In a year of over-calculated sports doc profiles, his HBO series about basketball’s greatest showman pinpoints what many of these biographies get wrong.
Shaq knows what Shaq knows: The only reality in sports is what you see in front of you. On the field, on the court, in the record book, what you know for sure is the score. Anything else is fodder for the narrative.
In Shaquille O’Neal’s life, there have been plenty of legend-making opportunities along the way. From his childhood in a military home to a high school and college star to a roller coaster, Hall of Fame NBA career, O’Neal has a wealth of stories for every season. They didn’t all make it to “Shaq,” the four-part doc series premiering this week on HBO, but you couldn’t ask for a better tour guide through a life that spanned the worlds of television, film, music, advertising, and yes, basketball.
Director Robert Alexander knows it’s not enough to rely solely on a charismatic central character to get a Sports Doctor like this. The best of these fit the mold surrounding the person they are profile, rather than the other way around. So rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all model, Shaq approaches each of the four eras of his life–rise, glory, decline, and reinvention–in a style that is entirely unique. This is best exemplified by Episode Two, which pairs each new conversation and introduction with comic book-style animation and speech bubbles, a marked difference from the energetic, quiet chapters with which it ends.
There are many math docs that try to match theme and style the way some people try to match songs to mood. The ESPN series “The Captain” took a grandiose, open-ended approach with Derek Jeter because that’s how you’d expect a slick media star-turned-celebrity to deliver, in the same way you reflexively choose a moody minor-key song for the soundtrack of a day. rainy. We know how it all goes together.
Instead, Shaq realizes that Aristotle’s great personality and reach transcends his storytelling style. His interviews here are marked by a polish he explains that comes from having a father censor and from years of private media practice during his college years. The timbre of O’Neill’s voice rarely changes, but Alexander manages to tap into the distinct energy that comes with every slight change in the emotional shades on offer. O’Neal is dynamic enough to go from excitement to resentment to goofball, just by varying the size of his smile or the length of his pauses. Shaq is always ready to transform with him just right.
It’s a nice reversal of earlier this year’s Apple TV+ Magic Johnson docuseries “They Call Me Magic.” During his college and NBA days, Johnson excelled at embracing his status as a media darling, more like a golden child than a court jester. More time has passed since the end of his career—O’Neal’s rookie season came shortly after Johnson’s last full season—so “They Call Me Magic” carries a haze of nostalgia. O’Neal’s career was barely over a decade old – he was still playing even then this is cement him as an early Twitter legend – making this project something of a time capsule. O’Neal doesn’t look sad. If anything, he has the skill to make his past seem that much closer.
And it’s all reinforced by the idea that O’Neill never knew he shy away from excitement. “Shaq” isn’t exactly an “F for Fake” for sports docs, but there’s a quick acknowledgment above that a story It’s what makes a good story. In a weird way, that’s enough to give this a more natural basis than any other one-themed sports doc series to date in 2022. “Shaq” leaves room for disagreement, alternate memories, and even times when O’Neil used the exact same words to describe Something in a different interview decades ago. This seems somehow closer to the truth.
Another way in which “Shaq” emerges from the shadow of its doc peers is by finding a balance between targeting existing fans and being an in-depth explainer. There are enough tiny bits for those who know where to look and listen. (Perhaps the best example: “Shaq” includes voice-overs from Ernie Johnson as a young sportscaster and footage of a court scramble match with Charles Barkley. Both would become O’Neal fighters on TNT’s studio show “Inside the NBA.”) “Shaq” just dips his toes in the weed. On technique or triangle attack. But when the time comes to revel in O’Neill’s starring success, Alexander opts for a more abstract and emotional representation of the moment rather than just a collection of standout clips.
Perhaps most importantly, “Shaq” shares O’Neal’s sense of humor. When he talks about his partying days as a younger player, he’s a giant [REDACTED] flashes across the screen. Alexander points at the sound effects to go along with O’Neill’s space-worthy improvisation work. No franchise has been quite dismissed like the Clippers here, when O’Neal smacks them away as “tramps.” At one point, O’Neill quietly states “One of my superpowers is that I can stop time” with the confidence of someone who not only did that, but did so often.
Many viewers will likely be drawn to this doc curious about the relationship between O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, fellow Los Angeles Lakers quarterback. Bryant’s death in 2020 means Shaq doesn’t quite get the full scope of her interpersonal rise and fall. But as “The Captain” with Jeter and Alex Rodriguez showed (a similar case for players of a generation whose partnership was split by public feud from a shared locker room), these things are fleeting even if you get both versions straight from the source. Shaq is most effective by drawing inspiration from its subject matter, rather than appearing to serve it up.
Other visionaries at the documentary level here are not tripartite ruler either. Early on, when describing a period in his childhood in Germany, O’Neill introduced it by saying “I hate using that word ‘depression.'” He shared a story about Mahmoud Abdel Raouf as if he were giving the audience an exclusive. For him, a coach’s gift of a philosophy book is something that performs. to a self-bestowed nickname and a brand new opportunity, all done without barely turning the pages.With so much already in the public consciousness about O’Neal as a basketball player, Shaq exploits a more satisfying goal: how the showman sees himself.
“Shaq” airs every Wednesday at 9 PM on HBO, and new episodes are also available to stream on HBO Max.
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