When Shareef O’Neal looks in the mirror nowadays, he sees more than a player who led Santa Monica Crossroads High to a state title in 2018 and was one of the top-rated basketball recruits in the nation.
He sees a giant scar that runs down his chest and bisects his “Family First” tattoo. The scar serves as a reminder of the difficulties he faced last year.
Despite the pain and anguish the scar initially caused him, he’s starting to embrace it.
Instead of the Superman 2.0 moniker which pays homage to his father, Shaquille O’Neal, Shareef has taken a liking to a new nickname — Zipper Boy.
O'Neal was preparing to start his career at UCLA last summer when he "felt funny" during practices. He was diagnosed with an anomalous coronary artery — a congenital heart defect that caused an artery to grow in the wrong place.
He announced on Twitter that he would redshirt his freshman season. He underwent open-heart surgery on Dec. 13, 2018.
“The recovery was probably the easiest part,” said Shaunie O'Neal, his mother. “It was the pre-surgery and surgery that was the toughest part. Recovery, it was just patience for him. I know he was frustrated and wanted to get back faster, [but] we pushed through.”
The pain after his surgery was unlike anything O'Neal had felt before. Still, he wanted to walk around the hospital just days afterward.
Sitting around for months and not being able to play challenged him mentally.
"The recovery was hard. It was hard to sit around and do nothing for almost a year," he said. "So the mental side I had crazy thoughts in my head [and] people telling me this and that. I had to overcome. Every time I play, I still think about it. Every time I look in the mirror, I have this giant scar on my chest [that’s] going to be there forever."
After months of rehabilitation, the 6-foot-9 forward was medically cleared to play in March.
He decided to play in the Drew League, which features high school, college, professional and street players competing on 24 teams.
“I was itching to get back after my surgery, so the Drew League was the first thing that came [up],” O’Neal said. “I feel good playing in the Drew League. It’s fun playing here. I didn't announce that I was playing or anything. I just showed up and then people started following along.”
When O’Neal arrived at King Drew Magnet High in Los Angeles to play on June 15, he was excited to play in front of his hometown crowd.
"I feel like if you’re an L.A. basketball player you have to come to the Drew League and kind of just get that respect in house," O'Neal said.
“I felt weird. I felt new to the sport,” O'Neal said. "I had like a cool 10 points. I was just trying to get my run and my wind back to see how I felt. I felt really good. I felt like a whole new player. I could definitely feel the difference from my last high school game to my first Drew League game. I felt stronger, better. I felt like my breathing was better.”
He drove to the basket and completed dunks like his father, the Hall of Fame center who helped the Lakers win three straight NBA titles from 2000 to 2002.
He is averaging 15 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game in the Drew League, playing for Tuff Crowd, a team sponsored by his mother.
O'Neal's return is a source of great joy for Shaunie O'Neal.
“That is the best part of it all. His passion and his dream is to play ball,” she said. “So, I knew how bad he wanted to get back on the court and now that he is [back], it’s even more joy watching him now than it was before."
Being away from basketball for so long taught O'Neal to be more grateful.
“I learned to never take anything for granted because I thought everything was fine before. Thought I had the perfect life going on,” he said. “I thought basketball was going to be all this and that and then boom, I got the call one day that I couldn't play.”
Support from his family inspired O'Neal to add a tattoo to his calf. It shows Shaquille O'Neal's reaction after an alley-oop dunk in the seventh game of the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
While only 4 months old at the time of the game, O'Neal fondly recalls the stories his father told him about the iconic play that helped clinch a spot in the NBA Finals for the Lakers.
“In an interview, he said he was pointing at me,” O’Neal said. "We were up in the box suites and it’s a special moment to me. I was always told that’s where I got my basketball skills from. He said he was just pointing, and the skills went to me. It’s just a special moment.”
“I was going to get a regular picture of him, but I feel like this picture has more meaning. I’m glad I have it tattooed on me.”
O'Neal plans on adding a picture of his mom to the other side of his calf. The new ink is dedicted to his parents for their unwavering support during one of the toughest times in his life.
I feel [really] good. I’m back at UCLA, training, weightlifting and practicing, so my wind is getting back,” O’Neal said. “Still not 100% yet.
"It’s going to take awhile, but I feel really good. I feel like each day I'm getting better. Every time I play it’s a blessing to be playing again.”