AUSTIN, Tex.–Shaquille O’Neal may be 7 feet tall and one of the most dominant players in NBA history, but here at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, he’s just a big nerd.
Shaq has spent the past few days in Austin meeting entrepreneurs, checking out new gadgets and sharing his thoughts on tech, social media, basketball and, well, almost everything else. He spent part of Sunday touring the SXSW trade show, where startups hawk their latest products.
“I thought I was at Toys R Us. I bought stuff I didn’t even need,” he told a capacity crowd at an onstage talk Monday afternoon. “I’m on my iPad, my computer, every day. I’m the world’s tallest geek.”
During Shaq’s appearance, his first at SXSW, he offered a mix of earnest life lessons and good-natured humor. The 19-year NBA veteran praised the “dummy-proof” nature of today’s simple-to-use tablets and phones. “If you don’t know how to work technology now, something is really, really wrong with you.”
O’Neal has long been a force on Twitter, where he has 6.8 million followers. He said he uses the service “60% to make you laugh, 30% to inspire you, and 10% to sell stuff. I do a lot of ‘your mama’ jokes on it.”
But Shaq’s playful personality masks a potent ambition and a shrewd knack for business. He earned an MBA while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and later bought a lucrative stake in Google before its IPO in 2004. Currently, he sits on the advisory board for Tout, a social-media startup that lets users make and share 15-second videos.
“I’ve always tried to partner with people who are way, way smarter than me,” said the Big Aristotle (one of his many nicknames), who retired from the NBA in 2011.
“I’ve always been a person … (who thinks) I don’t want you to give me anything. I want to earn it.”
Asked by interviewer Brian Solis what he looks for when investing in a tech product, he said, “Simplicity. I’m looking for something that’s very simple … and that’s going to change the world. I look for individuals who are sort of like myself–big dreamers.”
He may have found a few.
Before he arrived in Austin, O’Neal and Tout joined up for a “Pitch Shaq” contest in which they invited registered SXSW attendees to submit 15-second elevator pitches about their startups. The winner was promised a personal audience with Shaq and possibly an infusion of his cash.
At the close of his remarks Monday, Shaq said he had viewed more than 150 pitches and had chosen two winners: Beam, which makes a mobile videoconferencing device that rolls around on wheels like a Segway; and Speakerfy, a social-sound app that lets you wirelessly sync music between different Apple mobile devices.
Both startups, when contacted by CNN at their booths inside the Austin Convention Center, were pleasantly stunned by the news.
But they don’t need Shaq’s money.
“We’re very flattered. I’d love to figure out how Shaq could use (our device) in his business,” said Scott Hassan, CEO of Beam. “We’re not really looking for funding right now. We’re well funded. But if he really wants to, we could probably work something out.”
“We’re very excited, don’t get me wrong. We would love to do anything with Shaq. We want his advice,” said Austin Wright, vice president of operations for Speakerfy.
“But we’re good, funding-wise,”he said. “That’s awkward. Do we tell Shaq no?”
Brandon Griggs | CNN