Shaquille O'Neal is very tall, as it turns out.

Nellie Bowles

Shaquille O’Neal is very tall, as it turns out.

Culture


When we’d first gotten an offer to walk around with basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal at South By Southwest this year for an app from TIP Solutions called CallSnap — he pulled a similar kind of celebrity appearance for video-snippet-sharing app Tout last year and we did not hesitate to agree to the gimmick at AllThingsD.com — we asked if it was serious.

His representative responded: “As a heart attack.”

Ouch, but you don’t have to ask us twice!

A big tablet for a big man.

Nellie Bowles A big tablet for a big man.

So, here’s the 2014 SXSW O’Neal, clean-shaven and in a blue suit, at Gabriel’s Cafe near University of Texas, flanked this time by the founders of TIP Solutions.

An app that allows people to dismiss calls more politely by sending an image or a voice message, this was the investment O’Neal liked so much he’d decided once again to be a 7′1″ walking endorsement through the exhibition halls at the annual interactive festival, with me and the Wall Street Journal’s Evelyn Rusli in tow. Simply put, if the newspaper of finance could be lured in by this marketing ploy, we’re not going to stand on ceremony, either.

Shaq assuaged our fears of being taken in by the Shaqness of it all. “Most of the techies don’t know I’m a geek too. I’m not an algorithm expert, but I speak a language everyone can understand: The homeboys, the girls, the business tycoons.”

O’Neal, who made $300 million in salary during his basketball career, said he spends about a thousand dollars a week on apps and in-app purchases — his favorite of which is currently Deer Hunter. He said the same thing about excessive app spending last year too, by the way.

Still, he is nerdier than you might imagine. As he walked past BMWs and Mercedes to a beat up white van, he asked his manager Perry Rogers whether he’d have a chance to try out Google Glass, although he told me he’s really waiting for the Apple iWatch.

On the van ride over, O’Neal said that growing up, he didn’t feel like he was smart enough to work computers until he took a computer science class and made a new friend. “I didn’t interact with guys like that before,” he said. “After that I always wanted to be the first with new tech.”

Recalling a Casio watch from 1988 that glowed in the dark and various game consoles, he later managed to become a pre-IPO investor in Google and Twitter. “I wish I woulda invested more,” he said, not giving more detail. “I’ve got stock in all the others, but I’m very superstitious.”

TIP of the iceberg, so to speak.

Nellie Bowles TIP of the iceberg, so to speak.

TIP Solutions is not his only investment here. After his walk-around for them, he’d go on to a panel to talk about health tracker FitBit. Then he’d be stopping by downtown Austin’s famous Stubb’s BBQ to talk about a branded barbecue sauce, which has nothing to do with technology, but a lot to do with SXSW.

When the van pulled over and O’Neal spotted a rundown house across the street from the convention center, he ordered Rogers: “Perry, I’ve got a new investment — buy that house, renovate it, rent it out every year for this.”

“The funny thing is, he’s not kidding,” Rogers said to me before answering O’Neal. “Should we call it Shaq by Southwest?”

Rimshot!

Let’s be honest, when it is Shaq, it is essentially an endless day of — please click the link — Ba-dum-tssshhh!

When O’Neal entered the auditorium, he was immediately swarmed by fans, many of whom wanted selfies with him. O’Neal high fived and fist bumped — very well aware of the advertising power of celebrity.

“I’m the loophole. I can talk to a lot of different people. I can get on any show. And I can be like bzzz to Bill Gates, bzzz to the President,” he said, mimicking the noise of receiving a text.

O'Neal and Rusli have a quiet conversation with an awkward audience of over-sharers looking on.

Nellie Bowles O’Neal and Rusli have a quiet conversation with an awkward audience of over-sharers looking on.

Eventually, O’Neal arrived at the TIP Solution booth where the Journal’s Rusli was now waiting with a camerawoman to start a sit-down interview. She asked about his investing methodology and how startups can reach him to pitch.

The longtime sports star knew all about pitching, dunking the lines about TIP Solutions smoothly: “We’re trying make the decline button a last resort. I get a lot of calls, but instead of hitting the decline and leaving someone in the dark, I can leave them a message or send a picture. It’s excellent for a guy like me. It’s much more polite.”

After the interview, he started another walkabout, buying two new Mophie iPhone battery cases (gold and black; $100 each), grabbing some Jolly Ranchers and texting on his iPhone. TIP Solutions, of course, works only on Android for now.

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