Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton says sexual assault allegations against him are not backed up by facts and are designed to attract media attention.
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are battling the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2019 NBA playoffs — despite being projected before the season to win just 20 games. Expectations weren’t high for the Clippers at the start of the 2000-01 season, either. Back then, on paper, the Clippers were the worst in the NBA.
“Led by the 19-year-old Darius Miles, the Clippers could be one of two things” read the final sentence of a New York Times’ NBA season preview, “one of the league’s most exciting young teams or a maddening bunch of knuckleheads still trying to learn the game.”
In June 2000, the Clippers had drafted Miles, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, out of high school with the No. 3 overall pick. Fifteen selections later, the Clippers took Quentin Richardson, a sophomore swingman from DePaul University. The two shared the same home state — Richardson a native of Chicago, and Miles from the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. They’d known each other since they were kids. And in Los Angeles, they became “The Knuckleheads” — a duo recognized across the league by their on-court celebration of two taps to the head with balled-up fists.
In their only two seasons together with the Clippers, Miles and Richardson emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Jordan handpicked the two phenoms to endorse his brand, and spoiled them with every pair of Air Jordans imaginable. They appeared on magazine covers, and made cameos together in films and on television shows. And both players had the respect of the early-2000s community of hip-hop. “For a minute there, we really were the culture,” Miles wrote in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, published in October 2018 and guest-edited by none other than Richardson.
Now, nearly two decades after being drafted together, Miles and Richardson are the retired NBA veterans with their own podcast. Of course, it’s called Knuckleheads, and just nine episodes in after its February debut, it has a 4.9 rating out of 5 on iTunes.
In the spirit of the podcast — which has produced unfiltered interviews with NBA stars from Allen Iverson and Gary Payton to J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — The Undefeated chopped it up with The Knuckleheads about everything from the night they were drafted, to the sneakers they wore in the league and the journey of their friendship.
How did you two meet?
D-Miles: AAU ball brought us together …
QR: Many years ago.
D-Miles: Q’s AAU coach came down to Southern Illinois …
QR: Larry Butler …
D-Miles: … Yeah, Butler was looking for players to play in a ‘spotlight’ he was having. It was the top Illinois players from the state. We’d come down and play in … kinda like a camp … When I came down, that was the first time I saw who Q was … When Larry saw how good I was, he invited me to a tournament and had me play [on his team] two grades above me. He had me playing with Q and them.
QR: Me and D-Miles hit it off from there. Once he began playing AAU with us and would come to Chicago, he would normally stay at my house. He would stay the weekend, and that’s how we got tight.
Fast-forward to the 2000 NBA draft. Was there any idea that you’d both get picked by the Los Angeles Clippers?
D-Miles: We were going through the draft process together. But we never thought it would be a possibility to play on the same team … We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers…I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers. When I ain’t get picked No. 1 or No. 2, the Clippers weren’t gonna pass on me. They picked me anyway, even if I didn’t wanna go there … Q kinda slipped in the draft.
Q: We didn’t think there was an opportunity for us to play together because the projections were so far apart. He was a top-5 projection. I was anywhere from nine to 20. It was a big gap. And neither of us worked out for the Clippers.
D-Miles: After the draft, we hop on a private jet and go to L.A.? I couldn’t have written it no other way.
How did it feel to be together — at 18 and 20 years old — living in Los Angeles?
D-Miles: We didn’t live close to each other…But we was with each other, shittttt, every day probably.
This is always the first question you ask guests on the Knuckleheads podcast. Who was the first player in the league to bust your ass?
D-Miles: The first one to really give me a lot of buckets was Chris Webber. He was jumping hooking my ass to death. I think he had like 35 or 36. I felt like, I at least got 28 or 30 of them points. Seem like he was scoring every time he got the ball on me.
Writer’s note: On Jan. 27, 2001, Sacramento Kings power forward Chris Webber scored a game-high 33 points and 11 rebounds against the Clippers and a 19-year-old D-Miles, who finished the night with a team-high 16 points.
QR: This was early in my rookie year … I think it was in preseason. We’re out in Denver. This was the first time about to go deal with the altitude. The player was Voshon Lenard. You’re like, Who is VoShon Lenard? I knew he could play. I knew he could hoop, but I was being disrespected out there. The first timeout came at six minutes, I came and sat down … matter fact, D-Miles and Keyon [Dooling] was sitting on the bench. They looked at me and just started laughing. My man had the quickest 17 points I’m talking about in the first six minutes, though … Firing my ass up! Giving me post work … hitting 3s … pump fake, one-dribble pullup. He was cooking my ass. And I was dead tired … But I did get him back! He was on the team when I got career-high against the Nuggets on New Year’s Eve [in 2003]. I had 44 on they ass.
You two have probably told this story a million times — but how exactly did you two land with the Jordan Brand?
QR: One of the best moments ever. If anybody knows MJ, you know about his Flight School camp for kids. And they would have some epic counselor games … Flight School used to be held at UC-Santa Barbara … two weeks … two sessions. When I went when I was in college, they brought Darius because he was one of the top high school players. We were both counselors. It was our first time going. Fast-forward to after we get drafted by the Clippers, we’re in L.A., which is an hour [by car] from Santa Barbara. When August comes, we’re like, ‘Man, we’re gonna go out there to the Jordan camp …’ because the runs used to be really good … At this point we had no Nike deal, but AND1 was courting us really hard. They had Larry Hughes, and a few guys we looked up to. We were rocking a whole bunch of AND1. After we get through playing pickup, MJ looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on? I thought y’all was Nike guys.’ Me and D-Miles were like, ‘We wanna be Nike guys…but a contract ain’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all gon’ be with us.’ We didn’t even know quite what that meant.’ Because Jordan Brand wasn’t what it was going to be. He just had the first years of it with Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley … Then our agent Jeff Weschler was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but Michael called up Nike and you guys are gonna be with him on some special team.’ We started getting flooded with the most gear you could imagine. Today they don’t give the same amount of gear they used to give. We got everything they made … Stuff that you wouldn’t wear, stuff that you have to give away because it was so much. We were literally in heaven.
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A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Apr 13, 2019 at 6:46pm PDT
What were favorite Jordans to play in?
D-Miles: Mine were the patent leather 11s … I watched Jordan my whole life, so when we had the opportunity to put them patent leathers on, I was just on superstar status. Nobody else in the league were really wearing these.
QR: We wasn’t those kids that were fortunate enough to have every pair of Jordans. My first pair I ever had came when I played AAU … My pops…the most expensive pair of shoes he was gonna buy me that were cool were Air Force 1s because they were $49.99 back then. My pops didn’t believe in buying Jordans that he knew I’m about to run through in two days … So for us to start getting Jordans? It was out of this world. Coming from Chicago and East St. Louis, being MJ fans, watching everything he did on WGN and public TV — for us, it was a dream. And every kid we knew from our hometowns were like, ‘I can’t believe y’all are on Team Jordan.’ And we could give all our friends, our family, our parents all the Jordan stuff they wanted … That was almost better than money to us at that point.
Do you still have a lot of your old Jordan PEs?
D-Miles: I just have a few. I left and went to Reebok, and I was under Allen Iverson’s line. Most of the Jordans I had, I gave them to these two kids. One was from Texas, and the other was from Memphis. My momma kinda built a rapport with they moms, and they was like me — young kids wearing a size 18 … So they didn’t have no options for shoes. So me and my mom shipped them out, I wanna say 40-50 pairs of shoes apiece. When my mom did it, all three moms were on the phone boo-hoo crying.
What’s your favorite PE?
QR: Awww, man. That’s hard for me to say … I was fortunate enough to play for teams that weren’t close to the Bulls colors. So a lot of my shoes were different. I think I would have to go with my Clippers, Knicks and Suns PEs … So I probably would go with the Knicks 2s or 5s. But then my favorite pair of shoes to play in — it didn’t really matter which color — were the Retro 13s. I have those is Phoenix and Orlando colors. The Phoenix ones I had different flavors. I had purple and white ones, I had orange and white ones, I had all-black with orange trim. Those 13s, were the most comfortable shoe for me to play in, because they’re wide and I got wide, flat feet.
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A post shared by @ qrich on Apr 23, 2013 at 8:54pm PDT
D-Miles: Mine are the ones I wore in that picture with Udonis Haslem. I was so used to seeing red and white shoes when I was with the Clippers. But I got to the Cavs, it was different colors. When they sent me those bright orange ones, I loved them. You don’t even know.
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A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Apr 2, 2019 at 6:18pm PDT
QR: I’m telling you — the orange did something! They looked superdifferent than any Jordan you’d ever seen. Back then, you’d never seen an orange Jordan.
You two appeared in a commercial for the Air Jordan 17. What comes to mind when you think of that shoot?
D-Miles: Spike Lee. We grew up on Jordan and all the Jordan commercials. When we heard Spike Lee was finna do it, when knew it was a big, big deal.
QR: We thought we was Hollywood, boy!
Writer’s note: The Air Jordan 17, crafted by African-American footwear designer Wilson Smith, drew inspiration from the “improvisational nature of jazz.” The 30-second, Spike Lee-directed spot, featured Miles and Richardson playing maestro on the court, and debuted a special remix the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” which the hip-hop duo originally co-wrote with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
D-Miles: It was an honor. A real, true blessing. Spike is such a legendary director, and it was with Jordan Brand.
QR: It was like, ‘We’re about to have our own Jordan commercial … We really have arrived.’ Me and my bro, together, in a commercial … We went to New York to do it. You get there, and it’s like, ‘Spike Lee is shooting it! … Marsssss is shooting it! This is epic.’ We had our own trailers. They got the gear laid out for us. That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m a star … We some stars up in here, boy!’ This was all new to us. Stuff that you dreamed about as a kid. But to actually live it, it was super dope.
D-Miles: Then to hear Spike Lee, when we first met him, say ‘D and Q.’ Like, ‘Oh, he knows us.’
And you can’t forget the Jump Men cover of Slam Kicks …
QR: I have a copy up in my office.
D-Miles: Back then, Kicks was big. There were other magazines that were bigger, but we were just happy to do anything with anybody who wanted to mess with us. We came straight from the streets, so we dressed a certain type of way. Of course, they were giving us drip, we put it on. We weren’t the typical people wearing that gear. We turned the jerseys backwards, do-rags on, hats cocked …
QR: I got a do-rag, with a headband on, hat to the back. I got a pinky ring on! We both got big ass chains on. We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture. That was what was going on. That was part of why people took to us. We were them — kids. We were 18 and 19, playing in a grown man’s league, representing other 18- and 19-year-olds. We dressed like them and did things like they did. We were trying to get into Hollywood clubs. We were too young, couldn’t get in … Literally, we showed up to training camp with Super Soaker guns. Media day, the first day of training camp, and we have those big ass Super Soakers strapped over our shoulders. They looked at us like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ … We were having fun, for real. And the best part about it was we were on this adventure together. Doing things that we never could’ve dreamed of. We got to spend New Year’s at Shaquille O’Neal’s house. And it was crazy. Like a fucking movie. We’re at Shaq’s big ass crib in L.A. To kick it with Shaq and be around him was enough … But Shaq was really rocking with us. He was showing us a good time and embracing us. Like, this is Shaq!
Where did that style come from — especially the backwards jerseys?
D-Miles: Kriss Kross started it, but that was just hip-hop culture. We grew up in hip-hop culture. The trend had kinda died down, because Kriss Kross did it in the early ’90s. Nobody was really taking chances, especially during photo shoots, except for Allen Iverson. We were young. Didn’t really care what people thought about us. It’s real traditional when you do photo shoots. They tell you to put your hands on your hips, like you’re a superhero. Put one hand on your hip, hold the ball on the other side. I used to be like, ‘Nah … ’
What was your relationship like with MJ during his last few years in the league?
D-Miles: Once MJ came back to the league [in 2001], we’d already known him for six or seven years, and it was a blessing. I love when I see the picture of me standing on the court next to Michael Jordan. I got that in my house. Those moments, those games we played against him, I’ll cherish them forever. We were on a West Coast team, so we only played him two times a year. But those times we played them those last two seasons? It was a dream come true.
July 30, 2002: D-Miles, that’s when you got traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers.
D-Miles: One of the worst days of my life. I ain’t wanna leave, or play with nobody else. I didn’t know how good I had it until I got traded. The crazy thing about it is when I did get traded, I was doing the movie The Perfect Score. I was all the way in Vancouver, when I heard the news like, ‘What?’ It wasn’t a good feeling. But I did understand the move. I loved Andre Miller. He led the league in assists on the worst team in the NBA. So I understand why the Clippers traded for him. But, I wanted to stay.
Writer’s note: The Clippers traded Miles and power forward Harold Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller and shooting guard Bryant Stith.
QR: We were kids. We were having all this fun. And that was the first time it was like, ‘This is a business … This is real … This ain’t a game or haha fun.’ … I love Andre Miller to this day, but I didn’t want that trade to happen. I was upset. I was mad. I was hurt.
Can you pinpoint an NBA friendship quite like D-Miles and Q since you guys?
D-Miles: A lot of guys didn’t grow up together like we did. We were around each other when we didn’t have money. One of the bonds I do see that’s close to what me and Q got is Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.
QR: They’ve been together for so long on the same team and same journey. And I don’t even count when D-Wade left. Let’s just throw that whole Chicago and Cleveland window out …
D-Miles: When did that happen!?!
QR: UD and D-Wade played their whole 15, 16 year careers together. They came in, got married, had families, brought kids up at the same time, have businesses together. They rebuilt that organization. But I’ve known Darius since he was in seventh grade, and I was in ninth grade. We got drafted together, played together and now 20 years later, we’re doing a podcast because we’re still tight like that.
How’s it feel to be reunited on the Knuckleheads podcast — and why was now the right time for it?
QR: The thing that makes the podcast is so dope, is it happened organically, almost accidentally. I did my story with The Players’ Tribune. He did his story with The Players’ Tribune. A third party was like, ‘Y’all should do something together.’ And D-Miles, he was originally opposed to the whole media thing. He was like, ‘I don’t want no microphones in my face.’ I’m moving into the media space, so I was open to it. We did a trial demo here on my patio, and it was cool.
D-Miles, is it weird being on the other side now — asking the questions instead of answering them?
D-Miles: It’s definitely weird. I’m not sure if I’d do too much more after this. Like Q said, I’m not big on microphones or cameras. I gotta feel comfortable to let my personality go. Kinda like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued. So you kinda got your guard up. With the podcast, I can kinda let go, laugh, joke and not worry.
QR: We’re tryna spark a real conversation. We don’t feel like we’re going to interview this person, that person. We feel like we’re about to see what’s up with this person and that person.
Are there any players you really want to get on the podcast?
D-Miles: Michael Jordan.
QR: That’s the GOAT. That’s our unicorn. But we got a lot of other players already committed that we can’t really share right now. We have some really, really, really big and good names … for season two.
What do you think you two have meant to basketball, and the culture, in the past two decades?
D-Miles: We carved out our space. I think that’s why we get the love and the respect that we get now. It’s overwhelming, and I’m definitely thankful and blessed to even have that. I only played two years with the Clippers, but every time people see me, they associate me with being a Clipper. I think it’s dope.
QR: I’m just superhumbled … I appreciate all the love, respect and support we get, from people who rocked with the Clippers. And we also get a lot of people that talk to us about the fact that we had that little bitty part in Van Wilder. It’s unbelievable to me how many people acknowledge that … To still be able to do stuff with D twenty years later, and they still remember us? People still remember that celebration, and still rock with it. That’s really cool to me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Hours before the Los Angeles Lakers’ thrilling 129-128 road victory on Feb. 7 over the Boston Celtics, the last bright spot of the Lakers’ season, LeBron James brooded. Though title aspirations were faint, his team was then 27-27 and in playoff contention.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James told Masslive.com after a shootaround at Boston’s TD Garden. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. … Even though I love the process of everything I go through, to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to come for championships … there’s nothing I’m chasing, or that I feel I need to end my career on.”
James’ mood that night, and the Lakers’ season as a whole, brings to mind Jay-Z’s ninth album, and the idea that James is living through his Kingdom Come season. Grand hype met with mammoth disappointment, Kingdom was highly anticipated. Released in 2006, the project was Jay-Z’s post-retirement album, and his career’s worst.
“First game back,” Jay-Z said in 2013, ranking the project dead last in his discography. “Don’t shoot me.”
Jay-Z then, like James now, was already a legend with credentials for Hall of Fame status. But there were expectations that came with Jay-Z rhyming and painting pictures into mics. A standard of excellence that James is familiar with.
Fast-forward a month and a half and the Lakers, currently 11th in the Western Conference, are officially eliminated from the playoffs. Suspensions, questionable offseason (and in-season) moves. Injuries, trade rumors and actual trades, Brandon Ingram’s health scare and Lonzo Ball’s family controversy — all these pieces matter when discussing what went wrong with a season that began with pageantry that vowed everything but a Lakers championship parade.
So for a Lakers fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2013, summer vacations starting in spring are, painfully, business as usual. Before the season, realistic projections had the Lakers winning 50 games, James capturing MVP for the fifth time and the team eventually falling to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
But now James is preparing to start the longest offseason he’s had since 2005, when the world looked different — Apple didn’t even have an iPhone, Zion Williamson hadn’t started elementary school and YouTube wasn’t yet a verb. James also finds himself in a familiar situation: on the receiving end of mountains of criticism.
A litany of critiques, observations and charges have emerged or re-emerged this season: James sat away from his teammates during a road loss to the New York Knicks. Growing up in a single-parent household is why he’s a bad leader and teammate. James killed the Lakers’ chemistry. LeBron has a dysfunction fetish. Los Angeles doesn’t love him. His defense has been worse than court-appointed attorneys. James is a coach killer, and not only is Lakers skipper Luke Walton next on his hit list — but James is supposedly the reason Doc Rivers squashed rumors that he wanted to coach the Lakers next. And: The Lakers should look into trading James this offseason.
There are even questions such as: Does James even still care about basketball? Did he really sit out a game against the Warriors because he was in the studio with 2 Chainz the night before? How do you get swept by the Knicks?
This is just the media. NBA fans are talking as well.
I say this reluctantly / ’Cause I do struggle/ As you can see / I can’t leave / So I do love you … — “The Prelude”
The texts in the group chat rang out back-to-back. To back. To back. Four of us, 30ish black male friends living in big cities who have been arguing about sports and life for more than a decade.
“The playoffs are LeBron-free for the first time in 14 years. And for the first time in seven or eight years, I’m interested in the playoffs.”
“Oh yeah … [LeBron] killed the game for me. Most definitely.”
“… his move to the West and missing the playoffs shows just how overrated he is. As if the 3-6 Finals record wasn’t enough.”
“Great individual player. But overrated as a winner, big time.”
And for good measure:
“His claim to fame has been dragging teams w/ limited talent to great heights. So what happened in LA? All I heard from Bron Bron last night after the game was excuses.”
“My prayers have been answered … LeBron won’t be part of the postseason and I can watch w/ renewed interest.”
Much of this, from both fans and the media, has been tucked in the chamber for years. But James isn’t solely to blame for this lost Lakers season. All chips on the table, his 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 51 percent field goal shooting still confirm him as a weapon of mass destruction on offense (although his 66 percent free throw shooting is well below his career average of 73.4).
And this performance has occurred after a groin injury that sidelined him for 18 games — and ultimately derailed the season. James’ physical therapist said the injury should have cost him most of the season.
After Sunday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, the reality of missing the playoffs called for perspective.
“I would never cheat myself,” James said in a Yoda-like tone after his 81st career triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), against Sacramento. “I know we’re out the playoff race, but if I’m on the court, I’m going to play how I play, and I play to win. So I will never cheat the game.”
But when you’re the best player in the world, and your team misses the playoffs in train wreck fashion, there’s not much to do other than fall on your sword. “Obviously,” James said last week, “I made a ton of mistakes. I wasn’t as good as I’m accustomed to being. I was pretty s—-y.”
Countless reasons exist why James encounters the level of criticism he does. A man of extreme extremes, his highs are incredibly high — à la the 2013 and 2016 NBA Finals. His lows are embarrassingly low — the 2011 Finals, and this season.
The energy that has surrounded him from the moment he burst onto the national scene almost 20 years ago has always been wild. There’s no way a phenom dubbed Michael Jordan’s heir apparent before graduating from high school gets middle-of-the-road coverage. He was pegged to redirect the sport and the culture around when he was getting investigated for driving a Hummer and dominating pros as a junior in high school.
Yet, how dare he be mentioned alongside Jordan, some say. Even worse, how dare he openly covet the GOAT title over Jordan? The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom. When he wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.
I ain’t talking bout the 2-3 / Mami in the zone like the homie two-three / Jordan or James, makes no difference/ We all ballin’ the same … — “Show Me What You Got”
In 2006, Jay-Z returned to rap with his first full solo album since The Black Album. It was culture’s most anticipated spectacle — much like James’ Hollywood arrival 12 years later. The three-year hiatus was a long break between solo projects, and the album arrived two days before Thanksgiving. Kingdom Come, however, felt like a lump of coal.
Jay-Z’s unbridled confidence hadn’t wavered, though, as he displayed on “Trouble” and on the album’s best number, “The Prelude.” But the album, akin to James’ inaugural campaign in Tinseltown, was panned as disjointed and anticlimactic — even as it sold more than 1.5 million copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop album chart and, in retrospect, may not have been as critically wack as it seemed at the time.
Just a few days ago, on March 24, James took to Instagram, after a disjointed and anticlimactic season, with a message — perhaps because, in his mind, next season has already begun. “Believe me!” he exclaimed. “Promise #LakerNation the spell won’t last much longer! I swear. The marathon continues.”
So now the Lakers’ 2019-20 season begins. It has to. And if there is one last mission for James to accomplish, it’s to reverse the current narrative just like he did after the backlash over 2010’s “The Decision.” If this season was his Kingdom Come, then next season is James’ own American Gangster — the Jay-Z album that even he dubbed “black superhero music” on the lead single “Roc Boys,” and which won near universal acclaim.
Maybe, just maybe, all this drama will have been worth it. Even with nothing to prove, Jay-Z had something to prove. And LeBron James, love or hate him, is cut from the same cloth.
NEW YORK — Papa John’s has a new face: NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.
The perennial All-Star and four-time NBA champion turned television commentator, pitchman and serial entrepreneur is joining the troubled pizza chain as what he calls a “triple threat”: its first African-American board member, a brand ambassador, and part-owner of nine franchises.
O’Neal said he had been in discussion with company officials for several months. He told the chain’s CEO Steve Ritchie, that “The only way I would want to be involved is if you got some diversity in your leadership,” O’Neal told The Undefeated. “He said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’ ”
Not long afterward, O’Neal got a call asking him to join the board of the nation’s third largest pizza delivery chain. “I said, ‘How about a triple threat?’ ” O’Neal recalled. “Board member; I want to invest in stores to show you I’m serious; and, of course, I’ll be an ambassador to the brand.”
O’Neal’s involvement with the company, announced Friday, is a crucial step in Papa John’s efforts to rehabilitate its image after back-to-back racial controversies that crippled sales, depressed its stock price, and eventually upended its leadership.
The turmoil was ignited by company founder John Schnatter, who was also the company’s chief executive, board chairman, and the smiling pitchman known in television commercials as Papa John. In late 2017, Schnatter caused a stir when he blamed a slump in Papa John’s sales on what he saw as the mishandling of NFL player protests by the league.
His objection, while widely shared, was backed not just by people who felt uneasy about players protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. It also drew support from white nationalists and avowed racists, who named Papa John’s their official pizza.
Then, last summer, the company was rocked after it was reported that he had used the N-word on a conference call during a training session. Schnatter said he had used the word not as a slur, but to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, he quickly disappeared from the chain’s television commercials and promotional materials as the company attempted to distance itself from its founder.
Before long, Schnatter was out as CEO and board chairman, too, although he remains the company’s single largest shareholder.
“All of that stuff was uncalled for and unacceptable. It can’t happen,” O’Neal said, adding that the fact “they have new leadership” made him comfortable with being involved with the chain. As a board member, O’Neal said, he hopes to help foster a more inclusive culture in the chain’s corporate offices, where there were also reports of sexual harassment and an otherwise toxic workplace culture.
O’Neal plans to appear in television commercials and make public appearances as part of his reported three-year, $8.25 million deal as an ambassador. He also said he intends to be a regular presence at the nine Atlanta franchises where he is now a part-owner.
“I want to be the one to help cultivate a new culture where everyone knows they are loved and respected,” O’Neal said. “I am not to say I am the savior, but this is a great opportunity.”
O’Neal has been involved in a broad range of outside businesses since the early days of his NBA career. He said he always admired former NBA stars who have gone on to business success, including Junior Bridgeman, the former Milwaukee Bucks swingman, who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants, and Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons guard who led a steel company and automotive supplier.
O’Neal said Magic Johnson, whose business interests range from movie theaters and restaurants to owning a slice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged him early on to think about leveraging his basketball career to launch a business career.
O’Neal said he started by buying a book that laid out the basics of business ownership. Since then, he has bought and sold Five Guys franchises, Krispy Kreme stores, and Auntie Anne’s locations, among other businesses. He also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as a piece of the Sacramento Kings.
“I try to draw on lessons from my basketball career in how I approach business,” he said. “I do not micromanage. If I was a leader of a team, I did not try to tell the point guard or power forward how they do their job. In business, just try to set a tone. The customer is always right. Have fun, and make sure the product is good.”
O’Neal earned an estimated $292 million during a 19-year NBA career in which he was heralded as one of the most dominant players in league history. Still, he said, he is equally proud of what he is doing as a businessman.
“I have six children,” he said. “And it is cute that their dad was the Shaq. But it is even cuter if their dad can own Krispy Kreme stores, or car dealerships, or other businesses. I want them to see me as something more than just a great basketball player.”