Shaquille O'Neal on His Love for Helping Others in Need and Making a Stranger's Day Brighter

"If I'm somewhere and see somebody's needing something, I'll take care of it," Shaq tells PEOPLE

Not only does his hilarious sports commentary go viral, but Shaquille O'Neal's generosity has also become widely revered.

Whether it's paying for a fan's engagement ring or buying a laptop for a stranger who expressed sympathy, O'Neal has earned a reputation for helping others when no one is looking — and the retired NBA Hall of Famer is not one to brag about it as news of these acts of kindness is most often made public by the recipients.

"A lot of people describe it as giving back. I describe it as doing what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to help those in need," O'Neal, 49, tells PEOPLE. "If I'm somewhere and see somebody's needing something, I'll take care of it. My favorite places to go to are Best Buy and furniture stores."

The father of five, widely known for his dominance on the basketball court, says he's only trying to make his mother proud by living his life in accordance with her sage advice.

"I just always try to continue to do the right thing and just lead by example. I'm all about brightening up people's day," O'Neal shares. "I had a meeting with my mother, Dr. Lucille O'Neal, and she was like, 'Baby, you've done everything I've asked you to do. I think you should go about every day just making somebody smile and making somebody happy.' So I take pride in each and every day by just making one person smile, whether it's one person or whether it's a hundred people or whether it's a thousand people."

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal. Rich Fury/Getty

Since his playing days in the league as well as retirement in 2011, the four-time NBA champion has touted many endorsement deals and sponsorships. Lately, he's become more of an entrepreneur with the same mission to help others in need.

"My motto's always been, 'It could be worse.' A lot of people are going through a lot of tough times. I want to be the guy to make them smile," he shares. "Because for me, when I smile, things start to break down and I start to get back on track. I just want to help people get back on track."

As a Papa John's board member and franchise owner, O'Neal first conceived the idea for the charitable Shaq-a-roni, a 16-inch extra-large pizza topped with extra cheese and has 66 pepperonis that is cut into eight slices instead of the company's standard 10 in an extra-large order. In its second iteration, Papa John's will donate $1 for every Shaq-a-Roni pizza sold until Oct. 24 to The Papa John's Foundation to support communities and will donate $250,000 to United Negro College Fund, $500,000 to Boys and Girls Clubs, and $10,000 to Baltimore Hunger Project.

"Children are the future. I love children. I have children," O'Neal says of why his philanthropy focuses on the next generation. "Children are innocent. They don't know any better. They don't go through things that we go through when it comes to paying bills and doing that. No child should wake up and not have anything to eat. No child should wake up and not have shoes or clothes on their feet. It's our job as adults, it's our job as people to always take care of the children, whether they're ours or not."

As for the advice he would impart on those wanting to follow in his charitable footsteps, O'Neal says "anything helps."

"I would tell them first to figure out what their cause is and just follow the necessary steps. Just help those in need, whether it's feeding a homeless person or donating old clothes or starting a food drive in the neighborhood," he says. "Anything helps because the thing that hurt me last summer [during the COVID-19 pandemic] was turning on the news and seeing 40 million people losing their jobs. I haven't felt pain like that in a long time. So I'm going to just do my part to try to get people, especially children, back on track."

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