Shaquille O’Neal’s experience with police shapes his new initiative with Pepsi in NBA cities

The words carried significance for reasons beyond Shaquille O’Neal’s stature as a former NBA star as well as a Black man. O’Neal’s perspective on how police and local communities can improve relationships also stems from growing up in a law enforcement family.

“There definitely needs to be reform – reforming some of the laws, reforming some of the tactics and reforming policing itself,” O’Neal told USA TODAY Sports. “Once you recognize the change and put people in place that can make those changes, it could be a whole different world. I don’t think what happened in the 1960’s is going to fly with the youngsters these days. So sometimes you have to use a little bit of police reform.”

O’Neal admitted he does not have all the answers. Still, there have been ongoing protests this year regarding the killings or shootings involving unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. So O’Neal wants to become part of the solution with mending fences.

That partly explains why O’Neal and his foundation have partnered with Pepsi for its “Pepsi Stronger Together” initiative, a nationwide project that will take place in various NBA markets that will involve local charities and law enforcement. The dates are not yet finalized, but Pepsi has committed to events in Orlando (sometime in November), Miami, Washington D.C. and Memphis. Derek Lewis, president of Pepsi's South Division, added it plans to lock in other commitments in 2021 and that “each city will have its own tailored initiative.”

In Orlando, Pepsi, the Magic and the Change the Game Foundation will host a series of conversations with community leaders, city youth, the Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In Miami, Pepsi plans to donate $10,000 to Heat police training programs.

In Washington D.C., high school students will meet with Wizards players, celebrities, the D.C. Metro Police Department and the Close the Gap Foundation to talk about issues involving voting, racial injustice, education and mentorship. In Memphis, the Grizzlies and Pepsi will oversee a six- to seven-week basketball program “focused on building bridges between youth and law enforcement.”

“The first thing we need is conversations. When I was growing up, there was something called ‘neighborhood policing.’ We don’t really have that anymore,” O’Neal said. “Everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody in the neighborhood. It starts there. Then there’s respect. Then there’s communication. Even though things seem to be way out of control and spiraling downward, we can plug in some easy to-dos and things will start to get better.”

O’Neal has that perspective after growing up with two uncles that worked as police officers in Newark, New Jersey. He has worked in reserve police roles in Miami Beach and Golden Beach. And he was sworn in last year as an auxiliary deputy with the Broward County Sheriff’s office to help with community work.

So considering that O’Neal has had an endorsement deal with Pepsi since his NBA rookie season (1992-93), company spokesperson Elisa Baker approached O’Neal about participating in this initiative earlier this month.  Pepsi had launched “Pepsi Stronger Together” in May, which entailed providing supplies to front-line workers and donating meals.

“The first thing you recognize when you sit down with Shaq is he cares about everyone. So in his mind, there is no one left behind,” Lewis said. “Because of his connection with law enforcement, his connection with sports and his connection with the grass-roots communities, he’s involved with everything. He is an absolute perfect catalyst with partnering with our organization.”

O’Neal plans to attend the event in Orlando, and will be involved in the other events virtually. He also plans to become involved with the additional events depending on his schedule that includes NBA analyst duties with TNT. The initiatives will go beyond the programs between police and local communities.

In Orlando, Pepsi, the Magic and the Close the Gap Foundation will also provide de-escalation and self-defense training courses with counselors at Harbor House of Central Florida, which works with domestic abuse survivors and their children. They also plan to provide outdoor basketball courts at the Harbor House facility.

In Miami, Pepsi and the Heat plan to auction off prizes, including tickets and team memorabilia and will donate funds to support minority-run restaurants and provide families with meals during the holidays.

In Washington DC, Pepsi and the Wizards plan to refurbish basketball facilities at the Navy Yard as well as work with local artists to paint murals on some of the courts. In Memphis, Pepsi, the Grizzlies Foundation and local HBCUs will oversee an eight-week mentorship program that will pair college students with high schoolers. Those partners plan to give participating college students paid internships.

 “I don’t want to answer that like I have all the answers. But I know that in the communities where I live at where Pepsi and myself are doing, it’ll help,” O’Neal said. “It’s not the all-in, all cure. But it’s helping. Before you build a high rise, you got to build a foundation. You got to build the first floor and the second floor. So this is going to take time. But with what Pepsi and I do, hopefully this is a blueprint for other big Fortune 500 companies to follow.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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