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Bill Plaschke

'Biological Didn't Bother'

O'Neal chooses not to connect with the father who left him years ago

June 11, 2002|Bill Plaschke

NEWARK, N.J. — The man who doesn't exist walks larger than life through the dank hallways of the Goodwill Home and Mission, wearing a gold Laker jersey adorned with, "O'Neal."

The man who abandoned his second child awakens every morning in his tiny, windowless room to photos of the boy on the wall and desk, all grown up, giant and famous and gone.

The man who has been purposely forgotten has put a message on his answering machine that shows he will never forget.

"Hi, this is Shaq ... " says the voice.

That's not his name. But it was once his shame.

And even as he tries to fix things from his place in the darkest shadow of his son's greatest glory, Joseph Toney realizes it's much too late.

"It's finished, and it's God's will, and there's nothing more I can do," he said softly.

Joseph Toney is Shaquille O'Neal's biological father.

He lives and works in a Newark shelter 15 minutes from the Continental Airlines Arena, where O'Neal will lead the Lakers against the New Jersey Nets Wednesday in what could be a clinching Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Toney has obtained a ticket on his own and will cheer for his son but will not say hello.

He has never said hello.

They have never spoken.

They have never even met.

This is not by accident.

Wondering how a father could leave his son when he was 6 months old, O'Neal treats him as if he's dead.

Claiming he lost contact only because he was in prison, then on drugs, Toney says he is alive and sorry.

O'Neal's people claim Toney is only looking for money and fame.

Toney's people, who include his Goodwill employers, say he is clean and sober and looking for nothing.

The only thing certain is that these glorious days for a giant hero have been painfully nicked with irony.

This is O'Neal's triumphant homecoming to a Newark area where he grew up and still maintains ties with as many as 200 relatives. Yet his closest blood relation here is not welcome.

This is a time when O'Neal's funky trademark smile is becoming the NBA's logo. Yet the only man in the world who shares that smile doesn't even know him.

When asked Monday about his biological father, O'Neal smile turned to stone.

"No, it doesn't bother me at all," he said. "Because the man doesn't even exist."

*

"You want to see Shaq?"

That is what the weary-eyed man behind the front desk of the Goodwill Home and Mission says when you ask about Joseph Toney. That is what they call him here.

It's a place more about desperate hope than heroes, these brick buildings lodged in a narrow street in downtown Newark, dozens of men wandering around, the air thick with old sweat and mumbled promises.

Lots of men come here claiming to have something special.

Joseph Toney has delivered.

"When I heard he was Shaq's father, I took it with a grain of salt," said Rich Callahan, director of ministries. "You hear a lot of that sort of thing around here."

But Toney, who checked in three years ago as just another drug-addled soul, always kept a scrapbook. And in that scrapbook he kept a birth certificate.

He's only 6 feet 1, but he does have O'Neal's smile, and his lower jaw, and even his slow gait.

As Toney straightened up and became a member of the Goodwill staff, driving a truck that delivered bread to homeless shelters, his credibility increased and everyone believed.

"It's a pretty amazing story," Callahan says.

Over the years, Toney has occasionally shared that story with the local newspaper, and he did so again last weekend. But with the Lakers arriving in town for the middle games of the NBA Finals, the news was too close for comfort.

Sunday morning before Game 3 here, Phillip "Sarge" Harrison, O'Neal's career Army stepfather, was inside the mission's hallways, rapping on that front desk.

He summoned Toney from his third-floor dormitory room and into the street, where he repeated rules that he had set many years ago.

Recalled Toney: "He was upset and told me to stay away. I told him, I didn't want anything. I never wanted anything."

Said Harrison later: "Of course he wants something. If Shaquille wasn't famous, we would have never heard from him. Why is he doing this? Why?"

Toney has asked himself that same question and, now that he has been clean for three years, he says he has an answer.

Said Toney: "Only one person can take a son away from you, and that's God."

Said Harrison: "I wish he'd just be quiet. All these years ignoring his flesh and blood, and he shows up now?"

*

Joseph Toney was a local basketball star. Lucille O'Neal worked down at the local drug store. They dated for three years until O'Neal graduated from high school.

Then she became pregnant, just as Toney was turning to drugs. Toney was in the hospital with her when she gave birth to Shaquille. It was Toney who gave him the celebrated name.

But soon, Toney was sent to federal prison in Lexington, Ky., on a conviction involving fraudulent checks.

The way he tells the story: "When I came back home six years later, Lucille had already married Phillip, and I was out of the picture."

Harrison tells a different story.

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