Shaq to biological father: ‘I don’t hate you’
As he enters the Hall of Fame, O’Neal finally meets the man who abandoned him as an infant
Having been almost impossibly famous for most of his 44 years, Shaquille O’Neal was used to The Look. You know: Hold up, is that Shaq?!
This wasn’t that look, though. This was something else: anticipatory, tense. He could see it on the diners’ faces every time he walked into Vonda’s Kitchen in Newark, New Jersey, a question posed in a fleeting glance: Is today the day?
He would return there, year after year, every time he found himself in the city of his birth. It wasn’t just Vonda’s chicken, the sound of it crackling in vegetable oil, or the way they browned the top of the mac and cheese, or the sweet, steaming cornbread. It was more a feeling that Vonda’s — in the heart of the city’s Central Ward – was Newark. And Newark would always be his point of origin.
Where he was born.
Where his daddy left him.
And where his mother met a soldier named Phillip Harrison.
Sgt. Harrison would become his father, teaching him to tie his shoes, brush his teeth and play the pivot. But the lessons didn’t end there. By teaching him the difference between blood and love, he also taught O’Neal to be a man.
But one thing the sergeant couldn’t teach him was forgiveness. That was something O’Neal would have to learn by himself.
Last March, he walked into Vonda’s and saw the look again. But this time was different. This was the day.
For years, his biological father had been living in an apartment right above the restaurant. Now Joseph Toney, pushing 70, was waiting for him – nervous, more than a little scared – at a table near the entrance to the restaurant. It was a moment he’d both wanted and dreaded.
“I’m not mad at you,” said O’Neal. “I don’t hate you.”
O’Neal once averaged 38 points and nearly 17 rebounds in the NBA Finals. He was the second player in league history, after Michael Jordan, to win three Finals MVP awards in a row when his Los Angeles Lakers took three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. Almost unguardable near the rim, he inspired a coaching strategy – Hack-a-Shaq – whose sole design was to purposely foul him.
The most indomitable force in the middle since Wilt Chamberlain, O’Neal will be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday night in Springfield, Massachusetts – a first-ballot, 19-year journey featuring four NBA championships, 28,596 points, DVDs full of malevolent dunks, one very public feud with his Lakers co-star and, always, that 400-watt, baseline-to-baseline LED smile.
In his spare time, he starred in cheeseball action movies, hip-hop videos and many, many television commercials. Among his 100-plus endorsements, he’s hawked luxury sedans, menthol heat balms, foot powder, Triple Double Oreos, Dove For Men, something called Shaq Fu Punch, and Vitamin Water, for which, in a 2008 Super Bowl ad, he memorably adorned his 7-foot-1, 350-pound self with red-and-white-checked jockey silks while straddling a poor little thoroughbred named Chunk of Love.
Now a regular source of self-deprecating humor on TNT’s Inside the NBA, O’Neal’s appeal is that he never pretended to be negotiating a nonaggression pact at the United Nations. He didn’t hide behind tinted windows but, rather, rolled them down, motioning the masses to climb inside and come along for the ride.
Jordan spoke as if he were at a stockholders meeting. Allen Iverson, in cornrows, baggy jeans and diamond ropes, was the chip-on-his-shoulder brother from the streets. O’Neal occupied the middle ground. He recorded rap albums without warning labels. He was marketable to white people, yet never forgot he was a child from the projects of Newark.
He was as impervious to pain on the court as he was sensitive to criticism off of it. But he never stayed angry at the “haters” for long, camouflaging the real reason for his insecurity: deep down, he would always be that ginormous 3-year-old whose mother had to carry a birth certificate aboard the train to prove to the conductor that her child was under 5 and eligible for a free ride. He just wanted to be loved and accepted like the regular-sized kids.
He liked breaking backboards, not hearts.
It’s that sweet, compassionate nature – imparted by his mother, Lucille, and grandmother, Odessa Chambliss – that led to him sitting down six months ago and telling the biological father who had left him and his mother, “I don’t hate you. I had a good life. I had Phil.”
Almost from the time he entered the American consciousness, O’Neal was known as the kid reared by a U.S. Army drill sergeant, a hard, gruff man who was told in no uncertain terms by the woman he loved, “If you want me, you have to take my child, too.”
Phillip Harrison told me years ago that he thought of Lucille O’Neal’s firstborn as “my flesh and blood from the beginning.” He cried and slept with 2-year-old Shaquille, fed him, hollered at him and, when the boy got older and dabbled in being a juvenile delinquent, used his belt and fists on him.
The oldest of seven children, Harrison explained the violence by saying his Jamaican father beat him worse. “He was from the islands, the old ways” – meaning, put welts and bruises on the child till he conforms. But the real reason he said he hit Shaquille: he didn’t want him to grow up to be a young Phillip Harrison, the school-ditchin’, card-playin’, skirt-chasin’ gangster, who knew that if he didn’t leave his crazy Newark life and join the military, he’d be another statistic.
“People might say that’s wrong,” he once said, sobbing heavily in his backyard in the summer of 2000. “But my attitude was, I would rather have me do it than someone on the street. Out there, they would try to kill him.”
The worst licking came after O’Neal and several friends stole a car on the military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, and the last beating was administered in the school restroom after a parent-teacher conference – a grown man pummeling a gangly teenager. By the time he was a teenager, Shaquille had absorbed more physical punishment than 30 years’ worth of hard fouls. He never once called it child abuse.
“I respect him more for raising somebody else’s child – and disciplining that child as if it was his own child,” O’Neal said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m glad he did it. I did some stupid stuff, stealing cars, hanging with bad people, being around places where drugs were at. Now, do I do my kids like that? No. They grew up much different.”
Before he fell in love with Lucille, Harrison was in love with basketball. He had played against O’Neal’s biological father in high school and proudly boasts of the time he had some teeth knocked out by the Boston Celtics’ Dave Cowens in a pickup game. He coached all of O’Neal’s youth teams, regaling a 10-year-old – who had already sprouted to 6-foot-4 – stories of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s holy trinity of centers.
The sergeant’s primary contribution to O’Neal game was convincing an awkward, freakishly big kid not to be embarrassed by his size, that it was OK to dominate the smaller children trying to guard him.
“Yo, man, run that dude over,” he would yell at Shaquille from courtside. “Ain’t no fadeaway [shot]. Boom, boom, take it to his chest and score.”
Once, when Shaquille was annihilating an inferior youth team, using deft sky hooks and outlet passes taught by Harrison, scoring about 30 of his team’s 40 points, a father from the opposing team stormed the court, leaving with his son before the game ended. “He’s not 10. Bulls—,” O’Neal remembers the father saying. “He’s 10, he gonna be the best big man in the world.”
“My dad was like, ‘See, see. We on our way, baby. Just keep listenin’ to me.’ ”
“Everything he said would happen in my life, from 2 years old on, happened,” O’Neal said. “Every time he told me was going to do something, Sarge did it.”
O’Neal wiped his eyes as he sat in the kitchen of his Atlanta home three weeks ago recalling the scene. He has mixed emotions about Friday night’s ceremony. “This was more his day than my day – this was his dream.”
When Harrison died on Sept. 10, 2013, “I actually felt it,” O’Neal said. “It hit me. I knew.”
Harrison lived with diabetes, hypertension and myriad other health problems for almost 10 years. His death ended his suffering. But it floored O’Neal, who began the six-hour drive from TNT’s studio in Atlanta to Orlando, Florida, that night only to be blinded by his own tears. He had to pull over on the interstate. He drove back to TNT and had a friend send a private plane.
After this weekend in Springfield, O’Neal said, he will take his Hall of Fame ring and place it on a shelf in a room at his Orlando mansion where all his trophies and accolades reside – The Phillip Arthur Harrison Memorial Room. “Then I’ll walk out and close the door. And that’ll be it.”
For years, O’Neal presented himself as a parable about fathers and fatherlessness. At 22, when the world was beginning to embrace the oversized phenomenon of Shaq, he recorded the somber single, My Biological Didn’t Bother. He dedicated the song to Harrison, but it was more of an indictment – not only of Toney but of absentee fathers like him in a world where 56 percent of African-American children were growing up in single-parent households.
Whatever was said about O’Neal’s rapping skills, he had exposed a nerve – and no one winced in pain more than Toney.
He said he tried to contact O’Neal after seeing him in the McDonald’s High School All-American Game and hearing Dick Vitale scream his name. But by then Toney looked like a relative who’d come to collect. He said his attempts to get in touch were rebuffed by the people entrusted to protect a 7-foot-1 commodity who would go on to sign guaranteed contracts totaling $292 million over his career.
Besides, the last time anyone asked O’Neal about reconciling with Toney, at the 2002 NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets in Newark, O’Neal appeared to slam that door shut.
“That will probably never, ever happen,” O’Neal said then. “Nothing personal. Philip Harrison raised me, made me who I am today. It would be disrespectful of him to meet somebody else and call somebody else my father. I could never do that, no matter what the circumstances are.”
So every time a friend would call from Vonda’s Kitchen and tell Toney, “Yo, Shaq’s here. Hurry up and come down or you’ll miss ’em,” Toney said he couldn’t bring himself to walk out of his apartment, press the L button in the elevator and walk around the corner to the front of the restaurant.
He knew he had done wrong. The least he could do now was own it, try not to cause his abandoned progeny more emotional grief.
After devouring his usual plate of fried chicken, mac and cheese and cornbread at Vonda’s on March 14, O’Neal looked at his longtime bodyguard, Jerome Crawford, whom he calls “Uncle Jerome,” because Crawford once dated his aunt when he was a homicide detective in Newark. He asked if Crawford could telephone his old partner to find Toney.
It was time.
O’Neal had been through the former-athlete gantlet. He transitioned slowly from king of the mountain to making a living off his knowledge of the game and his one-liners. He went through a divorce. Dated. Two years ago, he met Laticia Rolle, and they are in a committed relationship. He was fulfilled in so many ways, but as a father of six himself, O’Neal knew he needed to talk to Toney. He knew that any healing would have to happen face to face.
That day, he drove to a modest home on the north end of Newark, but no one answered the door. (It turned out to be a home Toney had previously owned.) O’Neal was on his private plane headed home to Orlando when Crawford’s old partner called back. “Guess where your father’s been living?” O’Neal recalled him saying. “Upstairs from the restaurant.”
Thirty thousand feet up in the air, O’Neal asked the pilot to turn the plane around. Toney, visiting a friend in a nearby nursing home, was told by Crawford to come to Vonda’s. He quickly obliged, taking a seat and nervously tapping at the table.
When O’Neal appeared, he was wearing an Incredible Hulk T-shirt. Of course, understatement has never been among his virtues.
Toney slowly rose from his seat, speechless.
And O’Neal opened those massive arms, hugging the man who had not held him since he was in the hospital birthing room on March 6, 1972.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Toney said, recounting the scene. He embraced O’Neal for several seconds until they finally both sat down.
The words tumbled out. “I didn’t know if you was mad at me,” Toney said, his lean 6-foot-1 frame looking up from his chair at O’Neal. He spoke of all those times when friends called, telling him his son was here. He told him why he never came: “I didn’t know if you hated me.”
“I don’t hate you,” O’Neal recalled telling him. “I don’t judge. I don’t have the right to judge. And, being a father, I know it’s hard.”
O’Neal told Toney he wasn’t angry, that Harrison became the male role model he needed, and that the only thing that upset him over the years was seeing his biological father show up on the Ricki Lake Show sometime after he was drafted. For 18 years he had never heard from Toney and now he was on TV.
“I had a good life,” O’Neal said to him. “I had my own room. I had grass to cut. I had neighbors’ grass to cut. Wasn’t fearin’ for my life. I had a couple fights here and there, but it’s not like walking around the corner and people shooting at you, and there was heroin and marijuana on the corner. I had a great life and I wasn’t complaining.”
In the 45 minutes or so of their visit, Toney told O’Neal his own story, some of which his biological son knew: Soon after O’Neal was born, Toney went to prison in Lexington, Ky. for running a check forgery operation, spending six years there. “I didn’t run away as much as get myself put away.” By the time he got out, Harrison had been stationed by the Army in Germany and had two more children with Lucille.
Bouts with cocaine and heroin and rehab followed, until Toney realized he would die if he did any more drugs. He told O’Neal he had been sober for 26 years. His only vice now, he said, was Newport menthols. He worked at treatment centers in various capacities after getting sober and had recently retired.
Everybody took pictures on their phones and O’Neal got on the phone for a few minutes with Toney’s two other sons, his half-brothers. Then O’Neal FaceTimed his mother in Windermere, Florida, saying, “Guess who I’m sitting next to, Ma?”
It had been four decades since she’d seen her high school boyfriend.
Toney looked into the lens of the phone: “What up, baby girl?”
Toney told O’Neal he was glad that Harrison had been in his life, that he gave him the discipline he needed and was the father Toney couldn’t be. But he reminded him who gave him his name, Shaquille Rashaun, which in Arabic means, “Little warrior.”
For 20 years, O’Neal’s closest friends have called him “Big.” Everything about him – size, career, public image, houses, cars – is big.
Forty-one points in the last game of an NBA Finals.
Fifteen All-Star teams.
But none of it bigger than the day he bent down to embrace Joe Toney and gave him the gift of forgiveness. That day, he was huge.
This story has been changed to correct the location where Joe Toney was imprisoned and the details of his history of addiction.