Chris Ayres in Los Angeles
At more than 7ft tall, with size 23 shoes, there is no mistaking Shaquille O’Neal, America’s most celebrated basketball star.
But after a 15-year career as one of the country’s most loved sports personalities – he once famously referred to himself “The Big Aristotle” for his philosophical postmatch interviewers – O’Neal has suffered a sudden and dramatic change of fortunes.
The problems began last year with the publication of a lurid memoir by Karrine Steffans, a former hip-hop ******* and porn star, in which the 35-year-old player for the Miami Heat had a cameo.
Steffans claimed that after O’Neal visited her apartment one night, he gave her $10,000 (£5,000) in cash and was “very upfront about the way [their] relationship would be”. She went on to claim that Shaq’s anatomy was “average – for a 5ft 4in man”, and that he sweated so much during their lovemaking that she had to turn over the mattress.
Although the tryst allegedly took place while O’Neal, who is often referred to as “Shaq”, was still a bachelor, it appeared to validate increasing concerns over the excesses of players in the National Basketball Association (NBA) – and a string of failed marriage and sexual scandals.
O’Neal’s marriage to Shaunie O’Neal, the Miami socialite, appeared to have survived the book, until the player filed a spectacularly acrimonious petition for divorce this week. It suggested that his wife had been stealing from him, and offered her full custody of their four children. There had been no warning of any problems within the O’Neals’ $32 million mansion on Star Island, Miami Beach.
O’Neal claimed in the petition that his wife was “secretive about her assets . . . particularly with respect to certain properties owned or titled in either her name alone, or in other entities”. It went on to describe the marriage as “irretrievably broken”, and requested that O’Neal’s wife give “a correct account of all money, funds, stocks, bonds, and other securities”.
Although Mrs O’Neal signed a prenuptial agreement when they were married five years ago, lawyers predict that the settlement could become one of the biggest in sports history, thanks to O’Neal’s $100 million contract and the tens of millions that he has made from sports endorsement deals and from previous player contracts.
O’Neal has also appeared in nine movies, made six albums, and appeared in countless TV shows and video games, including Shaq’s Big Challenge, an ABC reality show in which the player encouraged Florida children to lose weight.