Fashion has never been a big part of Shaquille O' Neal's life. Even as he lumbered on stage at the Reebok Classics booth at the Project Trade Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday to announce the re-release of his first two signature sneakers, the future Hall of Fame center sported just an oversized plain black t-shirt and a pair of jeans. The big fella admitted he really only has two styles, "homeboy" and the "I need to meet with Mr. [Bill] Gates" look—with nothing in between. But even as Shaq waxed poetic about his gleeful ignorance of trendy fashion in 2013, two things became clear. The size 22 "Shaq Attaqs" he wore on his feet were among the most hip things he's worn in the past decade; and he has become a large part of Reebok's effort to rebrand itself as a viable basketball sneaker company.
When it came to basketball performance shoes, Reebok was having trouble competing with Nike, Jordan Brand, Under Armour and others. After Washington Wizards point guard John Wall, the only prominent face of Reebok in the NBA, left for adidas last month, Reebok announced it would be leaving the basketball performance game altogether to focus on retro kicks, a strategy that Jordan Brand has successfully executed with Air Jordans for years.
"A few years ago, Reebok was accepted, but it wasn't where we are now," said Todd Krinsky, Reebok's vice president of Classics, Basketball and Entertainment. So Reebok turned its attention to its Reebok Classics branch, hiring producer/rapper Swizz Beats to lead the charge on retroing some of Reebok's most iconic basketball sneakers. They struck gold.
It began with the re-release of Allen Iverson's iconic "Question" sneaker. Then came Shawn Kemp's "Kamikaze II." Both were met with huge pre-release hype and flew off the shelves when they dropped in stores and online. Reebok Classics had pushed itself back into the basketball shoe market with some serious heat, but it appears the brand is just getting started. Its next big move for 2013? Bring back the "Shaq Attaq" and "Shaqnosis" Shaq's first (and only) two signature kicks with Reebok as a member of the Orlando Magic, shoes he debuted all the way back in 1992 and 1993.
"It's an honor," said Shaq, of his shoes being retroed. "Kudos to the kids for bringing them back, because it ain't people like me that's bringing them back. Kids really take pride in their fashion these days, and really take pride in being the first ones in the school with [the shoes]. In '92 [the Shaq Attaqs] were hot and they can still be hot now."
There was a palpable excitement in the room for the release announcement. Sneakers have become a huge part of NBA culture (just look at all the different footwear that debuted at All-Star Weekend). Footwear fashion statements were nowhere near as prominent back in Shaq's early days. Shaq said guys weren't checking for each other's sneakers or trying to one up each other in the footwear category nearly as much back then, but he always tried to do things a little outside of the box during his career.
"Everybody was trying to compete with [Michael] Jordan, except me. I had a name, I had status, so I was just trying to build my status up. I wanted to do stuff that was out of this world. Stuff that would make people go 'ohh' or 'ahhh.' That was my style."
Shaq could feel the buzz in the air during the short press conference. His mood was light as he joked about his rap album failings ("Two went platinum, two went gold, and two went wood.") and his inability to break backboards anymore. But although the Big Aristotle seemed genuinely surprised at the hype surrounding his old shoes, Reebok's first athlete to have his own signature sneaker could remember his inspiration for the Shaq Attaq and Shaqnosis like it was yesterday.
Shaq wore his Shaq Attaqs throughout the 1992-1993 season, when he would go on to win the Rookie of the Year award, giving fans a glimpse of the utter dominance that he'd bring for years to come.
That season, "I was just letting people know who the Shaq Attaq was," said Shaq.
But Shaq fondly remembers the Shaqnosis, his second signature shoe, which he began wearing in 1995. The shoe's swirling pattern could play tricks on the mind. It was a hit with fans, but it caused some controversy among the executives at Reebok.
"When I brought that shoe to the big time, the people upstairs didn't like it. They thought it wouldn't sell. But I was having such a good year and all the retailers liked it and it was just selling off the shelves," said Shaq. "They really liked the name. They were like, how'd you come up with the name? If you look at that s**t long enough, you'll get hypnotized. One day I was looking and I was like, what am I going to name it? I got real dizzy and I was like Shanqnosis."
If all this reminiscing about basketball made Shaq long to play in the NBA again, you couldn't tell. He's currently content with owning multiple business (including 55 "Five Guys" restaurants) and working as an NBA analyst for TNT. He seems to be at peace with retirement from the game, especially after admitting that he overextended his playing career to chase Wilt Chamberlain.
"After I got my four championships, I was playing for the wrong reasons. That's why I got hurt. I was playing to try to pass up Wilt Chamberlain," said Shaq. "I was like, if I average 15 points [per game] this year and next year, I'll pass him up, an then I'll be known as the most dominant player in the world. I don't want to hear his name no more. That was my whole thought process. I've never thought like that before. I got taught a lesson, and, bam, my Achilles popped, so I had to stop. When you go against your rules and your own principles, something bad will happen."
If Reebok is going to make a sustained comeback in the basketball sneaker world—and it certainly seems like it's well on its way to becoming a major player again—it has the past to thank.
"Let everyone understand that Reebok is back," said Swizz Beats. "Staying consistent, staying true to the market, giving the people what they want and now actually competing, I think it's a blessing, and I want to commend everyone for sticking with us through the long haul."
As things wound down at the Reebok Classics booth, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin walked by and gave Shaq a bearhug and a kiss on the head before telling him how proud he was of him. It's good to have O'Neal back. Shaq has always been one of the most charismatic personalities in basketball, and he seemed ecstatic to be back in the spotlight with Reebok. Sometimes looking backward can help you move forward, and the partnership between Shaquille O'Neal and Reebok is doing exactly that for both parties.
The Shaq Attaq drops on April 19 for $160, followed by the Shaqnosis on July 19 for $125.