Shaquille O'Neal is calling for people to back off Kevin Hart ... saying he shouldn't have to keep apologizing for his old homophobic jokes and wants everyone to "just move on."
"Some people feel he made a mistake," Shaq said ... "He apologized for his mistake. I always thought comedians were allowed to crack jokes."
"Anyone that knows Kevin Hart should know that anything he said was never malicious."
Of course, Shaq is referring to some of Hart's tweets and stand-up bits from 2009 to 2011 -- when the comic described how he'd react if he found out his son was gay.
"Yo if my son comes home & try's 2 play with my daughters doll house I'm going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that's gay,'" Hart tweeted in 2009.
The material resurfaced after Hart was named the host of the 2019 Academy Awards -- and after a backlash online and a demand for renewed apologies, Hart pulled out of the show and only apologized after stepping down.
"He shouldn't have to keep apologizing," Shaq said ... "He apologized twice."
"People should just move on. Everyone makes mistakes."
Of course, Shaq and Kev go way back -- Hart was a headliner Shaq's All-Star Comedy Jam back in 2009 and they've been friends ever since.
Shaq's not the only big star who's come to Hart's defense -- Ellen DeGeneres also went to bat for the comic ... backing Kev's stance that he's evolved and said it's his right to host the Oscars.