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Fresh Off the Boat: Shaq guest-stars

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Tyler Golden/ABC

Can you dig it? Former NBA All-Star and four-time champion Shaquille O’Neal is hopping in a time machine and going back to Orlando for this week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat.

The third episode of season 2 sees Louis (Randall Park) and Jessica (Constance Wu) celebrating their wedding anniversary in an unconventional setting: a local car dealership called Shaquille O’Neal Motors. In 1995, the year the show takes place, O’Neal played for the Orlando Magic and was establishing himself as one of the best basketball players in the world. After the 1995–96 season, O’Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers, which should crush the young in-show Eddie (Hudson Yang) later this season.

Figuring out a way to incorporate Shaq Diesel — a personal favorite of the show’s inspiration, restaurateur Eddie Huang — was not easy, even though the team sought to include him from beginning. “We had always talked about him and couldn’t figure out a way, exactly, to do it,” Keith Heisler, the episode’s writer, tells EW. “There had been story lines that we had talked about that kind of just didn’t work.”

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The writers eventually decided that season 2 was the time for O’Neal, but the rest of the plot still had to be developed. “Deciding we wanted to use Shaq in this thing was kind of like hamstringing us until we could find the anniversary aspect of it,” Heisler says. Once the story was ironed out, the team conducted tons of research on the past O’Neal. Well, only one piece: to see if the, um, “iconic” floating sideburns existed.

This still presents a ridiculous situation. Present O’Neal — four years retired, a studio analyst, not in shape — plays a 23-year-old O’Neal, an athletic marvel and hoops monster. Heisler and the crew do, in fact, make knowing nods to the premise. But: “He’s not just playing ‘Shaq,’ ” Heisler says. “He’s playing ‘Shaq,’ but he’s not playing ‘Basketball Shaq.’ “

The Big Aristotle was on set for one day, but his imprint on the cast and production crew was huge. “I can honestly say, and I’m not a big celebrity guy,” Heisler insists, “[but] he’s probably the coolest person I think I’ve ever met — celebrity, non-celebrity.”

“He’s like a magic man,” he explains. “He just goes makes a corner of this room happy then sees another corner, goes over and makes them happy. Just everyone loved him. He couldn’t have been nicer.”

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.