Publish date:

I'M THE REAL SHAQUILLE

Author:

He inspired awe, fear, laughs—and in the 1990s, plenty of proud new parents. Call them the Big Namesakes: Generation Shaq, a diverse group bonded by a unique handle, is all grown up

THE YOUNG woman wandered through the bookstore near the neighborhood mosque, up and down the aisles, searching for a name. She was almost 18 years old and almost nine months pregnant with her first child. The perfect name would feel empowering and be meaningful. It would also convey courage; a single mother, she and her son needed to be strong together. She saw him becoming a role model. She hoped he could accomplish big things.

The baby was born on March 6, 1972, at Columbus Hospital in Newark, and weighed seven pounds, 11 ounces. For his middle name, the mother chose Rashaun. "Warrior," according to a book of names she found. A few pages later, under the next letter—S—she found his first name. "Little one," read the adjacent interpretation, she recalls.

The boy hated his name. Teachers couldn't pronounce it; classmates mocked it. Then his stepfather, an Army staff sergeant, got transferred to Germany. A fresh start, so the boy began going by J.C., which stood for Just Cool.

One day, playing outside, someone hollered for J.C. His stepfather, overhearing, stomped over and snatched his collar. "You better be proud of your name," the boy was told. "Your name's going to be famous one day. Everybody's going to know the name Shaquille O'Neal."

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL LONG cannot remember when the Jeep pulled into the driveway and his namesake knocked on the front door. Granted, he was barely three months old that morning in January 1991. Neither of his parents knew about the surprise coming their way, but word had gotten around the Baton Rouge area that one couple christened their son after the backboard-busting sophomore at nearby LSU.

The big guy entered, ducking through the door frame, bearing gifts of basketball jerseys and bibs. "Can we get a picture of you holding him?" Ernest Long asked. "And a picture of him by your shoe?" So O'Neal slipped off one of his size-22 sneakers, bigger than little Shaq by several inches.

In 1992, the year the Magic drafted O'Neal first overall, his first name ranked No. 426 among nationwide male births, according to the Social Security Administration. In 1993, the year O'Neal was named Rookie of the Year, 1,784 boys were named Shaquille, and the name vaulted to No. 181. Over the years O'Neal has learned about families just like the Longs, from word of mouth or the Internet.

"I'd probably guess around 250," O'Neal says. His reaction when told the real figures: "Holy s---. Seriously? Damn, that's crazy."

Now the millennial Shaquilles are making names for themselves, graduating college and entering the workforce. Searching "Shaquille" on LinkedIn yields 2,154 results; another 526 profiles match "Shaq." They are clarinetists and youth pastors, math tutors and aerospace engineers. One is a paralegal for the U.S. National Guard. Another spent a year and a half reporting on the 2016 presidential race.

SHAQUILLE OMARI, 23, delivers groceries through the app Deliv, so when customers see his first name and last initial, they often open the door and say, "Shaquille O'Neal is here!" Evade any tolls recently in New York City? Chances are good that SHAQUILLE GURLEY noticed from his data analytics position with the Port Authority.

Some Shaqs are in the club by chance, like SHAQUILLE TOWNSEND, whose father knew nothing about O'Neal's success while stationed at an Air Force base in Japan and heard the name from a friend. But these are outliers. Of the 40-plus Shaquilles interviewed by SI, all but two said their parents' choice was inspired by the rim-rattling, joke-cracking, rapping, Kazaam-ing, 7'1", 300-plus-pound center. "We're always going to live in the shadow of Shaquille O'Neal," says SHAQ THOMPSON, the Panthers linebacker. "That's the original."

As an October 1990 birth, Long considers himself among the first. Which means he heard all the one-liners and got all the DMV double takes before anyone else. "There was a rumor that Shaq was my godfather," he says. "I don't know who started it, but I let it slide." He bought Shaq Attaq sneakers because his name was stitched into the heel. The plates on his black 2014 GMC Sierra Denali say SHAQL.

A production manager for a manufacturing company, he still lives in Louisiana. Fifteen years after the home visit, he and O'Neal crossed paths again, at a Baton Rouge barbecue joint. Long asked for a picture but didn't want to bother him further by bringing up the size-22s. Of course, O'Neal never forgot. He still remembers what he realized as his Jeep pulled out of the Longs' driveway: "I think I'm a superstar now. People are naming their kids after me."

SHAQUILLE SHELBY finally entered this world after his mother spent 24 hours in stubborn labor. In pain and exhausted she trusted his father to oversee the early parenting tasks, such as inking the first footprint and picking the name. Shelby's mother had suggested Richard, after her father. "If you're going to go against my mom's word, you better have a good reason," Shelby, now 22, says. And that was ... ? "He thought it'd be cool because, well, Shaquille O'Neal was doing big things. No pun intended."

It wasn't just his brute force and overwhelming talent on the court—in his first four seasons O'Neal won an NBA scoring title and played in four All-Star games—but his joyful charm that turned Karshena McCain to the name. "He couldn't get through an interview without a joke, or a prank," she says. "And I just remember thinking, 'I love this guy.'"

Her Shaq—AARON SHAQUILLE MCCAIN—shares the hallmark goofiness, whether busting out dance moves or belting karaoke. And the tender side too. When Karshena was working three jobs, he offered to help cover family expenses by getting one too.

Then there are parents who didn't foresee the ramifications of their name choice. "It was kind of rough, not going to lie to you," says SHAQUILLE ALLANTE O'NEAL, 24. "I'm 5'5"." When he tried to submit his full name for his Facebook profile, the site asked him to send a photo ID as proof. "They said, 'Sorry, we don't believe that's your real name.'"

Imagine then the eyebrows raised at SHAQUILLE HUANG, 23, whose family moved from the Philippines to Alaska when he was seven. "I was an Asian Shaq living in Anchorage," he says. "And I played hockey." Indeed, the name isn't restricted to one race or gender. "Having other friends named like Sarah or Ashley, I wanted a name like that," says Shaquille Paige. "But I realized everyone has their own uniqueness."

SHAQUILLE PARIAG, 26, felt like a military brat as a kid, moving every two years because his father sold insurance. In this way Pariag can relate to Huang, who moved from Anchorage to Los Angeles and currently lives in the Bay Area. But they share an even deeper bond: Each has a younger brother named Kobe.

SHAQUILLE BAPTISTE jolted awake to the sound of an iPhone alert. He had dreamed about this moment ever since he began emceeing as a teenager in downtown Toronto, under the stage name ShaqIsDope. Now, late in the summer of 2013, the reward for his faith had finally arrived, glowing there on the lock screen: @SHAQ is following you on Twitter! "I just knew," Baptiste says, "that one day he would find me."

Much to his shock, the admiration was mutual. Upon discovering one of Baptiste's music videos online, O'Neal fired off some flattering direct messages before dropping the bombshell request. Would Baptiste want to collaborate on a remix of "Karate Chop," the Lil' Wayne and Future joint? Could they make rap history together, Shaq feat. Shaq?

An incomplete version of the song soon pinged into Baptiste's inbox. He rushed to the studio, cut his verse and emailed the finished product back to O'Neal. "You killed it, homie," came the reply. "Keep bringing life to the name." People were skeptical it was really Shaq on the track when it was released, but not even seasoned spoofers could've scripted lyrics like these:

Sometimes I question what you rappers spitting

You know in the post your ass is barbeque chicken

Don't need to go platinum, that's what you rappers do

I'll tweet this verse, that's 8 million views.

"A lot of doors opened up after that," Baptiste, 24, says. Six months later he met with several record labels in New York City. In March he performed a 20-minute showcase at South by Southwest. He plans to release a new EP this summer. Naturally, it's self-titled.

"ShaqIsDope," O'Neal says. "That's a nice name. Wish I would've thought of that."

SHAQUILLE WALKER kept some clever childhood friends. Short, skinny and lacking in basketball talent, he was tagged with the nickname, Qahs. "Because I was the exact opposite of Shaq," the 5'10", 140-pound professional middle-distance runner says. "The only similarity, I guess, is our free throw ability."

Sobriquets were always O'Neal's specialty. The abbreviation—Shaq—came first, reminiscent of the N.C. State forward-center Charles Shackleford. Then: Shaq-Daddy, Shaq-Fu, Shaq Diesel, Super Man, Big Shamrock, Big Aristotle (his favorite, for the record).

The secondary Shaquilles have inherited these and inspired more. Shelby's mother—after recovering from the prolonged labor—took to calling him Shaq-a-Doodle. "I had so many," says Shaquille Price, a former walk-on cornerback at North Carolina who answered to Shaqtin' a Fool. "I can't even remember."

This is the cool part. The annoyances? Spelling and pronunciation. Trips to Starbucks and Smoothie King are nightmares. So was the first day of school. Common roll call butcherings include sha-KWEEL, sha-KWY-lee and shock-you-ILL. "Anytime there's a substitute teacher," Pariag says, "I made a game out of it. What are they going to call me?"

SHAQUILLE HEATH strode across the carpet and found her seat on the stage. It was May 1, 2015, at Weber State University, and for weeks the senior public relations major had been rehearsing her commencement speech in front of the mirror. Still she felt nervous, even if one of her fellow speakers was decidedly not. "Just gonna go up there and wing it," Damian Lillard coolly said.

The laid-back Portland point guard could be forgiven for ad-libbing; less than 36 hours earlier, Lillard and the Trail Blazers had been eliminated from the first round of the playoffs. But winging things is not Heath's style. She was graduating from Weber State with a 3.98 GPA, all A's except for an anthropology class that she retook after getting a B the first time. "I'm an overachiever," she says.

Behind the mike at Dee Events Center, she took a breath and then explained why. "Unfortunately, my birth parents were drug addicts," Heath told the packed crowd. "Sometimes I didn't have a place to sleep. Sometimes I went hungry. At most times I was alone." On some level these hardships vanished in the eighth grade, when Heath began living with her best friend's family. But she never forgot. For better or worse, her birth parents helped shape her identity, motivated her to become something different.

They also gave Heath her name.

"Oh, it was so annoying," she says. "Everyone automatically assumed I was a boy." At first the teasing was embarrassing. One doofus in high school propositioned her to "Shaq-attack his pants," she recalls. "I was so mad. I was not having that." Uber drivers are usually taken aback when a 23-year-old woman climbs into their cars. And quite the confusion stirred at Weber State when its graduation speakers were billed as "Shaq and Lillard."

The pair met before the ceremony, and Heath snapped selfies and complimented Lillard's socks. He raised an eyebrow upon learning her name but didn't inquire further. If he had, she might've told him what she realized over time: "It's a f------ rad name," she says. "So memorable, so popular. It's a blessing."

To Heath, Lillard offered a glimpse into her namesake's world. "I do feel a huge connection with him," she says of O'Neal. "I can't tell you how many times I've decided, I'm going to tweet him for a straight hour, and he's going to have to respond."

But he never did.

SHAQ MASON enters the Gillette Stadium media room on a sweaty late-April afternoon, nine weeks removed from the Patriots' dramatic Super Bowl LI win. The New England right guard celebrated by returning home to Columbia, Tenn., visiting family and reading Dr. Seuss books at his old elementary school. He kept the fanfare minimal, but he did agree for March 4, 2017, to become Shaq Mason Day.

Had the city employed his full name, though, it would have been declared Shaquille Olajuwon Mason Day. "My mom was a huge basketball fan," he explains with a shrug. Because the Patriots opened the 2015 season on a Thursday, Mason narrowly earned the honor of becoming the first Shaquille to appear in an NFL game, beating Thompson by three days.

Only a few Shaqs have grown into professional athletes. None have appeared in the NHL, Olympics or MLB. Four—Mason, Thompson, Bills defensive end SHAQ LAWSON and Broncos linebacker SHAQUIL BARRETT—have made the NFL. College odds are better; sports-reference.com lists 39 Division I football players and 23 D-I basketball players named Shaquille, Shaq, or some phonetic derivation.

Though two have suited up for D-League squads, the NBA too remains void of subsequent Shaquilles. In fact, only one has ever been drafted into a major North American pro basketball league: SCHAQUILLA NUNN, a third-round pick by the WNBA's San Antonio Stars this April. "I love my name," says Nunn, a forward. "The only thing that I would never settle for was being called Shaq. I think people tried to press that on me, [but] that's not who I am. It just doesn't fit me."

Reaching the highest level means access into an exclusive club. Benefits: access to the Original. When Mason played at Georgia Tech, he visited O'Neal at TNT's Inside the NBA studio in Atlanta. After Super Bowl 50, O'Neal hit up Thompson on Twitter. "He was like, 'Good to see you holding it down for the Shaqs,'" Thompson says.

To O'Neal, staying in touch is important. He remembers the conversations with Jerry West and Magic Johnson and Bill Russell that prepped him for fame and success. "If I can help these guys become the best ever," he says, "I'd like to do it."

SHAQUILLE ALEXANDER and SHAQUILLE BREWSTER were total strangers until meeting minutes ago in a sixth-floor conference room at the Westin Cleveland, but they quickly find common ground. For one thing, both have been victimized by typos. When Alexander was adopted by his uncle, the custody papers said Shaquilla. Brewster's birth certificate meanwhile reads Shaqville, which sounds like some sanctuary city for all the namesakes.

"I hate how people pronounce it," says Alexander. "I got Shaniqua once."

"Do you get the people who ask, Is it O.K. if I call you Shaq?" says Brewster.

"Someone at my part-time job uses the long a. Very nice lady, but she calls me Shake."

"This is like therapy."

"People talking about if I play basketball, about how I'm tall but not tall enough ... " Alexander's voice trails off. He looks at the door. "Omigod. There he is."

The Summit of Shaquilles—arranged for this article—has begun. With O'Neal already in Cleveland for Game 4 of the NBA Finals, a call went out for area namesakes. An NBC News producer based in Chicago, Brewster, 24, was assigned to cover the Cavs-Warriors series anyway. Alexander, 21, drove two hours from Columbus, where he coaches high school football and majors in finance at Otterbein University, for the "chance of a lifetime."

Upon hearing about Heath's futile Twitter efforts, O'Neal says he has never met a female Shaquille. So he dialed her on FaceTime, right there in the conference room.

"Say hello," he says, pointing the phone toward Alexander. "His name is Shaquille." And then at Brewster. "That's another Shaquille. Option No. 2."

No, he's not the only hoopster with a trendsetting name; Kobe has lived in the Social Security Administration's top 600 for the past two decades, and Jalen became popular after Michigan's Fab Five era (chart). But O'Neal has embraced his generation like no one else. "Just honored to have them named after me," he says, "youngsters with the same aspirations and dreams."

Alexander was born in April 1996, the final year Shaquille made the Social Security Administration's top 1,000 list. But perhaps the name will make a comeback. As O'Neal lumbers away to Quicken Loans Arena, Alexander reaches an epiphany:

"Got to name my kid Shaq Jr."

O'Neal still remembers what he realized as his Jeep pulled from the Longs' driveway: "I think I'm a superstar now. people are naming their kids after me."

WHAT'S IN A NAME

Tracking the rise and fall of three wildly popular hoops monikers

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

BABIES PER MILLION BORN

2,000

1,900

1,800

1,700

1,600

1,500

1,400

1,300

1,200

1,100

1,000

900

800

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015