Shaquille O’Neal, known as The Big Diesel and The Big Aristotle among numerous other nicknames, might have a new moniker in the Santa Clarita Valley: The Big Papa.
The four-time NBA champion, Hall of Fame inductee and Los Angeles Lakers big man was in Santa Clarita Wednesday afternoon at the Papa John’s on 23120 Lyons Ave. Suite 1 in Newhall.
O’Neal joined Papa John’s board of directors earlier this year and invested in nine stores in Atlanta, Georgia, and is also a brand ambassador.
“I plan to purchase as many (locations) as I can,” O’Neal told USA Today in June. “Everyone loves pizza and pizza loves everyone.”
The 7-foot-1, 15-time NBA All-Star was filming a commercial at the Newhall location and posted a short video of him working in the kitchen on his Instagram account.
“He was extremely nice, he had really good energy, best energy I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Johann Nepomuceno, an employee at the Newhall store. “He is like a mountain, he had to actually duck under our door. He’s just a really humble guy.”
In the video, O’Neal was shown tossing some dough, adding toppings to a pizza and getting ready to pull a pizza out of the oven, dancing the whole time.
But the heat was too much for O’Neal, so he had to get out of the kitchen, literally.
“He tried to make some pizza, but he really messed up there, he made a bunch of holes and stuff,” Nepomuceno said with a laugh. “He just went in our fridge because it was too hot for him.”
O’Neal autographed a pizza box for a customer, signed the banner hanging in the store and took some photos and doled out a few more autographs for fans outside.
He even made a few deliveries in the neighborhood.
“Best moment of having him here was all throughout he was able to hold this amazing, clear energy, and keep the whole room really nice,” Nepomuceno said.
Grant Thuente, a lifelong Lakers fan who also played baseball and football at Hart, was bummed he wasn’t working on Wednesday, missing the chance to meet one of his favorite players.
Thuente, whose mother Terri Thuente used to work at the Los Angeles Daily News, has a funny story about his mom that he would have loved to share with O’Neal.
“My mom used to work at the Daily News, she used to sit on the floor and take pictures at Lakers games. He actually stepped on one of her lenses and broke it and said he’d buy the next lens for her,” Thuente said. “I would have said to him, ‘You actually broke my mom’s lens, how crazy is that?’”
Thuente is anticipating an increase in business with the addition of O’Neal to the Papa John’s team.
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Thuente said. “We’re hoping Shaq brings in some business around here because everyone loves Shaq, so why not order Papa John’s?”