By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) - NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal is spearheading an effort to assist high school sports programs derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and wants other big name celebrities to join the cause.
O'Neal's foundation and Icy Hot, which produces pain relief products, recently announced that 23 public high schools had been awarded "Get Game Ready" grants of various amounts.
The money aims to meet a wide range of needs including personal protective equipment, uniforms, reusable water bottles, transportation costs and sports gear.
O'Neal, four-time NBA champion and one of the most dominant centers to play the game, said high school was a critical time and it was tough to see schools forced to cancel their seasons.
"They're missing out on the ability to hang out, the ability to compete, the ability to train, the ability to learn, and the ability to develop. Sports teaches you how to persevere, how to succeed, and how to have fun," he told Reuters this week.
"I've played a lot of sports but my high school sports were the best. Everyone was close, people were behind you, you got to interact with people at school that you would never have interacted with.
"And you never know, one of these schools that we're giving this money to could produce the next Tom Brady, the next Patrick Mahomes or Terrell Owens," he said referring to the NFL stars.
Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers face Mahomes' reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
Wide receiver Owens spent 16 seasons in the NFL.
Putting sports on hold because of the pandemic eliminated crucial revenue from game ticket sales with schools in rural and underserved communities facing extra challenges, said O'Neal.
In addition to the funds, the schools will also receive guidance from the National Athletic Trainers' Association, which will show students and coaches how to compete safely.
O'Neal said he was not looking for credit for the program but hoped other wealthy celebrities will join him.
"If I had a billion dollars I would write every school in America a check, but I don't have that," he said.
"But with a collection of my friends, we have well over a billion. With the collection of the celebrities I know, we have well over $20 billion.
"So I challenge all my friends. Go out there and pick a school and hook them up so they can continue to have athletic programs."
Which is not to say O'Neal does not want a return on the investments.
"It will be amazing if all the schools we gave grants to win state championships," he said. "That's the next thing that I'll be focusing on - how many of them won state championships?"
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Ferris)