NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal emerged from the back of Papa John’s and flowed through the crowd with his head and shoulders poking out above the masses like a shark’s fin. 

The basketball giant effortlessly sliced through the moving wave of humanity, shaking excited fans’ hands and taking selfies during his Papa John’s franchise opening and block party on the weekend of Aug. 24. 

On this blistering day of unrelenting heat, Shaq, as he is known worldwide, invited the likes of V-103’s famed DJ Greg Street and rapper Damani Harris, son of hip hop legend Clifford “T.I.” Harris, to help crank up the sounds while hundreds of fans enjoyed free pizza, games and a concert hosted by Harris. 

NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal became the first African American to sit on the board of the third-largest pizza corporation in America. 

This Papa John’s franchise, located on State Street at the edge of Georgia Tech, was one of nine Papa John’s stores that O’Neal bought up as part of his deal with the pizza behemoth that was recently mired in a PR nightmare. 

Papa John’s founder, John Schnatter, first stepped into the sociopolitical minefield in 2017 when he blamed NFL for not doing more to prevent players from kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, saying it was causing a significant dip in the sales of his pizzas. 

And then in 2018, Schnatter was recorded using the N-word during a conference call with a PR firm that caused a ferocious backlash among consumers. Schnatter admitted the snafu and resigned as chairman soon thereafter. 

Now, O’Neal is looking to help Papa John’s return to glory after its ignominious fall from grace while simultaneously serving as an inspiration for young urbanites who look up to him. 

As part of the ceremony, O’Neal hosted a ribbon-cutting with Atlanta Mayor Keshia Lance Bottoms and CEO Steve Ritchie for one of the nine stores he’s investing in. 

O’Neal proved to be indefatigable as he signed autographs and partied for five hours with his fans, despite wearing the all-black Papa John’s uniform. He stayed to help unveil a spectacular mural on the side of the Papa John’s store created by students from Maynard Jackson High and Morehouse College.

O’Neal indicated that he is fortified sufficiently to begin to alter the public’s perception of Papa John’s and to initiate change with its internal culture. He also said he aspires to inspire the children in the city. Shaq will be adopting nine underprivileged schools in the Atlanta area and providing them with “Pizza Fridays.”

“I want to be the gateway for kids who think they can’t become something. I look at a lot of kids and I see myself,” O’Neal told 11 Alive as the crowd looked on. “I wasn’t the one who could read out loud in class. That wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, I wasn’t very outspoken. My mother told me ‘Baby, you can [be] anything [you] want.’ So being that she said that, I’m telling all the children what you can become.”

 

Shaquille O'Neal prepares to cut the grand opening ribbon at his new Papa John's store near Georgia Tech. (Photo: Terry Shropshire / The Atlanta Voice)

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