SUDBURY — Shaquille O’Neal stood in his kitchen on a recent chilly afternoon debating finances with his girlfriend, Nikki “Hoopz’’ Alexander. They argued about whether certain bills had been paid. Or at least, they tried to argue. They teased each other with wide grins. Within seconds of the debate, they were giggling. It’s difficult for either of them to stay serious when they’re anywhere near each other.
“I knew he was a goofball,’’ Alexander, 28, said of her boyfriend O’Neal, 38, who famously joined the Boston Celtics over the summer. “We’re the same. We’re both goofballs.’’
Alexander is 5 feet 2 inches, making her about two feet shorter than her low-talking, tattooed boyfriend, the oldest active player in the NBA. But despite her small stature, her presence is powerful. She’s feisty and quick with punch lines. Her voice commands attention. She’s a country girl with no filter. She’ll charm you in a heartbeat, which may explain how she won two reality shows, VH1’s “Flavor of Love’’ and “I Love Money,’’ not to mention Shaq’s heart.
Now Alexander is about to embark on her next entertainment project, a reality show that will have cameras following her life in the suburbs and her foray into the athletic-training business. Hoopz wants to become a guru for women’s health and self-defense, and she’s already meeting with her production team and concocting episodes.
She’ll be able to offer plenty of good reality, between the glittery events she and Shaq attend, their suburban life in Sudbury, their penchant for playing games and just goofing around. At home, she’s followed around by her two dogs, a teacup Yorkie named Hunny and a white Lab named Koty, which Shaq bought for her after another of her dogs was hit by a car. She and Shaq also share a new pit bull that he named Shamrock — for obvious reasons. The little ones trail Hoopz like she’s their boss.
The dogs seem most at home in Hoopz’s hideaway, a room on the home’s top floor where she keeps all of her girlie belongings and history books — she loves all things fantasy and narrative nonfiction. Shaq jokes that her room is the “dungeon,’’ but it’s anything but. There are candy canisters all over the place — she has a serious sweet tooth — and the room is decorated with Taylor Swift and “Alice in Wonderland’’ posters. A “Nightmare Before Christmas’’ calendar hangs on her wall.
The best part of the top-floor space is the tiny bathroom attached to it, which is almost all pink with a comically low ceiling. When Shaq steps inside of it, he looks like an “Alice in Wonderland’’ character himself, a giant trying to squeeze into a shrinking room.
For Alexander, the whole place is a home away from home, much like the suburban town where she grew up in Michigan, although Alexander says she and O’Neal could have settled anywhere and been happy.
“We’re chameleons,’’ she said. “We can just go wherever and adapt.’’
They seem settled, which raises the question: Are they getting married? There have been reports of proposals, but neither O’Neal nor Alexander will confirm that they have any specific marriage plans.
Hoopz is coy about it. “We have plans on . . . someday,’’ she said, smiling.
Shaq offered this: “She’s not going anywhere, and I’m not going anywhere.’’
About six years ago, Alexander was living in her hometown of Brownstown, Mich., and was working as a TSA agent in Detroit. During a trip to Los Angeles, an acquaintance in the entertainment business asked her if she’d be interested in appearing on a dating reality show. She said yes without knowing too many details. The program wound up being “Flavor of Love,’’ the VH1 show that featured Flavor Flav, of the rap group Public Enemy, choosing among bachelorettes.
She didn’t know she’d be vying for Flav’s love until she had already signed up for the gig and the cameras were rolling. “It was such a surprise. I was like, ‘Oh no, what am I doing?’ ’’
But she played along and had a great time. After completing a number of tasks — including hot tubbing with Flav — Hoopz won the first season of the show, which earned her the rap star’s on-camera affection, and, in place of jewelry, a set of gold teeth.
Of course, that romance was just for television — there was no lasting connection — so Alexander went on to compete on VH1’s “I Love Money,’’ which included “Flavor of Love,’’ “Rock of Love,’’ and “I Love New York’’ and other reality show castoffs doing stunts to earn a $250,000 cash prize. Alexander won that competition, too. She began appearing in magazines and did some pinup modeling — becoming Hoopz, the brand.
Alexander had met O’Neal a few times, through the Hollywood scene, but hadn’t thought about him much, at least not in a romantic way. It wasn’t until last summer that she was reintroduced to him through a friend. Alexander was visiting her photographer pal, Christopher “Yella’’ Hawkins, in St. Louis, and saw an autographed picture of Shaq on his wall. She told Yella that she had met Shaq and thought he was cool. Yella texted O’Neal that Alexander had said hello. Almost immediately, O’Neal texted Yella back, asking if Hoopz had a boyfriend.
Shaq was divorced at that point and was ready for a new relationship. Within a month, Alexander and O’Neal had lined up a dinner date in Las Vegas. She was in town for her birthday; he was there to tape his show, “Shaq Vs.’’ Yella wasn’t surprised to hear the first date went well.
“They’re silly together. They can act stupid together,’’ Yella said. “For me, knowing the both of them, there’s nothing really surprising to me. They almost met their match — practical jokes, being daredevils, and just having fun and being uplifting personalities.’’
After the first date, Shaq visited Hoopz on her home turf, which at that point was Tennessee. She’d moved south after “Flavor of Love’’ to be with her then-boyfriend, basketball player James “Boo’’ Jackson. After the two split, she wound up staying in Tennessee.
O’Neal jokes that his visit wound up being one big test. Alexander made him dive into a quarry. She took him fishing and to a Waffle House. She forced him to listen to her favorite musicians — Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift.
It was culture shock.
“He likes old-school rap,’’ Alexander explained, shaking her head.
The trip solidified their relationship, O’Neal explained, and was the start of many surprises. Hoopz turned out to be incomparably witty, and compassionate. She’s a tomboy who managed to make turkey for his mom and three of his kids on Thanksgiving. When he decided to dress up like a woman and run around Boston on Halloween, she dressed up as his pimp.
Shaq paused for a moment, trying to explain it. “She’s my first female best friend,’’ he said, “besides my mother.’’
Average suburban couple
At home in Sudbury, they’re a pretty average couple. Well, they do have a live-in chef and other fancy services, but their lifestyle is surprisingly modest in some ways. They like to go to the Coach Grill down the street. They watch a lot of television.
“She makes me watch things I would never watch — like freakin’ ‘Spartacus,’ ’’ O’Neal said, referring to the Starz network show about Roman gladiators.
When they’re not watching TV, they’re playing games, mostly little ones they invent themselves, on the spot. O’Neal says that when they go to the movies, Alexander takes off running out the door. The first person to the car wins.
“I’m the first girl who can beat him at anything,’’ she says proudly.
And while she prefers to stay in sleepy Sudbury, Alexander does make it into Boston. She goes to every Celtics home game and can be seen at the TD Garden shouting for Shaq to get off the bench. She tweets about her local experiences (@TheRealHoopz).
From the sound of it, all that will be fodder for the new reality show. In the meantime, the big question facing them was what they wanted to do on this cold night. “Movies?’’ Shaq suggested.
“What do you want to do?’’ she responded.
“What do you want to do?’’ he asked again.
He stared her down. Alexander stared back, as if they were having yet another contest, but eventually she broke down laughing. It was hard not to.