Shaquille O’Neal has had a larger than life career. After becoming the number one overall pick in 1992, Shaq went on to win 4 NBA championships, an MVP and became an icon that transcended the game. He wrote best selling rap albums, starred in movies, and was named the 12th best player all-time in “The Book of Basketball” from Bill Simmons in 2010. Shaq continues to be an icon even after leaving basketball, engaging in charitable events and now produces films. One of those recent projects is “Killer Bees,” a film that follows the Bridgehampton School basketball team on its quest to win a state championship.
“Killer Bees” is an inspiring story, following students and a very charismatic coach through their struggles. Basketball is a big part of the player’s lives, but the community that sits in the shadows of luxury. The predominantly black team represents the community and high school well, winning multiple state titles. Yet gentrification and inequality looms large over the community. Trying to raise the issue of inequality in these communities, Shaquille O’Neal, sat down to discuss “Killer Bees,” the lessons we can take from the Bridgehampton team, and the summer release “Uncle Drew,” which hopes to break into the Best Makeup race.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: How did you get involved with “Killer Bees?”
Shaquille O’Neal: A friend of mine Glenn Fuhrman, we’ve done a lot of projects together and he actually lives up there, wanted me to see this film that was very interesting. So when I saw it, I said “What part of the Hamptons is this?” I’ve always gone to the Hamptons and lived a great life up there so I didn’t know it. It was just on the other side of the Hamptons I knew nothing about. I’ve been going up there for 25 years, renting houses, have a good life, renting boats, even renting a car and driving around. Being that I’m a basketball player, I got to relate to all the stories of the kids and you know, their everyday lives. I just thought it was a very interesting film.
AF: What part of the process reminded you the most of your experience growing up?
SO: Well just like the kids in Bridgehampton I went to a small school. We also won state. We dominated. All the basketball stuff I could relate to. Then there was all the stuff the kids were going through. Not being able to pay rent, not knowing if you’re going to be able to make it to college. I had to go through all those struggles. Fighting, jails, shots. All of that stuff.
AF: One of the things I find very interesting is that the town is on the edge of gentrification all the time, but the people are very prideful of their community. What do you think is an important lesson we can take from that?
SO: You know, every town as the same feeling. They have the same prideful feeling but not all of them can survive. It is unfortunate, but if they sell their land they’re only going to see a small price. The developers will triple or quadruple that amount. I was driving around the Hamptons and I saw a piece of property. It wasn’t a nice piece of property but it was still starting at $12 million.
SO: Yeah, and what could happen is that they’ll go to these people, and offer a number they’ve never heard of. Like “hey, we’re going to give you $800,000” and they can’t turn it down. But then the developer will redevelop it, put a couple big homes on it and just sell it.
AF: Now a lot of documentaries that follow a sports team will focus on the achievements of the team on the court. However, “Killer Bees” really looks at the players off the court. How important was it to you to show a realistic side of their lives when you decided to come on board?
SO: I just wanted to show the real stuff. I didn’t want it to be one of those stories that are only about being triumphant. Listen, every team that is dominant had their time. But then it comes to a point where they have to rebuild. Luckily or unluckily, we were filming when they were rebuilding. We got to see all the personal stuff going on and the kingdom fell. But when as the kingdom was falling, you had people selling houses and realizing, “This school is on 50 acres. We don’t really have that many students, maybe we should sell this land, blah, blah, blah. There was a lot of stuff going on, and we were there for it.
AF: What about Ben Cummings and Orson Cummings gave you faith this movie would work?
SO: Well, I liked the way we shot it. We worked as a team and they listened to my tidbits. I told them you should try this or try that, and they did. Coming from winning all those championships, I’m really big on the team concept. I’ve got the Orson directors, I’ve got this amazing PR team, I’ve got Glenn Fuhrman, I’ve got myself. This is a beautiful team here, and I was really happy about the way they put it together.
AF: Do you prefer being more hands on when you are a producer? Or do you prefer being hands-off and letting them bring work to you so you can give notes?
SO: Well, a little bit both. As a leader, I never really liked to micromanage and tell people to do this or do that. These guys are professionals also, they know what they’re doing. At the end, I’ll then say what about this or that. In the process, I don’t have to say it, but I can suggest it.
AF: How did making “Killer Bees” differ from executive producing “This Magic Moment,” the 30 for 30 on the early 90’s Orlando Magic teams? What are some of the differences between those two projects?
SO: Well, “This Magic Moment” was chronicling stuff that people had a brief memory of (laughs). The only people who probably didn’t know about that stuff were people who were young in the day. This film, this history? I don’t think very many people knew about. I’ve been going to the Hamptons for 25 years and I felt bamboozled. If I had known 10 or 15 years ago, I felt like I could have helped a little bit. The fact that I had been going there for so long and not knowing that there was this side that struggled, you know, maybe I could have gone over there and helped out the team, played with the kids or passed out some toys. I’m big on charity work.
AF: Do you see “Killer Bees” as an attempt to help this community, or potentially help shine a light on other communities like this one?
SO: A little bit of both. There are a lot of the same issues all over. When I was living in Orlando, there was a town right next to me. I leave and come back one year, and all of a sudden they have houses similar to mine in this town. Somebody came and offered the people I knew money, and they moved away. There’s not very much land going around, so when you have a good piece of property, developers are licking their lips. There is no better place than “The Hamptons.”
AF: Now there’s obviously a long history of good documentaries focused on basketball. You’ve got “Hoop Dreams,” “More Than a Game,” the dozens of “30 for 30” films. What about basketball makes it such an interesting subject matter for documentaries?
SO: Well from my experience there are only two things that bring people together no matter what is going on. Those are sports and music. No matter what the sport is, people will sit down, forget about their stresses and just enjoy the time. Basketball is a highly popular game, and you get to talk about these kids and their struggles. They’re struggling in a part of a rich community, but they’re so focused that on being dominant they win state, and you wonder if they can do it again. Again, sports and music are the only things I’ve ever seen where people can sit down for two or three hours and stop hating each other.
AF: Do you believe the basketball team is a big reason why the school remains open today?
SO: Of course! Winning is everything. But if they start losing, the screws are going to start tightening. Trust me.
AF: Now one of the players, Jemari Gant, is a really interesting story in the film. He comes off the bench in his first year on the team, but he’s a senior. At the end of the film, you realize there are other things going on behind the scenes. How did you guys consider using his story throughout the film?
SO: Well he has a very compelling story, and he’s an inspirational leader on the team. This is stuff people go through. We’re on top one moment and then you hit bottom and have to work your way back to the top. His story, and the coaches story, about how he was one of the guys that could have made it out of the hood but didn’t because of a tragic incident, I think those are the stories that need to be heard. There’s a lesson there, don’t play with weapons.
AF: I think Coach Johnson’s story was really inspiring too. Especially because he bounces back and gives back. How important do you think it was that an alumnus took over the basketball team?
SO: Man, I think it’s really important. He knows how to relate, what these kids are going through, and he knows most of the parents. He was in their shoes. And I always said when you show that you’re a champion, the resume speaks for itself and people will follow suit. If he wasn’t from the area, but came into the town with that language and tried to teach or coach, but they didn’t know who he was, he would have a hard time. But because they know that he went through the same struggles and was a hell of a player at the same school, all the parents say “we trust you.”
AF: What is the most important lesson that you hope lessons take away from this film?
SO: The love of the game. The strength of the community. Never giving up, but still having fun.
AF: Now, I’ve got a couple quick questions for “Uncle Drew,” which will be makeup contender for the Oscars. You were one of the stars of the Harlem Buckets team and had to get some of that makeup put on. What was the process like for you?
SO: Well, we would get up at seven in the morning, and it would take about four hours to put it on. It was also really hot in Atlanta, so sometimes we would sweat in a scene and have to take another two hours to redo it. They did a wonderful job though. The making of the masks was the scariest part. You had to stick your face in this clay and breath through straws for about an hour. But it was worth it.
AF: How did you get involved? Did Kyrie approach you to be in the movie?
SO: Well my agency represents Kyrie. So when they said they needed a guy to play “Big Fella” there is only one big guy with acting experience and that’s me.
AF: So to finish up, I have a basketball nerd question for you. Do you think that the Harlem Buckets, with you, Kyrie, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, and Nate Robinson, would beat the players from “the Monstars?” That’s Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, and of course Charles Barkley.
SO: Oh we’d kill ’em. (laughs) We would KILL them. All day every day.