Shareef O’Neal. Son of Shaq, Baby Shaq. Tell me those nicknames don’t belong to a future super hero? One of those characters his father has been known to imitate throughout a multifaceted career as an NBA superstar, actor, television personality, academic?
The man has a doctorate in education. Let’s not forget that.
The one thing Shaq doesn’t have, unfortunately, is a ticket to watch his son play for Crossroads of Santa Monica in Friday’s CIF State Division II championship against Alameda at Golden 1 Center. When the game tips off at 4 p.m., the Hall of Fame center will be in Orlando, fulfilling a prior commitment, admittedly, with mixed emotions.
Though no stranger to Golden 1 – as a Kings minority owner, the former Laker has developed a late-in-life affinity for all things Sacramento – he suspects Shareef will be just fine without his overpowering 7-foot-1, 325-pound presence in the building.
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“Don’t wanna make my son nervous,” O’Neal said from Orlando during a phone interview with The Bee.
Not that Shareef hasn't already seen an inordinate amount of attention for an 18-year-old senior, but Friday’s game represents his first prominent appearance on a grand stage. He has huge sneakers to fill. Jason Kidd, Jrue Holiday, Tyson Chandler and Klay Thompson, to name a few, all arrived in Sacramento with state championship aspirations and left with trophies in hand.
In the most recent conversation between father and son, Shaq told Shareef, “before you go to sleep, think of yourself having a helluva game, winning the title, and bringing that trophy back to the campus.”
Shaq insists that was the extent of his pep talk. He wears a size-22 shoe, but tries not to big-foot any of his six children. Along with his ex-wife, Shaunie, he encourages them to make their own decisions, commit to the chosen course, and feel free to develop an independent streak. Good manners are demanded but mistakes are forgiven, even expected.
Shaq, of course, would have been delighted if Shareef chose to attend LSU, his alma mater, or Kentucky, otherwise known as John Calipari’s one-and-done basketball factory. Shareef instead committed to Arizona, only to decommit several weeks ago when Wildcats coach Sean Miller was implicated in the FBI investigation.
“He called me and said, ‘Dad, Arizona is getting into more trouble. What do I do?’ ” Shaq related. “I told him he was 18 years old and needed to make his own decision. But if he decommitted, he needed to write those people, call them personally, and thank them for the opportunity. He decided pretty quick on UCLA, and after that, I gave Steve (Alford) a call. But one of the things I’m most proud of is this: I didn’t call one college coach and say, ‘Look at my son.’ He did this on his own. He works hard on his own. He doesn’t need me in his ear all the time.”
Though Shareef bears a strong facial resemblance to his father, he offers a very different skill set. Long and graceful at 6-foot-10, without Shaq’s sheer width and bruising physique, he is averaging 27.6 points, 17.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 3.7 blocks. Like most of today’s frontcourt players, he can handle the ball and shoot from deep. According to no less an authority than Shaq, he projects as a stretch-four at the NBA level.
Ah, yes. The NBA. What pressure?
The younger O’Neal, understandably, isn’t immune to the chatter. There is no escaping social media. He felt the burden of outsized expectations during his freshman and sophomore seasons at Windward Academy, and partly because he played so sparingly, transferred to Crossroads for his final two prep seasons.
“It used to be real hard on me,” Shareef told the Los Angeles Times. “My dad is one of the best bigs to ever live. I just try to step away from that as far as possible.”
Once, when O’Neal sensed his son was emotionally struggling, he recounted lessons he learned from Sarge, his beloved stepfather.
“When I got to the Lakers (1996), one game we were playing the Spurs, and David Robinson killed me,” Shaq recalled. “I told him (Sarge) it was too much pressure. My father said, ‘Get your ass on a plane and fly home (Orlando). You think you have pressure?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So I took a red-eye, and when I landed, he took me to a homeless encampment. There were a bunch of families sitting there on the row. He said, ‘Get out of the car and talk to these people.’ Then he just left. I gave them some cash, bought them some food. Later I called my dad and said, ‘You’re right. I am a young kid making a lot of money. They (homeless) have pressure.’ That’s the same story I told my son.”
Despite Shaq’s pro aspirations for his son, he hopes Shareef resists the one-and-done temptation and finishes or comes close to earning a college degree. It’s a family tradition these days. Shaq himself accounts for three degrees.
Meantime, the Son of Shaq, or Baby Shaq, is still learning and listening. The Big Aristotle – aka his old man – has spoken, and he will be anxiously waiting.
CIF State Basketball Championships schedule
At Golden 1 Center
Friday, March 23
10 a.m. – Division IV girls, Rolling Hills Prep vs. Priory
Noon – Division IV boys, View Park vs. Stuart Hall
2 p.m. – Division III girls, West Campus vs. Sunny Hills
4 p.m. – Division II boys, Crossroads vs. Alameda
6 p.m. – Division I girls, Serra vs. Sacred Heart Cathedral
8 p.m. – Division I boys, Chino Hills vs. LasLomas
Saturday, March 24
10 a.m. – Division V girls, Sierra Pacific vs. Lowell
12 p.m. – Division V boys, Santa Clarita vs. Argonaut
2 p.m. – Division II girls, Redondo Union vs. Pleasant Valley
4 p.m. – Division III boys, Notre Dame (Riverside) vs. Pleasant Valley
6 p.m. – Open Division girls, Windward vs. Pinewood
8 p.m. – Open Division boys, Sierra Canyon vs. Sheldon