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NCAA President Goes One-on-One With ‘Dr.’ Shaquille O’Neal

Grapevine, Tex. — “Before we get started, I’d like to confess something,” said Shaquille O’Neal, the former NBA star and global icon.

“See, this makes me very nervous,” said Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president. “Please don’t say it has anything to do with eligibility.”

The two met years ago, when Mr. Emmert was chancellor of Louisiana State University and Mr. O’Neal returned to Baton Rouge to complete his undergraduate degree. Since then, Mr. O’Neal has completed an M.B.A. at the University of Phoenix and a doctorate in education at Barry University, in Florida.

On Wednesday, Mr. O’Neal shared a few secrets from his college playing days with Mr. Emmert in front of a couple of thousand attendees on the opening day of the NCAA’s annual convention here. Their 35-minute conversation did not disappoint.

Mr. O’Neal recalled spending his first $1-million paycheck in about 30 minutes, mostly on fancy cars for himself and his parents. “I made a C in Accounting,” he said, “so I thought I knew what I was doing.”

After finding himself $200,000 in debt, he realized he had a lot more to learn about business. And as his status as a player grew—he eventually won four NBA titles before retiring, in 2011—he figured he needed to get back to the classroom to prepare him for the next stage of his life.

Since retiring, he has continued his career as a rapper, actor, and entrepreneur. Today, he told the crowd, he owns 40 24-Hour Fitness clubs, 155 Five Guys restaurants, a jewelry and clothing line, nightclubs, and more. This coming summer, he will star in Grown Ups 2, with Adam Sandler.

But before any of that could happen, he knew he needed more education to be taken seriously in business.

“I needed people to understand that when they’re doing business with me, you’re doing business with a businessman,” he said, “not doing business with an athlete.”

Asked whether his athletic or academic pursuits had been more challenging, he described his adviser at Barry University as having pushed him harder than anyone in sports did.

“I wanted to go to Cliffnotes.com … about cutting and pasting a few times too—but nope, you can’t plagiarize,” he joked. In the end, it took him six years to complete his degree at Barry, and he relishes being called “Dr. O’Neal.”

He advocated a “three-and-done rule” for college-basketball players, which would require them to stay in college for three years and give them a chance to take more-serious courses.

His own first two years at LSU, he said, consisted largely of remedial classes. “I finagled my way to getting my 3.5 GPA,” he said.

That wasn’t his only secret, much to Mr. Emmert’s surprise.

During his LSU days, Mr. O’Neal said, “I committed multiple NCAA infractions.” Chief among them: He said he had received a free bowl of jambalaya before every game.

He looked at Mr. Emmert sheepishly, and asked whether that would get him in trouble with the association’s enforcement arm.

“Well,” Mr. Emmert said, “it’s past the statute of limitations.”

In that case, Mr. O’Neal joked later, he might have a few more things to admit.

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