Shaq’s Raw Truth With Jason Kelce: Loneliness Hits Hard

The NBA legend’s vulnerability on his podcast shed light on the need for Black men to take care of their mental health. (Credit: Screenshot via YouTube)

by Joseph Williams

Is Shaq OK? 

That question was on many minds after NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal said last weekend that his “dumb***” mistakes and errors in judgment cost him “his whole family” — including his six children — and left him living alone in a vast, empty mansion. 

In a moment of introspection on his podcast, “The Big Podcast With Shaq,” O’Neal told Jason Kelce, a pro football lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, to embrace being a husband and father when he steps away from the NFL. Kelce, brother of Travis Kelce, a star tight end for the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, has said he is thinking of retiring.

“My advice to you is if you are going to retire, accept it, enjoy your family, brother,” O’Neal said. “I made a lot of dumb*** mistakes to where I lost my family, and I didn’t have anybody. That’s not the case for you.”

“So, enjoy your beautiful wife, enjoy your beautiful kids, and never dwell on what we had” as pro athletes, O’Neal said. “What we had is what we got — you got the ring, people know who you are, enjoy. Because, again, I was an idiot, and I’ve talked about it a long time. I lost my whole family (but) I’m in a 100,000-square-foot house by myself.”

The candid advice for Kelce, and tacit admission of loneliness, was a remarkable moment of vulnerability for O’Neal, an NBA Hall of Famer, pro basketball analyst, and celebrity pitchman for products ranging from computer printers to a national pizza chain. On the surface, Shaq seems to have it all.  

The admission to Kelce, however, was so sad it led Slate staff writer Joel Anderson to comment on X, formerly known as Twitter, “I really hope Shaq is seeing a therapist. He sounds so regretful, so lonely.”

At the height of his career, O’Neal — 7 feet 1 inch tall, some 300 lbs. and a dominant force on the court — was the image of success, invulnerability, and Black masculine power. Winner of four NBA championships and several Most Valuable Player awards, many consider him among the greatest players in league history. 

In his conversation with Kelce, however, O’Neal went fully against type, frankly discussing the price he paid for womanizing and putting his career ahead of his family. He also inadvertently put a spotlight on a serious health issue among Black men: loneliness.  

A Hidden Epidemic Among Black People

A study by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that loneliness is a hidden epidemic among Black people, with 1 in 3 reporting they had frequent feelings of loneliness. By comparison, among whites and other ethnic groups, 1 in 4 people had reported loneliness some or all of the time.

Compounding the issue: stigma among Black people when it comes to mental health. 

Black people “hold beliefs related to stigma, psychological openness, and help-seeking, which in turn affects their coping behaviors,” according to Mental Health America. In a study, MHA found that participants “were not very open to acknowledging psychological problems, but they were somewhat open to seek mental health services,” and Black men were significantly less likely to seek treatment than women.

Last year, creators of the popular dating app BLK held a “loneliness retreat” exclusively for Black men at a resort in the California desert. Called Brotherhood Reimaged, the retreat was designed to help Black men connect with one another, learn about their feelings, and explore a range of topics, including sex, dating, and masculinity. 

In his conversation with Kelce, O’Neal did not say he is grappling with depression, but he has hinted at it in the past, referring to his absent children. 

“I don’t like to use the D-word because I don’t really know what it is, but I was lost — 76,000-square-foot house by yourself — lost,” O’Neal said in 2022 on the Pivot Podcast, reflecting on his mistakes. “No kids. Go to the gym, nobody’s playing in the gym. You go to their room, nobody’s there. You start to feel it, you know.” 

It’s widely known that O’Neal, 51, had been involved with many women during his NBA career but only married once. The basketball star previously confessed he was a “serial cheater.” 

He married Shaunie Nelson in 2002 after their son, Shareef, and daughter, Amirah, were born. The couple had another son, Shaqir, and a daughter, Me’arah, but broke up in 2007. They reunited in 2009 but split for good not long afterward; she married Keion Henderson in 2022. Both O’Neal and his ex-wife each had a child from a previous relationship. 

In his advice to Kelce and admitting his mistakes, Shaq was matter-of-fact and not particularly emotional — and he says learning how to deejay, among his other projects, gives him the same rush as playing in the NBA. 

But it’s clear that O’Neal would rather be a family man.