Throughout his time in public life, Shaquille O’Neal has cultivated an image as basketball’s great jokester, a man always ready to toss off a quip or come up with another goofy nickname. For the most part, that approach has served Shaq well, although regular viewers of TNT’s “Inside the NBA” have probably heard “Birdman! Birdman!” a few too many times in the past few months. While reasonable people can differ over whether Shaq is actually funny, there’s little question that he likes to be seen as a fun-loving, carefree soul.

However, there’s a serious side to Shaq that deserves equal attention. At various times, he has showed interest in law enforcement, education, and various other fields that can change society for the better in more direct ways than telling a few jokes. Now, O’Neal has announced plans for a new venture: a children’s hospital that would not charge families unable to pay for care. From Cody Worsham for Tiger Rag (via SLAM):

It was a spur of the moment declaration from Dr. O’Neal, who was addressing the media ahead of his induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, June 29.

“I wasn’t supposed to announce this, but I’m going to do it anyway,” Dr. O’Neal said. “I had a talk with the powers that be in Baton Rouge, and my plan is to build a Shaquille O’Neal children’s hospital. That’s my plan, so that right now is in the works, and hopefully it gets done. ”

Dr. O’Neal said the idea has been discussed for two years, and his goal is to join with Our Lady of the Lake “to build the biggest, freest hospital in the state of Louisiana.”

“All sick children can come for free,” he said. “That’s my vision.” […]

Dr. O’Neal’s announcement couldn’t come at a better time for Louisiana. Faced with budget shortfalls, the state has cut funding to hospitals by $260 million dollars in recent years, according to testimony by House Speaker Chuck Kleckley during the legislative session in May.

Such funding cuts have led Gov. Bobby Jindal — who has continued to reject federal Medicaid expansion that would provide the state more immediate dollars under the Affordable Care Act, citing the law’s inflexibility — to seek private sources of funding for many of the state’s public hospitals.

It bears mention that it takes a really, really long time and lots of money to build a hospital, to the point where it might only exist at a point when Louisiana doesn’t have a governor who rejects crucial funding for children in need to score political points. The future truly holds magical possibilities.

Whatever the case, this is pretty clearly a wonderful idea. It appears to be modeled on the concept practiced by St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a favorite location for charity efforts (and tea parties) for the NBA’s Grizzlies. The concept takes a great deal of support to function properly, but Shaq likely has a big enough network to reach a higher level of success than others. Here’s hoping he continues to work to make it happen.