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It didn't take long for the supersized, custom-made black truck to draw a crowd outside Chattem's corporate headquarters at the foot of Lookout Mountain on Wednesday afternoon.
Maybe the "SHAQLINER" chrome nameplate on the truck's front grill gave it away.
"So this Shaquille O'Neal's ride," exclaimed one onlooker furiously shooting pictures with his camera phone. "Is Shaq already here?" asked another employee.
"Driving is how I think," said O'Neal a few minutes later from inside the company's boardroom. "It's how I coordinate my time. I work in Atlanta, so it actually a pretty short drive, not much more than an hour or so."
One of basketball's all-time greats has spent the last 10 years steering the public toward a wide range of Chattem products, everything from Icy Hot, to Flexall, to Gold Bond's new line of men's care products.
"Shaq has been very good for us," said Chattem CEO Zan Guerry, who was literally swept off his feet by Shaq just before O'Neal spoke to company employees, the certain Hall of Famer lifting the former tennis great into the air with the ease most of us would hold a loaf of bread.
"He's been with us 10 years, and he's always been wonderful to work with; just a delightful guy."
What's a Shaq Attack look like when waged on the Topical Pain Care Category of Chattem's products? Imagine one of those backboards O'Neal famously shattered at New Jersey and Phoenix during his rookie year in 1993.
"When he came on board we were under $40 million as a brand at retail," said Chattem's Lucas Mininger. "Ben Gay was No. 1, ThermaCare was No. 2. We were still a small player. Now we're No. 1 in the [topical pain] category and we're twice as big as BenGay.
"We're now over $105 million at retail and we're in four countries and entering a fifth [South Africa, later this year]. We're No. 1 in Brand Awareness, Ad Awareness and Brand Used Most Often."
Yet Shaq didn't join Chattem to be a spokesman, but rather a partner.
"I believe in this company and its products," O'Neal said. "I was using Icy Hot, Flexall and Gold Bond before I began a partnership with them. I use ACT mouthwash, too."
O'Neal began to scan the boardroom and point outside toward Chattem's other buildings.
"This is my first time here," he said. "But you can tell a lot about the place from the environment. Is everybody uptight? Is nobody having any fun? I walk around here and you can just feel how friendly and relaxed and happy everybody is. These are just down-home, country folks you want to work with. You really get a sense of teamwork here from the top down."
With the 7-1, 325-pound O'Neal an invaluable member of their teams, the Los Angeles Lakers (three NBA titles) and Miami Heat helped Shaq win four championship rings. He finished his career with averages of 23.7 ppg, 10.9 rebs and 2.3 blocks over 19 NBA seasons, 15 of them as an NBA All-Star.
But he prefers to stay away from stats when analyzing NBA games for TNT.
"A lot of guys want to wow you with facts and research," he said. "My analysis is 60 percent experience, 40 percent humor. If you're watching us late at night I don't want to bore you with stats. I want to make you laugh and giggle."
Hoping to get a laugh out of O'Neal concerning his mighty truck, someone asked if it was a Buick, since he's also a spokesman for that car company.
"No, it's a Freightliner, had it about five years," he said. "But I do own a Buick. Bought one last year. It's a LaCrosse, just like the one in the commercials."
So how many vehicles does O'Neal have?
"I don't answer that anymore," he said with grin. "A few years ago I told somebody for a story they were doing and the next time my mom saw me she gave me a light slap. She said, 'Stop braggin' about your cars.' Let's just say I've got a few."
He's also got a few observations about his old Lakers team, which is unexpectedly struggling to land the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"Kobe [Bryant] is [almost] 35 and averaging 27 points a game. I don't really know how much more he can be expected to do."
But he doesn't have the same appreciation for the work being done by current Lakers center Dwight Howard, who was supposed to have the kind of overpowering impact O'Neal once did.
"He needs to do more," Shaq said. "If his back's hurting, maybe he should come on down to Chattanooga and get some Flexall and Icy Hot."
Perhaps that's why O'Neal is fast becoming the Gold (Bond) standard for athletes turned pitchmen.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...