I recently had a chance to interview the mother of NBA star, Shaquille O'Neal, Lucille, whose inspirational book, Walk Like You Have Somewhere to Go (Thomas Nelson 2010), has just been published.
Before I get to the interview, I want to say I loved Lucille's book! It is one of those books you just cannot put down. I'll be the first to admit I do not follow professional basketball enough to know much about her son, Shaquille "Shaq" O'Neal, other than knowing that he is a future Hall of Famer.
My main interest in reading the book was to learn more about how a mother raises an elite athlete who is also a wonderful person. While writing about youth sports and running MomsTeam has given me the opportunity to talk and interview many parents of elite athletes over the years, I have only felt that I really got to know a few of them. After reading Lucille's book I felt like I really knew her.
Raised by a sharp-tounged abusive grandmother, Lucille spent her first thirty-six years working to overcome all the challenges life put in her path. Growing up during the Civil Rights era of the 1950's and 1960's and in a place, Newark, New Jersey, especially hard on African-Americans, Lucille suffered from a total lack of self-esteem and confidence, what she called a "mental welfare state."
But she found strength in her faith and in her mother Odessa's love. "We both hated conflict of any kind, and we both worried constantly about other people's opinion of us. We both also felt that other peoples happiness was always much more important than our own. Though I didn't know it then, this is exactly how mental welfare thrives and survives."
Teased because she was so tall (she was already six feet by age twelve), Lucille fought her way through high school and had a serious scrape with the law. But, every time she got back on track, she would suffer another setback. A year from graduating high school, Lucille got pregnant with the first of her four children, Shaquille ( Muslim for "little one"). Ridiculed and verbally abused by her grandmother, it is hard to imagine how Lucille was able to raise Shaq into the person he is today.
Looking back over the years, Lucille agreed with me that "even though times were really tough, they were part of a master plan." I told Lucille that, as bad as things in her life were, it was wonderful that she could look back now and say, "If that did not happen, then an important lesson would have been missed."
The book recounts how it wasn't until Lucille divorced her second husband and realized that she was the glue holding her family together that she was able to emerge from the "mental welfare" maze in which she found herself and truly blossom. Finally on her own, her four children grown, Lucille went back to school, eventually earning not only an undergraduate degree, but a Master's.
As difficult as life was during the first 37 years of her life, it taught Lucille many life lessons, which she has shared in her book and as a motivational speaker.
So I was curious to find out what advice Lucille had for MomsTeam's audience of parents about raising young athletes, especially in these tough economic times:
Brooke: Today, we learned that police in Orlando had used a stun gun to subdue the stepfather of a Celtics basketball player, Marquis Daniels, after he responded angrily to some Magic fans who were teasing his son during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. You talk in your book about your history of anger issues, especially in your teen years. We are all such mama bears when people diss our children. How do you control your anger as a mother when fans or the media have mean words for Shaquille?
Lucille: For every action, there is a reaction. When you fight with the NBA fans you are constantly fighting. I learned very early on that the media is going to say what they will and some fans will say anything they want, so there is no use arguing with them. It is a waste of time so I learned how to ignore them and be positive.
Brooke: In the chapter of your book called "The Best Of My Life" you wrote this about Shaquille: "When he first decided he wanted to become a professional basket ball player, it seemed so far-fetched to me then, but Shaquille was always convinced it was going to happen. Part of my disbelief in him achieving his dream was connected to the fact that I was so preoccupied with the life I wasn't living. I couldn't see anything because I was so miserable."
Do you think if everything in your life had been going smoothly that you may have become one of those pushy parents who smother their kid's dreams and passions?
Lucille: I always felt that I should let my children be who they are. I got out of Shaquille's way. I had my things to do and he did his. I would always tell my children, ‘You can do anything you want to do.' I was not saying to them, ‘You can do anything I want you to do.'
Brooke: Tell me about feeding your family with limited means. It sound like you served them mostly hash, grits, corned beef, chicken a la king, beans and franks. One of my own sons is 6"6" and I know how hard it is to keep them from being hungry. What did you do?
Lucille: I got really good at taking a chicken and cutting it into thirteen pieces. Buying food in the army commissary helped a lot.
Brooke: What about sibling rivalry. I never once detected that your children had any sibling rivalry. I am curious about Jamal. Despite being 6' 8", he does not play basketball. Was there any pressure on him to follow in his brother's footsteps?
Lucille: Oh, he played basketball, and so did my daughters. It just wasn't his thing.
Brooke: You mention twice in the book about the social after-school programs that were cut during the Reagan Administration and how hard it is for parents today, which I also find very troubling. I know you run a wonderful non-profit organization, where I bet your Master's in Organizational Management comes in handy. Are you involved in any programs that help kids after school?
Lucille: No, I focus all my time on the Odessa Chambliss Quality of Life Fund, which is in honor of my mother, who was a nurse and died of ovarian cancer. My brother and sister founded the fund with several ideas in mind. It is a quality of life fund that helps pay for nurses' education, computers, etc. and, each year they run fundraisers to help different organizations, such as the United Negro College Fund and for diabetes research.
One last question
At the end of our interview, there was one last question I had to ask. I was curious about Joe Toney, Shaquille O'Neal's biological father, who had a substance abuse problem and left seventeen-year-old Lucille to fend for herself. To this day, Shaquille has wanted nothing to do with Joe. I asked her, with all of the bad things that happened to her, whether she viewed the fact Joe Toney never stuck around as a blessing? Lucille, said, "Yes. I have thought about that many times. I have no ill feelings about him. If I ever see him I will have open arms for him."
Lucille's answer did not surprise me. It reminded me of one of my favorite lines from her book. One day, as Lucille sat giving baby Shaquille much tender loving care, her grandmother barked, "That ain't no baby!" A strong mother who has always put her kids first and has the family together holds no grudges. She practices forgiveness.
Lucille's book is wonderful and inspirational and full of surprises.
If you know of a struggling young person, this is a book for them. A best seller--my prediction.
MomsTeam has five copies of Walk Like You Have Somewhere to Go to give away to the first five people who request one.
And, if you want to contribute to Lucille's charity, here is the address:
Odessa Chambliss Quality of Life Fund
6130 Foxfield Court
Windemere, FL 34786