Shaquille O'Neal's enormous frame was slightly diminished as he took a seat on a dark wooden chair barely big enough to contain him.
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Even lowered from his full stature of 7-1, he towered over his audience. The 15-time All-Star and four-time NBA champ posed a question, and repeatedly asked it of several members of the audience. Not getting the answer he was looking for, Shaq finally relented.
"You know what's in my bucket? Cereal."
And with that, the 40 or so kids, who ranged from pre-schoolers to fifth graders, gathered at the Portledge School in Locust Valley to hear Shaq read them "Have You Filled A Bucket Today?" let out an easy, silly laugh.
A fierce competitor during his time on the court and currently a sharp-tongued NBA analyst, on this Monday morning, with these kids, he was as soft as the snow that fell just outside.
"I remember the first star I met was Dr. J," O'Neal told Newsday. "I saw a little bit of myself in him. So when kids see me being humorous and being funny, they'll know I'm a real person. A lot of times as a child you see somebody as a superstar, you never get a chance to meet them. They're a mythical legend. But I've always been a person that image is reality. I'm a nice guy. I love the children."
In his second trip to Portledge in as many years, O'Neal taught the junior varsity basketball squad the proper way to shoot a jumper. He participated in a shoot-around with the varsity team. Stopping for pictures and brief conversations, he was a gentle giant, even refusing to take the bait on old teammate/nemesis Kobe Bryant. "I'm not sure about that," he said simply when asked if the lackluster Lakers had a chance to make the playoffs.
"I think it's important that children see, not how easy it is, but how easy it can be done," O'Neal said. "My journey is a hard journey. But because I had great teachers like the ones here, because I had great role models like my parents, it made it very easy for me to be what I wanted to be: doctor, rapper, professional basketball player."
"I know I met like 50 kids today. But one kid out of here will remember this day."