Shaq's Mom Offers Wisdom About Life

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Lucille O'Neal, mom to NBA Superstar Shaquille O'Neal, has seen her fair share of challenges. A teen when she had Shaquille, she struggled to raise him and his siblings. Now her son is a world renowned sports star and she's looking back at the role she played in helping Shaq become Shaq. O'Neal, a mother of four, is proud of her famous son, but wants people to know she's a woman with her own story as well. O'Neal shares some of her enduring wisdom, which she has memorialized in her new book, "Walk Like you have Somewhere to Go."

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The Boston Celtics are one victory away from a pro basketball championship after their win over the Lakers last night. On display were the skills of superstars like Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Now, in the past we heard a lot about the fathers of superstar athletes. Tiger's dad Earl Woods comes to mind, of course. But in recent years we've come to hear a bit more about the moms of superstars.

We probably think we know them. We think of their big houses, fancy cars and expensive trinkets. There are plenty of those, to be sure. But one mom of a superstar wants to talk a bit more about what came before, in her case, anyway.

Lucille O'Neal is the mother of Shaquille O'Neal, and she tells us in a new memoir called "Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go." She describes how she struggled as a teen mom, as an alcoholic, and later someone who tried to stand between her son and those who would take advantage of his wealth and fame. And she tell us how she made it through to get to a place where she could value herself.

Lucille O'Neal joins us now from NPR member station WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. LUCILLE O'NEAL (Author, Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go): Well, thank you for having me. I'm honored that you would ask me to come just to talk with you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. That's very nice of you to say. I have to say, your story is very interesting. And while many people can do the math and realize that you were a teenager when you had your son, you have carried yourself so well through all these years and you've represented in such a dignified way for so many years that I think a lot of people might wonder why now you want to tell this back story, which I'm sure a lot of people did not know.

Ms. O'NEAL: Well, because they call me Shaq's mom, all they think about is Shaquille O'Neal and basketball. But I wanted everyone to know that I have four children. I have Shaquille, who's my oldest. And then I have Latifah, Ayesha and Jamal. I wanted people to also know that there's more to me than what they see.

So I had to go back and tell my story just a little bit, and it goes all the way back from when Shaquille was born. I was fresh out of high school, didn't need to be a mother at that time, but I had to accept the responsibility and do the best I could for this beautiful, beautiful human being.

MARTIN: You know, you went on the road with him, initially, when he first went into the league. Now, a lot of people might wonder what's that about. He'd been a college student at that point and he'd kind of grown. So, why did you go on the road with him?

Ms. O'NEAL: Well, he was still young and he was entering a whole new world. I needed to be assured that he was going to be okay. But he told me that he was all right. And when he told me that, it was after a year. And then I decided to really let him go and be a man.

MARTIN: You know, one of the other things you're candid about is that you had a struggle with alcohol for a long time as an adult. And you are very clear about some of the situations that you put yourself and your children in. You describe, for example, an incident where you were driving with your children in the car and one of the neighbors said, you know, if I see that again, I'm going to call, you know, social services. Talk to me a little bit more about that, if you don't mind. A lot of people I think will be surprised by that.

Ms. O'NEAL: I don't mind. We were living in Germany and you think about just think about drinking and driving. I didn't have far to go, but that's not the point. You have no business drinking any alcohol and getting behind a wheel of a vehicle. So, in the military, the dependents are responsible for one another and then the senior officers are responsible for the lower enlisted.

So this was the first sergeant's wife that came to me. And she warned me. She said, if I ever, just like a mother chastising her own child, if I ever see you do that again, you're putting your children's life in jeopardy, you're putting your own life in jeopardy. It was a wakeup call for me. And that really was the turning point in my life.

But I want to say, what started out as social drinking, it became a habit because you have excess money, you can buy excess alcohol. So there comes a point in time, okay, you're going to stop this or it's going to kill you. I did not want to be dead, I wanted to live.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mrs. Lucille O'Neal. We're talking about her new memoir "Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go: My Journey from Mental Welfare to Mental Wealth." And, you know, the other things you talk about in the book are that you've made some big changes in your life in your later years. You decided to go back to college in your 40s. And...

Ms. O'NEAL: Yes, I'm so happy about that.

MARTIN: Yeah, tell me, to the point where you were you know, there's one story you tell that's funny where you say that you - eventually some of the other kids, you were going to school with people who are your children's age. And at some point people figure out who you are. And they say, someone comes up to you and says, Ms. Lucille, you're Shaq's mom, you must be rich. Why are you here?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So what was your answer?

Ms. O'NEAL: I had to tell them the same reason why you're here. I came for education, not here to impress you, but I wanted to go to college for so long. Shaquille was born when I was got out of high school. I wanted to be able to, what we say, walk it like we talk it. So when the opportunity presented itself, I enrolled in college. And we make an investment in our children as they grow up and get older. But my children made an investment in me.

MARTIN: Can I ask you a tough question, though? You're very honest about the feelings of abandonment and - that you felt when your parents separated, your parents divorced and your father you were taken with your father's family to New Jersey, didn't see your mother for a long time. And you talk about just how that separation made you feel. And some of what you think it kind of evoked later on. And you're very clear you don't blame your parents for this.

But, you know, your son Shaquille has been very much in the news because of issues with his ex-wife Shaunie. And she wrote about this in Essence magazine, where she describes how he just moved out one day and left her to explain that to the children. And I did have to ask you, though, do you feel like your son has perpetuated something that you fought so hard to overcome?

Ms. O'NEAL: Well, I want to say this, anytime you read a story there are two sides to it and you've only heard one side and a lot of the stories are fabricated. I can't comment on that because I don't I did not live in their home. I can't tell you what he's feeling. I can't even tell you that whether or not that's the truth.

MARTIN: Well, though, his conduct with women outside of his marriage has been well-reported by many of these sides.

Ms. O'NEAL: Well, every fondness is not a sexual relationship. We are women. We are men. We develop friendships along the way. And so much is made out of that, not only for him, but for all of the athletes. And when you only hear one side of the story, it allows you as the reader to form an opinion before the truth is even known.

MARTIN: You write it in the book that, you know, Shaquille's his career in the NBA is winding down. He's still playing and still obviously very much valued. But his career is kind of moving into its next phase. And you've kind of blossomed, wouldn't you say? I mean, you've really kind of come into your own.

Ms. O'NEAL: Well, I have and that's why I say I'm proud of the woman that I've become. Opportunities were presented that were good opportunities because I went back to school. I now have initials. I have experience. I form my own relationships through the networking. If I have to get a job tomorrow, I believe that I can. So I'm preparing myself, also, for life after basketball.

MARTIN: You write: I can honestly say that I'm the most happiest and satisfied I've ever been with myself and my life. As women, we're so often led to believe through magazines, movies and TV shows that life ends after 40. They try to make us believe that once we reach that milestone we cease to exist if we have a wrinkled forehead, sagging anything, or no man to speak of, I'm a living and breathing testament that life begins and flourishes at whatever age you become comfortable in your own skin.

Do you have any wisdom to share for women who may not be as blessed as you are in a particular in material way, but who still want to find that peace that you have found? Do you have any wisdom for us?

Ms. O'NEAL: I have to tell you that the peace that we're looking for, instead of us looking around for it, we have to look within ourselves and find out truly what brings us joy and what brings us happiness. I had to find out what that was for me and that's why I'm so happy right now. And I stand as a living testament. And when I talk, I tell people that's not what anybody told me. This is what I know.

MARTIN: Lucille O'Neal is the author of the new book "Walk Like You Have Somewhere To Go: From Mental Welfare to Mental Wealth." It's available in most major bookstores now. She was kind enough to join us from WUCF in Orlando. Lucille O'Neal, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. O'NEAL: Thank you.

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Walk Like You Have Somewhere to Go

My Journey from Mental Welfare to Mental Health

by Lucille O'neal and Allison Samuels

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