Shaq Hits Sports—Again and Again and Again
When Shaquille O'Neal stepped foot on an NBA court in 1993, he became the first professional athlete with his name. Now, twenty-odd years later, a generation of athletes who are named after the basketball star are turning pro themselves.
Photo by Brendan McDermid/EPA
When the NFL schedule makers slotted New England at Denver on Nov. 29, the league probably anticipated Brady-Manning XVII. What they may not have realized was the game would also mark Shaq Bowl I.
That night in Denver, the Patriots' Shaq Mason protected Tom Brady against the Broncos' Shaq Barrett. The matchup was a byproduct of the Shaq Boom—the wave of kids born in the early 90s whose parents were inspired by basketball's rising star, Shaquille O'Neal.
When O'Neal stepped foot on an NBA court in 1993, he became the first professional athlete with the name Shaquille, which roughly translates to "handsome" in Arabic. He remained the only one until the generation of his namesakes were old enough to turn pro themselves. In 2012, Shaq Thompson entered the Boston Red Sox's minor league system. Last year saw the first Shaqs since O'Neal to play in one of the major sports leagues, with Mason, Barrett, and Thompson, a two-sport athlete now on the Carolina Panthers, all making their NFL debuts in the regular season. (A fourth Shaq, Shaq Riddick, is on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad.)
Shaquille cracked the Social Security Administration's Top 1,000 baby names in 1991, after O'Neal's breakout AP Player of the Year sophomore season at LSU. Momentum built the next season when he brought the Tigers to the Final Four and was runner-up for the Wooden and Naismith Awards. O'Neal was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft that year, and Shaquille jumped to No. 426 in the baby-name rankings (that doesn't account for spelling variations like Shaquil Barrett's). Peak Shaq Baby—No. 181 in the rankings, with 1,784 Shaquille births—came in 1993, when the Big Aristotle won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.
Of course, the Shaq Boom is relative: even in 1993, the name didn't come close to No. 1-ranked Michael, No. 10 Andrew, or even No. 85 Dakota. For the most part, baby Shaqs would grow up as the only Shaqs in town.
"I was the only one around with the name," said Mason, who grew up in Columbia, Tenn. "The first time I met another Shaq was actually Shaquille O'Neal at a Grizzlies game [when O'Neal played for the Heat]."
"I was the only Shaq growing up until I got to high school, where I met another Shaq," adds Thompson, Sacramento, California native.
Not only was Barrett the only Shaq in his hometown Baltimore; he didn't realize he was named after the Big Fundamental until recently. "I never grew up with anyone named Shaq. I never thought I was named after [O'Neal] for some reason. It wasn't until three or four years ago when someone asked me about my name and I asked my Dad about it."
"I liked Shaquille O'Neal and I liked Hakeem Olajuwon," Steven Barrett said, "so I named my son after both of the centers I really liked"—Barrett's full name is Shaquil Akeem Barrett. "[O'Neal] was a good role model for my son to follow. If my son can accomplish, two percent of what O'Neal accomplished, then I'd certainly be all right with that."
(Coincidentally, the Patriots' Shaq is Shaquille Olajuwon Mason. Neither he nor Barrett was aware of either the unlikely first- or middle-name connection before the reporting for this story.)
All three NFL Shaqs had at least one parent who was a big basketball fan, but this celebrity namesake phenomenon goes beyond simply liking sports. According to Jonah Berger, a Wharton professor and bestselling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, parents choose their child's name based on its connotations, and public figures often have positive ones. "Famous people are often wealthy and liked, so naming your child after someone associates them with that fame. The name makes it seem like they will be rich and famous by association."
Popularity spikes of famous names have happened for decades, but the visibility of O'Neal and the NFL players, combined with the distinctive nature of Shaquille, provides a rare opportunity to clearly draw a line from inspiration to byproduct of a name's popularity.
"Now that we've grown up, you look around and see all these kids named Shaq and realize they were 90s babies, too," said Mason. "It's pretty cool that you share a name and know the background of it."
Barrett also feels that kinship whenever he meets another Shaq. "It's good to run into Shaqs. It's a unique name. If you run into another Shaq, you probably take a picture with him. It'll be fun for us to meet Shaq and a whole lot of Shaqs because I don't think there's too many of us out there."
The linebacker wants to imbue the pride that comes with such a distinctive name to his son, Shaquil, Jr. "I like the name a lot and Shaquille O'Neal is one of the reasons why," he said. "Hopefully my son can come in and do whatever he does—be a doctor or something like that—and keep broadening our name."
Though he doesn't have a son yet, Thompson also plans to pass the name down, in part because he feels it's important to start another generation of Shaquilles.
"I knew who [O'Neal] was but the name didn't hit me until I got older. I realized Shaquille O'Neal was who I was named after and I thought, 'We have to keep the name alive,'" says Thompson.
After peaking in 1993, the name Shaquille slid back out of the top 1,000 by 1997 (perhaps coincidentally, the year after Kazaam's theatrical release). The name slipped back into obscurity even as O'Neal built a legendary career on the court. Not even an NBA MVP, four NBA Championships, two Finals MVPs, and 10 more All-Star Game selections could boost his name back to its previous heights..
"The name Shaq may have been hurt by its own rapid success," says Berger. "Names that catch on more quickly tend to die out faster. People assume they are more likely to be flashes in the pan and avoid them as a result. That may have happened with Shaq: too popular too quickly, so new parents start staying away."
Instead, basketball fans who wanted a distinctive name for their newborn turned to the NBA's next rising star, who also happened to be one of the Big Namesake's teammates. Though the name Kobe never reached the heights of Shaquille—it topped out at No. 222 in 2001, with 1,552 babies—the Black Mamba's moniker has had more staying power: Kobe has hung within the top 1,000 for 18 straight years (data for 2015 has yet to be released).
Even some of the NFL Shaqs understand that a few years might have altered their names. "It's a huge possibility that if I was born five years later, I might have been Kobe," said Mason.
Barrett acknowledges the possibility, too, but believes he would have still been a Shaq. The man who held the power to name him disagrees. "If he was born five years later, he probably would have been Kobe," Steve Barrett says with a laugh.
This recent iteration of the Shaq Boom isn't finished yet: Clemson's Shaq Lawson, who played in the college football championship Monday, plans to enter the NFL Draft this year. UCLA's basketball team, however, is prepping for a freshman next season who might be the canary in the coal mine: a small forward from Los Angeles named Kobe Paras .