O’Neal’s story in basketball continues to tie itself together
From surgeries to transfers, 23-year-old Shareef O’Neal is carving out his own path
Shareef O’Neal’s journey through basketball, and even life, hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been perfect for him.
From being the son of a Hall-of-Fame basketball player to enduring a life-changing heart surgery before the age of 19, O’Neal has taken something from every step along the way.
“It’s crazy to be [23 years old] and have this journey,” he said. “The journey started when I was 15, playing varsity basketball. Three years after that, I had to go through a life-changing surgery.
“At first, I used to feel like things were easy for me, basketball-wise. Once that hit me, I realized this is not a joke. This journey is unique – it’s a love/hate relationship with this journey for sure.”
However, O’Neal has chosen to turn his trials into triumphs, and he’s hoping the NBA G League Ignite can propel him to the next step.
Growing Up in Hoops
Born in 2000, Shareef arrived just months ahead of his dad, Shaquille’s, first NBA championship. In fact, Shaquille won titles in each of the first three years of Shareef’s life.
It wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later before Shareef would acknowledge the “pressure” that put on himself and a prospective career.
“I knew I had to perform at a high level everyday having that last name,” he said. “It’s like that for everybody: [four-time champion LeBron James’ sons] Bronny James, Bryce James, [hall-of-famer] Michael Jordan’s kids too.
“If your dad played in the NBA or had any profession that he’s a legend in and you’re a kid trying to take after your parent, that pressure is going to be there.”
Later in life, he’d embrace the comparisons to his dad even following in his footsteps in some aspects of his career.
However, during those young years parading through the then-Staples Center halls, Shareef found himself gravitating toward Shaq’s teammate and fellow future Hall-of-Famer, Kobe Bryant.
“Me, even before knowing who Kobe Bryant was, I was a little kid talking about, ‘Uncle Kobe, Uncle Kobe,’” Shareef said. “He impacted my life and basketball a lot. Even [he] and my dad being together, I saw how that made their relationship.”
As Shareef grew older, as did his love for the game of basketball. But one thing about Bryant stood out more than the rest.
“People used to say things about him about how, ‘he wasn’t a good teammate’ or ‘he was mean,” Shareef said. “But that respect was always there. He’s the best for a reason.”
January 26, 2020, Bryant along with eight others, tragically died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.
“Honestly, when that happened I couldn’t even touch a basketball,” Shareef said. “I didn’t want to quit, but I just had to [step back] and worry about myself and my family because my whole family was really, really hurt.”
Using a combination of his dad’s guidance and Bryant’s inspiration, Shareef’s basketball journey began in Los Angeles along the AAU circuit.
Shareef would eventually play for both Windward High School and Crossroads High School in Southern California. Finishing up at Crossroads, he would become a four-star, No. 32 nationally ranked player, according to ESPN.
“I feel like in high school, I didn’t really think about [the comparisons to my dad],” Shareef said. “[When] you see that you’re [nationally] ranked in high school and you get invited to the Jordan Brand Classic – I was feeling myself, I wasn’t worried about [living up to] the last name.”
During his high school years, Shareef had a matchup with current-Orlando Magic center Bol Bol, scoring 20 points against the seven-footer. Ironically enough, Shareef and Bol met originally on the AAU circuit on trips to Las Vegas.
“I feel like that’s where I made most of my best friends,” Shareef said of those AAU trips to Las Vegas. “Bol Bol was on my team and that’s my brother to this day. [Houston Rockets guard] Josh Christopher, Caleb Christopher, who also played on my Cal Supreme team — [Houston Rockets forward] KJ Martin [are my brothers too].”
By that time, Shareef had grown into a star in his own right. He ultimately received offers from universities like Kansas State, Baylor, LSU, Arizona, USC and UCLA.
“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t really know what an offer was,” Shareef said. “I got a letter from UCLA and then my second one came from [head coach Jason Hart] when he was USC. Once I got to 10th grade, the offers started coming in.
“My dad told me when I was getting recruited, ‘My dad didn’t help me so I’m going to do the same thing. You’re on your own – LSU wants you but I’m not going to choose for you,’” he said.
As nerve-wracking as it may have been for Shareef, his mom, Shaunie Henderson, provided some parental insight from that time.
“I think as parents, we all want to be supportive,” she said. “But you want your babies to stay nearby. I was a little torn because I wanted him to be great, I wanted him to follow his dreams and experience life.
“If he wanted to explore and go somewhere else, I think he deserved that.”
Shareef committed to the University of Arizona with head coach Sean Miller. That would be short-lived after the NCAA began an investigation surrounding the recruitment of future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, DeAndre Ayton.
This resulted in Shareef’s de-commitment from the Wildcats program.
“It was kind of scary being looked at by the NCAA in that type of way,” he said. “I wasn’t one of the players that was involved in it, but being a part of that recruiting class with a few other kids that were Top-20 in the class, they were going to look at me, too, because I was in that.”
Now in search of another college home, Shareef committed to UCLA, a top-ranked university in the school of medicine.
Little did he know that decision would change his life forever…in more ways than one.
Upon entry into UCLA, Shareef would soon be diagnosed with a right anomalous coronary artery. By definition, that meant his coronary artery was either currently in the wrong spot or began in the wrong spot.
“Heart problems usually don’t hit kids that young,” he said. “So for me to go through that and be the only person in my family to have a heart problem was crazy. Sometimes I just sat there and thought, ‘Why is it me?’”
This development came after Shareef complained of chest pains during a preseason workout and was later assessed by the medical staff.
“That was the first time I really had to consider myself, ‘struggling,’” he said. “I kind of thought life was a fairytale. Then, boom, that happens at 18. I grew up quick. By the time I turned 20, I was more mature than everybody else.
“The whole surgery was scary. Honestly, before I even went through it, I didn’t think I was going to make it to wake up with the stuff [the doctors] were saying to me. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be it.’”
Again feeling every emotion a mother could feel, Henderson felt lost at times when trying to console Shareef.
“My job was just to be his support,” she said. “I felt just as helpless as he did. I even wished that he said, ‘It’s okay, I don’t even have to play anymore.’ We always told all of our kids, ‘You don’t have to play basketball, don’t feel the pressure to have to play.’
“With what he had he could have chosen to not to play ever again and live with it and be fine [...] He chose [the surgery] and my job was just to support him in his decision.”
Shareef underwent surgery on Dec. 13, 2018. The first three words of his Instagram post after waking up from surgery, “I made it.”
He missed the 2018-19 season as a medical redshirt. His recovery would be a long road, however, Shareef announced via his Instagram he was medically cleared less than four months removed from going under the knife.
By the time he returned to the court, the original person who recruited him, head coach Steve Alford, was gone. In fact, he was fired 13 days after Shareef’s surgery.
Enter head coach Mick Cronin, a coach who Shareef had no prior knowledge of. Still, he opted to remain a Bruin.
“I stayed at UCLA because I didn’t think anybody would take me coming off of heart surgery,” Shareef said. “That was the biggest thing I was thinking about. He didn’t recruit me but he recruited a few of my teammates, so I thought that he’d give me a chance.”
Shareef played sporadically but would ultimately announce his intention to transfer three days after receiving his fifth Did-Not-Play of the season.
Fulfilling a Legacy
Having faced the toughest test of his life, Shareef began to lean into those comparisons to his dad. And it began with one final collegiate transfer.
“I didn’t want to be known as the person that just changes schools every time something gets bad,” Shareef said. “But I was like, ‘I’ve got to show LSU love.’”
The LSU decision came a little more than two weeks after the helicopter crash in California. He said the move was something the entire family needed.
“Now, I wanted to get away from home,” Shareef said. “Kobe had passed, stuff wasn’t really feeling right in LA…My whole family moved away, my whole family moved to Texas. We all got out of there.”
It was a time of firsts for all parties involved as Shareef moved away from home for the first time in his life. Henderson admitted things just weren’t the same without him in the house.
“That was tough,” she said. “It’s funny because my mother calls Shareef, ‘The Dad,’ because he has a very calm spirit. Nothing really rattles him.
“He doesn’t say what he’s feeling, he doesn’t express it a lot. I think that was my issue because that’s my one child that won’t say he’s going through something [...] I cried when we dropped him at LSU, I really did, on the way home. I struggled with that one.”
Shareef played in 24 total games with the Tigers. He donned his father’s No. 32 jersey number for 10 games during his first season.
“I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said. “I wanted people to compare us.”
In his second season, Shareef switched to Bryant’s No. 24.
Shortly after, the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown of all sports nationwide for the most part. Fast forward two years and Shareef declared for the NBA Draft forgoing any remaining college eligibility, but not without another bump in the road.
“The people I work with thought it was two different dates [to declare] so they withdrew me,” Shareef said. “In my own head, I was still going. I was ready to do my workouts and everything.
“It was just a big miscommunication at the wrong time…I was so mad that day but it’s all fixed now. I didn’t want scouts or NBA teams to look at me like, ‘He doesn’t know what he wants to do. He can’t make up his mind.’”
Shareef would not hear his name called on draft night. Shortly after, though, he’d receive a call to play for the team his father and Bryant won three championships together, the Los Angeles Lakers, for their summer league.
“I went from averaging two points in college to working my butt off in the summer and ending up on the Lakers’ summer league team,” he said. “People thought that was because of my dad [and] my dad didn’t even know I was playing summer league with the Lakers.”
Soon after summer league, Shareef signed a six-figure contract with the Ignite. After having his first jersey choice denied due to it already being picked by teammate Leonard Miller, Shareef was given the No. 8, Bryant’s first professional jersey number, something that he feels was fate.
When arriving in Las Vegas, he soon found out he was the only American of the group of early-arrivals.
It wouldn’t be long before familiar faces from not only California began to show but faces from Los Angeles specifically. This included several teammates from LA, as well as former USC lead man Jason Hart, who currently serves as the Ignite head coach.
“As they started to come in, the weight came off my shoulders,” he said. “It was way easier to adjust and fit in. I listen to the LA guys [because] they’ve been in the same position as me growing up in that city. It brings that sense of home over here.”
As his professional career continues to tie his journey together, Shareef works hard to remember why he plays the game.
“When I was talking to my mom about it, she told me, ‘Your story is just crazy,’” he said. “I’m just big on still wanting to play basketball after going through what I went through. YMCA-ball, in the park, in the backyard – as long as I can play, I’m happy.”