Dinner With The FT : Shaquille O’Neal

Sunday, March 4, 2007

FT Caricature here.

When people who have met Shaquille O’Neal learn that you are due to have dinner with the towering Miami Heat player, one of the most dominant big men in the history of basketball, they invariably grab you by the arm and offer the same observation. “Oh, my God.  He’s so enormous.”  You nod and pretend to appreciate their insight.  So as I wait for O’Neal at Azul, a restaurant in Miami’s downtown Brickell neighbourhood, I am determined not to make a fuss about his height…..And then, with little warning, O’Neal appears behind me.  I spin around, tilt my head skyward, and let my mouth fall horribly open.  “Oh, my God!” I think.  “He’s so enormous.”  Meeting “Shaq” in person is like encountering the Grand Canyon or an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet for the first time.  As much as you may have heard about them, and as many pictures as you may have seen, you still cannot help but gasp when they are spread before you in three dimensions.  We shake hands, with mine disappearing in his, and then a hostess, who looks like a tiny child beside him, takes us past a group of jumbo stone crabs resting on a bed of ice, to a table in a back corner.  To my surprise, O’Neal sports neither a tracksuit nor fancy jewellery or other trappings typically associated with the insanely wealthy young men of the National Basketball Association.  Instead, he is dressed in a brown pinstripe suit with a blue handkerchief, and looks more like a businessman than a sportsman.  That new uniform is a taste of things to come.  The three-time Most Valuable Player at the NBA finals was forced to miss 39 games this season as he rehabilitated a torn cartilage in his left knee.  At 34, he is looking beyond basketball to a career in business.  Following in the footsteps of Dave Bing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and other athletes-turned-entrepreneurs, O’Neal already has interests that run from athletic shoes and clothing to a chain of fitness clubs and even two-dozen coin-operated car washes in Florida. (”I didn’t do it for the change,” he says of the latter, “I did it for the property, and I’m making a killing.”)  But his most ambitious venture to date is taking shape outside the restaurant’s window, which looks out on to the same waterway through which Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs once raced their speedboats in pursuit of drug traffickers.  Along its shores are glass and steel condos, including the skeleton of one – Metropolitan Miami – that O’Neal’s new property company is erecting with a local developer.  When it is completed, the $1bn project will have 1,143 condominiums in two towers anchored by a gourmet grocery store and a 24 Hour Fitness Shaq Sport Club.  It will also include office space and a hotel.  O’Neal will not say how much money he has contributed to the project, but he is quick to brush aside recent talk that Miami’s property bubble is about to burst.  “The property business is where it’s at because you can’t make no more earth,” he says…..

It turns out that he began on a small and sentimental scale, buying and renovating “fixer-uppers” (properties in a bad state of repair) more than a decade ago in his native Newark, New Jersey…..O’Neal graduated to building strip malls when he moved to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers, then on to apartment buildings and now the multi-tower development down the street.  He announces with trademark bravura that his plan “is to be one of the biggest developers in the world a la my good friend Donald Trump”.  In fact, when he struck the deal, O’Neal says Trump called him to offer congratulations: “He said: ‘Dammit, Shaq! We’re friends, but now we’re competitors.’”  As O’Neal recounts the exchange, you can almost hear “The Donald” proclaiming another pivotal moment in his epic life.  While he might share Trump’s ego and ambition, O’Neal tells me that he did not grow up with money.  His father was an army drill sergeant who had to take odd jobs, such as cutting grass and driving trucks, to help make ends meet.  Like other star athletes, O’Neal had to manage the sudden transition from humble background to immense wealth.  “For the first three or four years I had fun,” he says, admitting that he bought dozens of cars and other toys.  “I didn’t really lose any money, I just wasted a lot.”  But in spite of those early extravagances and his bold public image, Shaq-the-investor turns out to have a surprisingly conservative streak.  One of the first things he did when he entered the league after clearing up his parents’ debt was to buy government bonds.  Then he bought annuities for himself and his siblings.  “I said to myself: ‘In case I do get crazy and get out of control, let me get this insurance with these annuities and then, when I turn 40, I can still get a cheque,’” he says…..

The waitress reappears with an appetiser of raw tuna that has been moulded into three intricate sculptures.  I extend the tray to O’Neal, who’s been picking at a dinner roll and nursing another Diet Coke.  But he declines.  “That’s rich people food. I ain’t rich,” says the man whose net worth was estimated at more than $250m by Forbes magazine…..After settling the bill, we head into the balmy winter night to a party down the street that O’Neal and his partners are throwing to celebrate the new Miami development.  There are heated tents, spotlights and trays of Bellinis.  There is also a gaggle of the sort of tanned women who populate Spanish television game shows, and might convince a guy like me to buy a condo in Greenland.  The mayor of Miami is there, too, but O’Neal is clearly the man of the hour.  The only thing larger is a 120ft banner stamped with his likeness and draped over the Metropolitan’s scaffolding.  A white-haired developer takes the stage and mocks the conventional wisdom that Miami’s property market is cooling.  Then he informs the guests that one lucky condo buyer will win a dinner with Shaq.  The star finally takes the stage, and makes his pitch.  “Thank you for coming out,” he signs off after a few minutes.  “Bye now, and buy, buy, buy!”  And the crowd roars as if he has just sunk the winning basket.

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/c2768690-c6fc-11db-8078-000b5df10621.html

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