hang together." 

They kept that tight bond into adulthood, and so, when Ayesha Harrison-Jex died of cancer in October 2019 at just 40 years old, the loss shook Shaq to his core. It was actually Shaq's "Inside the NBA" co-hosts who confirmed the news, with Ernie Johnson telling viewers, "His heart is breaking tonight. He said his world revolves around his brother and two sisters, and he lost one of his sisters this morning." Johnson went on to reveal that Ayesha had been diagnosed three years prior.

Lucille spoke about her youngest daughter's health with CBN, saying she was first diagnosed with cancer behind her ear at age 23. As Shaq later shared in a clip posted to YouTube, he assumed she'd be in remission again "because she had cancer a couple times and we beat it." Her death caught him off-guard and impacted his health. "I already got insomnia anyway, so that just made it times 10," he revealed.

Kobe Bryant's death rocked him

Just three months after Shaquille O'Neal's younger sister died of cancer, he was dealt another blow when Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in January 2020. Although the pair famously feuded, they always respected each other, and the loss hit close to home. As Shaq revealed in his HBO documentary, "Shaq," Bryant's death had a very real impact on his daily life. "I don't go to bed till 5:00 a.m.," he said, per Daily Mail. "Ever since Kobe and my sister died, I can't sleep." It's something he still thinks about to this day, and as he told People in 2022, he has major regrets about their relationship. "I'll never get to see Kobe again, in real life, forever, and I just should have called," he shared. "He should have called. We both should have called."

Despite their differences on the court, the MVPs pushed each other to be better, and although they fought, they never held grudges. While speaking at A Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, O'Neal explained, "Kobe and I had a very complex relationship throughout the years, but not unlike another leadership duo, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, whose creative rivalry led to some of the greatest music of all time." He admitted the loss "pains me to my core" and vowed to look after Bryant's daughters and teach them his moves. "Kobe, you're heaven's MVP," he concluded. "I love you, my man."

Doctors told him he could die

Shaquille O'Neal has been open about his struggles with insomnia, but back in 2011, he discovered his sleep problems may actually stem from a dangerous health condition. O'Neal agreed to do a sleep study under the supervision of the Harvard Medical School, and they diagnosed him with moderate sleep apnea. As his then-girlfriend, Nikki "Hoopz" Alexander, shared, it was not uncommon for the basketball great to struggle to breathe at night. "His chest would stop moving and everything like, he was not breathing," she shared. The solution was a nasal mask, but it seems O'Neal may not have taken his treatment seriously. In 2022, he told GQ that he hadn't been to a doctor in 11 years, and when he finally went in for a checkup, he was told, "Sleep apnea can cause hypertension or strokes, you could die." That dire prognosis did the trick. "Now I've got to sleep with a sleep machine," he revealed. "When they hit you with that three-letter word that starts with D and ends with E, it changes stuff up."

Indeed, Mayo Clinic explains that sleep apnea, although it may not always seem like it, is a serious medical condition. In addition to folks feeling tired during the day due to lack of sound sleep, it can lead to a number of major health concerns, like high blood pressure, heart problems, liver problems, and even an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Shaquille O'Neal became dependent on painkillers

Professional athletes often face great pressure to be their best, no matter what their body is telling them, and that is exactly what Shaquille O'Neal experienced firsthand. "When you get to a certain level, people expect you to play at that level all the time," he told The Athletic in 2022. "Once I became Shaq, nobody cares that your knees hurt; nobody cares that you have a torn abdominal." So, in order to play through the pain of various injuries, he turned to taking pills. "I could have a good game, but if I didn't take the painkillers, I wouldn't have a great game," he explained. Soon, they became a staple of his pregame regimen, despite the side effects he experienced. One of the worst was finding blood in his stool, but even that couldn't dissuade him from taking the tablets. "There would be blood, but when you're a warrior and you're trying to win ... nothing matters and nobody cares," he said.

Once he retired from the game, he didn't stop taking them. "Certain days when I couldn't move, I just popped one or two, just to get me going," O'Neal told GQ in 2022. He didn't hit the brakes until a doctor's visit revealed the painkillers had made his kidneys weak. "I'm off that now," he told the mag but was adamant, "I was dependent upon painkillers — not addicted."

He has major regrets about his failed marriage

Shaquille O'Neal doesn't like holding onto the past, but he told "The Pivot Podcast" in 2022 that he does have three major regrets in life. Two are how he handled his relationships with fellow NBA players Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant, while the third is how he acted in his romantic unions. O'Neal had one daughter with then-girlfriend Arnetta Yardbourgh in 1996, and then married Shaunie Henderson in 2002. They had five kids before separating in 2009 and divorcing in 2011, and O'Neal put all the blame on himself. 

"She was awesome," he gushed. "It was all me." Without going into details, the athlete, who was accused of infidelity, admitted to breaking his vows and mused, "I was arrogant, I was dumb, and sometimes, when you do a lot of stuff, you don't want to work at stuff." Praising his ex-wife's looks, work ethic, and the kids she gave him, he concluded, "I was just being greedy –- I had the perfect situation." And while he didn't want to categorize himself as being depressed, he did admit to feeling alone and struggling after the divorce. Similarly, he told People in 2022, "I was a d***head" and mused, "You don't know how good you got something till it's gone."

Today, he still respects both women greatly and everything he does is for his family. "I may not be a husband, but I'll always be a father, and a father's job is to protect, provide, and love," he told the podcast.