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Shaq's mom on what it takes to mother an NBA giant

Lucille O'Neal dishes on what it was like to raise her son, and it involved plenty of mac and cheese.
/ Source: TODAY

When retired NBA great Shaquille O'Neal was born, his grandmother knew the world would someday know his name.

"There's something special about that one," she told his mom, Lucille.

"I really didn't know what she meant then, because I was just a young mother trying to make sure he was taken care of," Lucille told TODAY's Sheinelle Jones.

But now, Lucille thinks she knows what her mother was saying. "Being young, unwed — you have no business with a child. But when God allows you to bring a child into the world, pieces start to come together. There's something special about that," she said.

Lucille had Shaquille when she was just 17 and, by her own admission, didn't know what she was doing. "We grew up together, Shaquille and I," she told Sheinelle.

She married Shaquille's father, Army drill sergeant Phillip Harrison, when their firstborn was 2 years old. The couple had three more children — Lateefah, Ayesha, and Jamal — before later divorcing. When Shaquille was young, Lucille says, she called him her "helper." Now, the family calls him the "elder" — a title she said he embraces.

"He takes good care of the family," Lucille said. "He is setting the standard for the rest of them, and he always has."

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Even though her children are now adults, "You're always in the thick of it. I'm telling you the truth about that," Lucille told Sheinelle. When her kids were younger, things were harder because their budget was low and they were "always lacking something," whether it was food, clothes, or transportation.

"It got easier when we banded together as a family," said Lucille, who describes herself as a loving "mother hen" rather than a disciplinarian. She shared her recipe and a taste of Shaq's favorite homemade macaroni and cheese — known in their house as "Lil' Shaq's Easy Mac" — which she said is a little different every time she makes it, but is an O'Neal staple. Shaq serves a version of it in one of his restaurants.

Shaq's Mom's Macaroni and Cheese

Lucille spent much of her motherhood career watching her children — all of whom are athletes — play games. She made a point, she said, of going to Shaquille's basketball games from the time he began playing at 6 years old until he retired from the NBA in 2011 after 19 years and four league championships.

"They want to be able to look into the stands and know you're there," she told Sheinelle. "They want to see you. They don't have to say anything; they know you're there."

It wasn't until Shaquille played in the McDonald's All-American all-star basketball game in 1989 that Lucille began to see basketball as a skill that might bring him opportunities — most significantly, to her, college.

Shaq had told his parents for years that his dream was to play in the NBA, and Lucille made sure her son knew that meant being a student-athlete and endless hours of practice to perfect his game as well as completing his studies. "It's a process," she told him.

With a strict policy of "No pass, no play," all of Lucille's children knew they would not be allowed to participate in extracurriculars if they didn't keep their grades up acceptably. They also knew how important a college degree was to their mother.

After three years at LSU, Shaq told his mom it was time to go to the next level and join the NBA draft. Lucille was not pleased.

"I wanted him to stay in school and finish," she told Sheinelle. Her son convinced her that he needed to move on, but he made her a promise that he would go back and finish. "And he did that," she said. (Shaq went on to get a bachelors degree and an MBA from LSU later in his career.)

Though she grappled with her level of alcohol consumption at one point, Lucille said she ended that when she realized how she was hurting Shaq. "My son worked very hard to get in the position he was in, and I could not embarrass him. I started working with him instead of against him," she said.

Lucille's home is full of memorabilia from Shaq's storied career, including pictures with Magic Johnson, news clippings from NBA championships, his Wheaties box cover, and just about every jersey he's ever worn.

She told Sheinelle that watching the L.A. Lakers retire his jersey was a particularly special moment for her because the purple and gold Lakers jersey reflected the purple and gold from his LSU college jerseys and how much he accomplished.

"All those dreams that he had, and they manifest in front of your eyes... that's special," she said.

Shaq's career has been a "blessing" to his mother. "Thank you for the blessing, God, thank you for the blessing," she said. "That's what it really is."