What Shaq's Dove Ad Refuses to Say

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Shaquille O'Neal feels great in his hide, and Dove will take us there. That, if nothing else, is what we learned from this NCAA Tournament. There were actually two Shaq "Comfortable in my Skin" commercials that aired incessantly during the tourney; they were two of a larger, multi-year series, which this year also introduced Steve Nash and Tom Izzo spots. But there's this whole back catalog to draw on.

The clear winner of the bunch, though, and maybe the tournament-within-a-tournament that is March Madness advertising firestorm (sorry, no bracket), was the heartwarming mother-son ad with Shaq and his darling mother, Ms. Lucille O'Neal. The two of them recounted what it was like for little Shaquille to grow up with such an exotic, unwieldy name. "The world wasn't ready for a boy named Shaquille," Lucille reminisces, though any "Boy Named Sue" reference is strictly accidental.

Shaq was teased incessantly, we learn, but now he's totally cool with his name, which really sums up who he is. Except the ad never says what that is, or what, if anything, "Shaquille" is other than a string of syllables that may have sounded funny to little kids in the 80's.

Far be it from me to question O'Neal's pain. Except this is advertising, not reporting, so I've spent much of this month shouting at the television over this ad. When Shaq was a kid, there were plenty of African-American kids running around with "q" names, many of them baroque, invented, and the source of plenty of bad jokes. They called him "Shakira," we're told, as if only girls had names like that.

The thing is, anyone equipped to make a joke about young ladies named "Shakira" was probably around young men with the same problem. If "Shaquille" is a funny-sounding name, it's funny in a way that many names were during that time, and certainly not one that belonged solely to one side of the gender divide. I have no idea if Shaq, who grew up on military bases, was perhaps isolated, or insulated, from that trend. But in a global sense, the world was certainly ready for a boy named Shaquille. How Shaq's classmates would have had "Shakira" at their disposal is beyond me, unless this is just an egregious, copywriter-wrought anachronism.

The real issue I have, though, is the exclusion of what it is that "Shaquille" actually means—a necessary component of Shaq embracing it, and learning to be comfortable in it. Shaquille (like "Shakira, incidentally) isn't an invention that, however unconsciously, echoes Arabic names. It's Arabic for "warrior," which is a pretty fair summation of the athlete O'Neal would become, and may already have been growing into. [Correction: "Shaquille" is Arabic for "handsome," not "warrior."] We're told that Shaq loves his name, and what it stands for, but Dove won't tell us what that is, or maybe even what's in a name beyond its literal meaning. O'Neal's beloved stepfather, Philip Harrison, is a practicing Muslim, and while he certainly didn't pick out Shaq's name, having him around can only have solidified exactly what "Shaquille" stood for—literally and in a broader sense.

In the past, there have been questions about O'Neal's own religious preference, but one thing's for sure: Shaquille O'Neal knows damn well where his name comes from, what it stands for, and why he should be proud of it. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why, in this day and age, O'Neal would have to exclude the part of the story that makes it anything more than empty rhetoric.

Like in the 60's, the world still isn't ready for a superstar athlete with an Arabic name and the sense of identity to back it up. 

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