Now 29 years old, Shaquille O'Neal has topped out at seven-foot-one, weighs 315 pounds, and each morning pulls on size 21 EEE shoes.

Gone were the days of dressing up as “Shaquanda,” a female alter ego that comedically disguised the insecurities that loomed large within the boy. Almost two decades later, that same defensive sense of humor perhaps explains his once telling tales on a radio show about his sexual sprees with lovely luminaries Venus Williams and Cindy Crawford. (He later admitted he was joking.)

• Shaq’s biological father, a one-time Seton Hall basketball player who later ended up in jail, has played no role in O’Neal’s life, His step-father, Phil Harrison, who was the first man to discipline him and who introduced him to sports – including basketball when O’Neal was seven – is the only father he has ever known.

• Born March 6, 1972, in Newark, New Jersey, Shaquille Rashaun (Arabic for “little warrior”) bounced in to life weighing a modest seven pounds, 11 ounces, Two years later, his stepfather joined the Army. The next 12 years saw O’Neal, his parents, and his three younger half-siblings living all over New Jersey, at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and finally in West Ger­many. There, in 1985, Louisiana State University basketball coach Dale Brown spotted the 13-year-­old O’Neal, who by then was six-­foot-six, and asked, “Where are you from, soldier?” Brown never forgot O’Neal; nor did O’Neal forget Brown. He enrolled at LSU in 1988.

• His three remarkable years there culminated in his turning pro in 1992 and join­ing the Orlando Magic. He scored 12 points against Miami in his first game, rebounded 18 times, and blocked three shots. That same season he started in the NBA All-Star Game­ the first rookie to do so since Michael Jordan eight years earlier.

• In a historic act of free agency, in 1996 O’Neal swapped coastlines and signed a lucrative seven-year con­tract with the Los Angeles Lakers. (In October of last year he negotiated a three-year $88.5 million contract extension,) The rest is legend.

• O’Neal is only the third player in NBA history to capture the titles All-Star MVP, regular-season MVP, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season (1999-2000). Not to be outdone by himself, that same year, under the disciplined leadership of coach Phil Jackson (whom O’Neal has de­scribed as “a white version of my father”), he led the Lakers to their first championship in 12 years-then turned around and did it again the next season.

His struggle to improve his free-throw percentage is leg­endary as well, providing his detractors fuel for their fire: His best in the NBA, 59 percent, was his first year, while last sea­son’s 51 percent was not far away from his worst (48 percent).

In addition to conquering the NBA, O’Neal has two books and several film roles to his name, and his own sportswear company, TWlsM (The World Is Mine), Inc. His charitable contributions to organizations benefiting underprivileged and disadvan­taged youths and the homeless number in the millions of dollars. Yearly appearances as “Shaq-a-Claus” at Christmas and the “Shaq-a-Bunny” at Easter have replaced his Halloween role as Shaquanda.

He spent much of this past summer pro­moting his new rap album, Shaquille O’Neal Presents His Superfriends, Vol. 1. His last four albums have either gone gold or platinum or boasted singles in the upper echelon of the pop and R & B charts, and his fine new effort recruits the able as­sistance of Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stock­man, Ludacris, Black Thought of the Roots, Snoop Dogg, Angie Stone, 311, and Dr. Dre, to name just a few. “I consider myself Superman,” he told us (a fact reinforced by the tattoo on his left arm), and these are his Superfriends.

Now 29 years old, Shaquille O’Neal has topped out at seven-foot-one, weighs 315 pounds, and each morning pulls on size 21 EEE shoes. His voice, at once soft-spoken and stentorian, belies his startling bravado-as does the occasional stutter that harks back to his childhood. (O’Neal says, “You’re the first guy that’s ever noticed that on me. Nobody ever asked me that.”) In that spirit of straight­forward disclosure, he talked about his three favorite sub­jects: basketball, music, and himself-though not necessarily in that order.

How much additional pressure does the promise of an NBA three-peat put on you?

Pressure’s when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. I don’t feel pressure. I’m just having a good time. I do positive things and stay out of trouble. If you live a good, steadfast life, nothing else matters. So right now I’m focusing on the third ring. Hopefully we can get it this year.

What aspect of your game would you like to improve?

The only thing I need to do is stay dominant and work on my free throws, of course. But other than that, my game is okay. There’s nobody even close right now. But actually I think that the reason why I’m not that good [at free throws], that it’s not part of my game, is, it’s a blessing in disguise. It humbles me. Imagine me playing the way I play, plus shoot­ing 80 percent. I think I’d be a hard person to deal with.

Do you still practice your free throws?

I practice all the time. I always shoot well in practice, but games are different. You go eight for ten, and then with one second left you miss the last one. You shoot eight for 11-that’s a good percentage-but you lose the game. I’m known to hit them when I need to hit them. So percentages mean nothing to me. I just won two rings shooting 50 percent. Fifty percent means make one and miss one.

How do you react to what’s written about you in the press?

Every time I read something a sportswriter says, I find I’m getting criticized. It just makes me ele­vate my game to a new level. I like making people be quiet. I like making people eat their words.

You’ve received your share of fines for run-ins with NBA officials. What is your opinion of the current quality of officiating in the league?

I’d rather not comment on it. I ain’t going to say nothing. [Chuckles] But you know how I feel.

Are NBA players overpaid?

I think it’s a whole economic scale that people don’t understand. In order for a guy to get paid that money, the team, the organization, has got to be generating five times as much. So you have to have a smart agent. There are 29 teams. If you have a superstar play­er and you won’t pay him, somebody else will. It’s all about winning. Every­body wants to win, win, win. So it’s just supply and demand. If all the owners stood together, then they could do something about it. But one owner will backstab another owner. For example, Dick DeVos [son of Rich DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic] only wanted to pay me $69 million, but then [Lakers owner] Jerry Buss said, “Hey, I’ll give the kid 120. If he’s asking for 150, I can’t pay him 150. But I’ll give him 120.” And that’s why I left.

Is your loyalty to the Lakers, then, motivated by money?

It’s driven by [the fact that] I have a job to do, and I’m focused on trying to win a championship for the Lakers. I realize that Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] made a lot of history; I’ve got big footsteps to fill.

In contrast to your symbiotic relationship with Phil Jackson, last season seemed to mark an all-time high for strife among players and their coaches.

A lot of guys think they know it all and don’t want to listen. But Phil has a great resume. He coached Michael Jordan. So how the hell can a guy with no rings argue with a guy with six rings? It just don’t make no sense. If a guy had no discipline in high school and college, he’s not going to have discipline once you give him a big, lucrative contract. Period. Point blank. He ain’t going to do it. You can’t do anything with a player like that. Especially when they’re making all the money, getting all the press. You tell them how good they are, then you can’t do nothing about it.

How are things between you and Kobe Bryant these days?

Actually, we never had a problem. I’ve been getting everybody involved. In order for us to be a great team, Kobe had to get everybody involved, and he did. Everybody knows he can score and do that; everybody knows I can score and do that. That’s why we won 15 and one [in the play-offs].

Have you ever heard his music?

I heard the song he did with Tyra Banks.

Have you guys ever considered do­ing something together musically?

No, not really.

How much did the press exaggerate the friction between you two?

A lot of it was blown out of proportion. I think they wanted to see us fight. But Phil Jackson gave the orders, and that’s how everything was going to go out. It wasn’t going to go out no other way. I wasn’t having that. It’s my job to make sure everybody was on the same page. That’s why I did what I did and said what I said. It ain’t got nothing to do with noth­ing personal. Because we’re alike: If you see him shine, you see me shine. I don’t care about who gets all the press and who gets all the money. He’s supposed to get all the money, and one day we will be a team. Once Phil comes down to “I want Kobe to take most of the shots,” then that’s how it’s going to be. But it ain’t like that now.

You recently announced that you’d like to retire from basketball in a couple of years. Were you serious?

I would like to be done by 32. That’s my plan. It may happen, it may not happen. You never know.

Why would you want to abbreviate your NBA career when players you admire, like the Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone and John Stockton, are still out there playing at the height of their game at 38 and 39 years old?

By that time it would be 15 years for me. After 15 years you’re not going to get no better. So I would like to go out Jim Brown-style.

Doesn’t your contract extend through the 2005-2006 season? Yeah, I have a contract for a long time, but I don’t have to do anything. The only thing I have to do is take care of my chil­dren. I’m the type, when it’s not fun any­more, I just do something else.

You also mentioned that after you retire you have a desire to enter law enforcement.

Yeah, I’m serious about that. I’ve al­ways wanted to be a cop. When I was growing up, it was basketball player first, rapper second, movie star third, and police officer fourth. So now I’m saying that it would be great to be a sheriff. I think that would be a good job for me. I already passed police ­academy reserve, so I’m going to go to the police academy one day. When I get back to L.A. and sit down, I’m go­ing to study up on it, look at all my op­tions, do what I’ve got to do, take the courses I’ve got to take, and then, like I said, by the time I’m 32 or 33 I should be ready to take over the county.

No desire to coach?

No. Be none of that.

Where does your concern for children and children’s causes come from?

When I was young, my father was an Army supply sergeant. He used to take the old supplies that the Army was getting ready to throw away, put them in an Army truck, and go around to these homeless people and pass out blankets, sleeping bags, all that stuff. Being that we lived on an Army base, when another little kid got hurt it was like big news. So he would take us to the hospital, and we’d see the kid that got his arm broke, had to get stitches, or whatever, and he’d make us run down to the other side of the hospital and show us the less fortunate kids. Christmastime he’d get some toys and he’d get our old toys that we weren’t using, and he’d take them out to the ‘hood, to the homeless people. So this is stuff I’ve been doing all my life.

Do you enjoy constantly being in the public eye?

If I have a feeling I don’t want to be bothered, I just won’t put myself in the position to be bothered. But I’m cool, I’m okay.

What about when you receive negative press for even the slightest things you do or say?

That’s just how life is. You just have to deal with it.

Like when the L.A. Times last July wrote that you “snubbed David Letterman” by agreeing to appear on his show and then not showing up-what happened there?

I was tired. No, actually, I had other engagements and I misscheduled it. I’ve been on David Letterman 50 times. And I’m a Jay Leno guy, anyway.

Let’s talk about your new album. Do you write your own material?

I write some of it. I have a crew that helps me put my thoughts together.

What is your songwriting routine?

You’ve just got to write 16 bars. First you get the hook-the hook is the title of the song. When you’re writing with some­one else, 16 bars ain’t that hard. Those are the songs that I try to knock out first, songs that I’m doing with people. I did most of it in the studio. The songs that I did by myself, I did those on my day off. I took my time on those. This is a lot of stuff that I did during the season and the play-offs. The only time I didn’t go into the studio was the night before a game.

Do you have a studio in your home?

No, but I have a studio around the corner from my house, like five minutes away. I’ll practice from 8 to 1, come, home, take a nap, hang out, and then go to the studio at 7. I’ll be done by 11 or 12 every time.

Any truth to the rumor that you’re going to record a rock album?

Yeah, I’m going to look further into that. I’ll probably do four or five remakes and four or five originals.

You’ll be working with?

The best, the best. I had a meeting with Gene Simmons last week, so I might redo a Kiss song.

Any other songs you’d like to cover?

“We’re Not Gonna Take It.” “Burn in Hell.” “Jessie’s Girl.”

What about the controversy regarding rap music promoting promiscuous sex and inciting rampant violence?

I don’t think there is really a controversy. I just think it’s a lot of jive. There are a lot of guys having fun. A lot of guys dream and boast, is what they’re doing. Me personally, I don’t think lyrics really go too far. See, you have to understand hip-hop. Listeners want something that makes them go “ooh … ah.” But I’ve never once heard a rapper say, “Kid, this is what I want you to do.” Yeah, [my new album] is a little bit more explicit, but I teach kids to be leaders, not follow­ers. To me, image is reality. I don’t try to portray myself as being a perfect clean­cut guy. I’m an adult and I’m allowed to do certain things. But I’m going to bleep all the bad words out.

Would you consider that censorship?

Oh, no, there’s no censorship. It’s just that I realize that I have a big fan base of children. You just have to be respectful to the children. Bleep those words out.

What about how women are some­times portrayed in rap?

I think women are beautiful. Some exploit themselves as being beautiful, showing off their bodies. To some people that’s cool, to some people that’s not. Man, that’s the world we live in. Everybody’s always going to have their own opinions.

And yours is?

I’m a subtle guy. I never judge a per­son. If a woman wants to get in a video and do that, that’s fine with me. It’s good for the viewer. No, I don’t have a problem with that. When I hear some guy kick some gangsta lyrics, I don’t judge him. It’s just that for me, as a father, if I’m going to let my kids hear that, I’m going to teach my kids to be leaders and not followers. So whatever they hear and whatever they see, it won’t matter because they’re going to be so focused and so in tune to what they’re doing. Just like I was Music is music. Music is melody and drums. Music has never been words. These guys can’t sell songs with just their mouths, with their words. You need the beat of the drums, not just people lipping.

What about songs that refer to women as “bitches” and “ho’s”?

You have to understand, in hip-hop when they say “bitches,” they’re not talk­ing about women all the time. And when they say “ho’s,” no, “ho” isn’t short for “honey.” It’s just slang that people use. I just think sometimes people take lyrics too strongly.

Why do you rap?

I just do it to make people have a good time. When I go into a studio with my favorite people and complete a song, it’s all over. I’ve already made it. For me it’s not about how it sells or anything else like that.

You score okay in that arena, too.

Oh yeah, I’ve sold a lot of albums. There’s been a lot of people who have tried to do what I do who haven’t really succeeded. That’s why I’ve been fortunate to have good people around me, and I’ve been fortunate to do good work. Because I’m passionate about it.

Is there a spiritual connection for you between rap and basketball?

Actually they’re about the same thing. I think I’m a great basketball player because of my hip-hop background. Great hip-hop music makes you bounce up and down. In order to bounce up and down to the beat, you have to have rhythm. And a big man with rhythm is a dangerous big man.

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