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Recalling Shaq's real estate deal in Denver

(Editor’s Note: I saw today that Shaquille O’Neal is retiring from basketball. In 2002, I spent a day with him, as he inked a major affordable housing deal in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News article I wrote is below. The soft-spoken Shaq, who practically whispered answers to questions, was far more interested in talking about affordable housing and law enforcement, which he was passionate about, than basketball. At one point he wrapped his giant hands around my neck, demonstrating how he had apprehended a suspect while volunteering as a sheriff’s deputy. “He had no idea it was the Shaq who grabbed him,” he told me. He also told me he was having conversations with Radio Shack about promoting their stores, a move that soon came to pass.)

COLO. LANDS ‘SHAQ-SIZED DEAL’ – NBA STAR SPENDING $100M TO PRESERVE AFFORDABLE HOUSING

Rocky Mountain News (CO) – Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Author: John Rebchook

Shaquille O'Neal at the Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora in 2009.

Shaquille O'Neal ends his storied NBA career as a center for the Boston Celtics, where he has battled injuries for much of his last season.

Shaquille O’Neal made a full-court press in Denver on Monday, where the NBA superstar scored close to a $100 million deal to buy housing for thousands of low-income residents in Colorado.

Shaq flew into Centennial Airport on a private jet from his home on Orlando, Fla., to participate in the purchase of 21 affordable-housing communities from Greenwood Village-based Urban Inc., a pioneer investor and developer of affordable housing in Denver and other states.

The communities are found throughout Colorado, including Denver, Pueblo, Buena Vista, Fort Lupton and Canon City.

Shaq is a general partner in the deal to buy the communities with American Housing Preservation Corp. of Portland, Maine.

“My dream is to own $1 billion a year in affordable housing,”‘ Shaq said.

He’s making his first major push in Colorado. Monday was the first time he had been to Denver outside of playing NBA games against the Denver Nuggets for his current team, the Los Angeles Lakers, and previously with the Orlando Magic.

“I’ve never been here in the summer before,” Shaq said. “It seems like a nice city. With the mountains and everything, it seems like it would be a nice place to live.”‘

Urban, headed by Denver natives Steve Shraiberg and Alfred S. Blum, is selling the communities for about $65 million, but the final price to the private American Housing will be just under $100 million, when property improvements and other costs are factored in.

“It’s a ‘Shaq-sized deal,” said Michael Liberty, chairman and founder of American Housing. “Shaq is now the biggest landlord in the country,” Liberty added – figuratively and literally, since O’Neal stands 7-feet-1 and weighs 315 pounds.

The landmark agreement, which could be funded as early as today, is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country and hopefully will serve as a national model, said Cris White, deputy executive director of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. Every time O’Neal ducked his head to enter or exit a doorway in CHFA’s downtown Denver headquarters, he banged his hand on the wall, and said: “Ouch.” The crow around him never tired of the prank.

CHFA is financing the deal. Shraiberg and Blum have been looking to sell their portfolio for the past decade, but wouldn’t sell it to anyone who planned to demolish the 1,500 units and replace them with market-rate apartments and condos.

“They could have gotten a lot more money for them that way,” Liberty said. “This way, they are doing well by doing good. I have the same philosophy. I’m not going to throw some 82-year-old widow living solely on Social Security out of an apartment where she’s lived for 20 years since her husband died.”

Mike Parris, Shaq’s uncle and business manager who accompanied O’Neal to Denver, said his nephew is more passionate about affordable housing than he is about basketball.

“Yeah, that’s right,'” Shaq said as he, Parris and others involved in the deal met at CHFA’s office in Lower Downtown.

In the back of a stretch limo van big enough for his size-22 shoes, Shaq said he and  “Uncle Mike”‘ began investing in real estate about four years ago in New Jersey, where Shaq once lived in the projects before his father joined the Army. Parris is a former homicide detective in New Jersey.

“We started buying homes out of foreclosure and paying $10,000 or $12,000 for them, fixing them up, and maybe selling them for $25,000 or $35,000,” Shaq said.”It would be easy for me to develop a housing community around a golf course or buy strip malls, but that’s not how I want my book to go.”

Shaq first hooked up with Liberty on a wireless deal, where he will record comments on a card sold through Wal-Mart. For about $4.99 per month, fans will get a custom message from the “gentle giant” Liberty said.

“He gets a third of it, so if we sell 5 million cards a month, he makes $8 million a month,” Liberty said.

Before boarding the jet for Orlando, where he will start a vacation with his family on a giant bus that he recently purchased, about 40 people celebrated the real estate transaction at the back room of the Palm Restaurant in the Tabor Center.

Shraiberg put the deal into perspective:

“It’s not about the money. It’s not about the number of units. It’s about the preservation of affordable housing for our low-income families and residents,” he said. Shaq said a couple of years ago he was leaving an NBA arena and a mother told him her son couldn’t afford $100 shoes with Shaq’s name on it.

“So I made a deal with Wal-Mart where they sell Shaq shoes for $39,” he said.  “It’s all about taking care of people.”‘

Contact John Rebchook at JRCHOOK@gmail.com.