There are 15.5 million children living in poverty in the United States. For them, this isn't the most wonderful time of the year, but a sore reminder of what they don't have. It's a hard concept for kids who aren't living in poverty to understand, and try as I might to teach my children about giving back — both through my actions and my words — I'm never quite sure if I'm getting through to them. But I knew someone who could.
Shaquille O'Neal is a four-time NBA champ, three-time NBA finals MVP, and a 15-time NBA All Star — he's also one of my sports-obsessed sons' favorite players of all time. They love watching him on TNT — and who wouldn't? His smile and laugh are infectious. But Shaq is also a Toys for Tots ambassador who's been playing the role of Shaq-a-Claus for almost 20 years, giving toys to children in need to help make their holidays a bit brighter. This year, as he's done in the past, Shaq's teaming up with Toys "R" Us to collect toys for Toys for Tots and he wanted to stop by our POPSUGAR New York office to talk about his #PlayItForward campaign and the children who need help this holiday season. So I decided it was the perfect opportunity to bring my 6-year-old, my 9-year-old, and some of their friends to ask the superstar about his work.
Here's how the conversation went:
Minireporters: What inspired you to do this?
Shaquille O'Neal: My mother and my father. I urge all children to listen to their mothers and fathers. My mom was helping out some kids and she didn't want to call me for all of the money; she only wanted to take care of some of the kids. So when I showed up at the event, it was like a thousand kids and I told her, "Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it," and I went to a U-Haul . . . and got two U-Haul trucks and got a lot, a lot of toys and then I dropped them off to the kids.
MR: What do you like most about it?
SO: I like seeing little babies smile. I know what it feels like not to have any toys on Christmas. There were a couple of Christmases where my dad couldn't afford toys for all the kids. And — do you guys have sisters? You always have to take care of the sisters first, so my dad would buy Barbies and stuff and I wouldn't get anything. So I don't want any other kid to feel like that.
MR: What's the funnest thing you've done?
SO: A lot of times when I buy a lot of toys, I get a little jealous and keep one or two for myself. So now I've got a couple of drones. I've got a couple of remote-control cars. I like to have fun.
MR: What was your favorite thing you've been on?
SO: My favorite thing I've been on is the cover of Fruity Pebbles. I was on that last year. My favorite TV show is the one I do Shaqtin' a Fool. I do a lot of fun stuff.
MR: How tall were you in high school?
SO: I was 6'9" as a freshman. Didn't make the team as a freshman or a sophomore. Made the team my junior and senior year.
MR: How does it feel when you see kids smile?
SO: It makes you feel pretty good. And my message to little kids who aspire to be anything they want to be is to listen to their parents.
POPSUGAR: Besides the Toys for Tots drive, what are your favorite holiday traditions?
SO: Thanksgiving's a good one. I just like to see people happy. I'm the type. I'm 43. I've done it all. This Thanksgiving my family was scattered. I just stayed home and ate a few turkey sandwiches. I haven't received a gift in 15 or 20 years. People buy me gifts and I just put them away. I tell them, "You show me a movie where Santa receives a gift, then I'll take a gift."
MR: Who were your favorite players to play with?
SO: Kobe, D. Wade, Penny Hardaway, and Lebron.
PS: How do you instill your sense of charity in your own children?
SO: My children, every time they ask me for something, I tell them to round their old stuff up. One particular incident really made my kids appreciate and understand. We went to Salvation Army and we brought a box of toys and one of the toys — I didn't want to do it — was a Barbie with one arm, but I didn't want to throw it away. But when a little girl grabbed this Barbie, you should have seen how happy she was. And my little baby started crying. And that made her appreciate it. So like now she'll remind me, "I want some new toys; can we take my old toys?" In a perfect world, every child would wake up with at least one new toy.
I'm hoping the conversation got through to the kids a bit more than when I talk about it. I do know that when we got home that night, my boys found some toys that they've never even opened and asked when they could drop them off. In the meantime, Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us stores are accepting cash donations in store and online until Christmas Eve.