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Shaquille O'Neal critiques Kyrie Irving's vaccine refusal, Ben Simmons' trade demand in Q&A

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Shaquille O’Neal joined the conference call partly to discuss a new charity initiative. But the former NBA star and TNT analyst could not resist taking a jab at a Brooklyn Nets star for, well, resisting the jab.

“In the words of Kyrie Irving, I would like to keep this private,” O’Neal said in a mocking and playful tone. “No more questions.”

O’Neal actually answered many questions to USA TODAY Sports, including Irving’s refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, Ben Simmons’ standoff with the Philadelphia 76ers and his picks for NBA champion and regular-season MVP. O’Neal also discussed his new initiative, with Icy Hot and his foundation donating $1 for each product sold up to $300,000 to create “Comebaq Courts,” which will be refurbished courts in Las Vegas and Newark, N.J.

Below is a Q&A with O’Neal, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Who’s your NBA title favorite?

O’Neal: “The Lakers look good. Brooklyn looks good, question mark, question mark, question mark. You have to respect the champs (Milwaukee Bucks). Golden State is back. Don’t forget about Utah, Phoenix and Boston. Every year we have six or seven teams that have a shot to win. But I think if it all goes down the way the world would want it to, we would love to see Brooklyn versus the Lakers.

Who do you have in a Nets-Lakers Finals?

O’Neal: “I got the Lakers. They seem to be a little bit more together. For them and Brooklyn, they have two issues. How are the egos managed and the health. If everybody plays their role and everybody does what they’re supposed to do and everybody sacrifices and stays injury free, I think those two teams are the frontrunners and have the best shot.”

What are the question marks you have with Brooklyn?

O’Neal: “Is Kyrie going to play or not? That’s it. One question – are you playing home games or not.”

Where do you stand on some players, such as Kyrie, Andrew Wiggins and Bradley Beal, declining to take the COVID-19 vaccine?

O’Neal: “In this line of work, sometimes you have to be selfless. The day I decided it wasn’t all about me and it’s about us is the day I started winning and really started dominating. I understand the issues and all that. But I took the vaccine because I’m not trying to get my mother sick, or my sister or my brother or people around me. I know people say, ‘The vaccine came too fast and is it healthy.’ To each his own. But sometimes you have to think about the overall picture and you have to think about more than yourself.

"I wouldn’t want to be part of a team that couldn’t get together and couldn’t win a championship because you did this. So sometimes you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘It ain’t about me; it’s about other people.’ As men, you have to respect a guys’ decision. But if I was on the team and I was a guy that had a say on the team, I would say, ‘You have to get him out of here; he’s a distraction.’ They have a really good shot to win. With him there, they have an even better shot. But I don’t want to come to practice every day having to answer questions about him. I’ve been through that before, and it’s nerve-wracking. We want to come to play and win and focus on what we have to do. We don’t want to focus on him not doing this or not doing that. Or the NBA can say, ‘If you don’t want to follow the laws and the guidelines, we’ll forfeit all of your money.’ I think a lot of times when you have the guaranteed contract, guys think they can do whatever they want to do. I’m not bashing him. It’s his decision. But they’re trying to win there and need to get this done. If everyone else on the team could do it, he should think about that."

Since 90% of the players are vaccinated and players will miss checks for games they miss in California and New York, how optimistic are you this will all be resolved by the time the season starts?

O’Neal: “I don’t know. I try not to get deep into the drama. But if I was playing now and I had a chance to win, and now we have to worry about this obstacle as well as all of the other obstacles, I wouldn’t want to deal with that.”

What do you make of Ben Simmons’ situation with the Sixers?

O’Neal: “I don’t understand why Ben is upset. Maybe he felt disrespected when Doc [Rivers] suggested they couldn’t win a championship with him. If so, I think Ben and his team should’ve been a little bit more professional. They should’ve gone to the office and said, ‘Okay, if you don’t want us, we don’t want to be here. Now let’s make a trade.’ But now that training camp has started and he’s not there? I mentioned to you about coming in every day and answering annoying questions – ‘What about Ben? What about Ben? What about Ben?’ Now Ben drives a deeper wedge with him and Joel Embiid to say he doesn’t want to play with him anymore. Let’s just say they can’t get a trade and he has to come back. Now you have to deal with the egos and rehashing, ‘I remember you said this and you said that.’ It’s going to be interesting. But my question to Ben is, ‘Why are you mad?’ "

What do you think would be his answer?

O’Neal: “I know he’s been criticized a lot this summer. But true people try to find the truth in criticism and try to correct it rather than just getting upset. We all saw [in the playoffs] that he wasn’t aggressive, he didn’t shoot and he didn’t want to play. We all know that’s because he didn’t want to go to the line and shoot free throws. Everybody knows that. From the guys that play at LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness to everybody that plays basketball, they know what that was that they saw in the playoffs. So now he gets upset because we call him out? That’s just the new generation.”

Who do you have as your MVP?

O’Neal: “Steph Curry. Look at what he did last year without Klay. He just kept playing. The way he shot the ball and how he shot the ball, I’ve always liked him. There’s always an argument on the TNT set that ‘You can’t be MVP if your team doesn’t have the best record.’ I’ve always found that wrong. I always felt MVP was about singularity and not about team success. I’ve always like how Steph plays."

What do you think your latest initiative with the court refurbishing can accomplish?

O’Neal: “It’s all about helping these kids and giving them something to do. I wouldn’t want the next NBA superstar not to be inspired to play basketball because the court is not in good shape. When I was on the military bases, my black tops were immaculate. I always played. Whether it was hot, cold or drizzling, the courts were beautiful. The nets, you could hear the ‘cha ching’ when you shoot. I cut my fingers when I dunked. So I want all the kids to have the same opportunities that I had growing up."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shaq Q&A: Dunks on Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, picks NBA title winner