Whether waving a giant poster of his face in the bleachers or cheering loudly after a windmill dunk, Santa Monica Crossroads fans can’t get enough of 6-foot-10 senior Shareef O’Neal, otherwise known as Baby Shaq.
Students at the K-12 school greet O’Neal in the morning on an outside basketball court and ask, “Can I throw you a lob pass?” O’Neal has been gracious enough to lift younger students onto his shoulders to let them experience a dunk.
“I like to see the young kids happy,” he said with his usual engaging smile.
Not since the days when Baron Davis led Crossroads to a state title in 1997 have the Roadrunners (23-9) been so close to playing for a boys’ basketball championship. They play host to Lake Balboa Birmingham at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Division II regional championship game. The winner advances to the state championship game in Sacramento next weekend.
O’Neal has been having an MVP season, averaging 27.6 points, 17.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 3.7 blocked shots a game. The growing crowds at Crossroads games have everyone buzzing, but no one more than O’Neal.
“The energy, he feeds off it,” coach Anthony Davis said.
As the son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and VH-1 TV’s “Basketball Wives” star Shaunie O’Neal, Shareef has been followed around by cameras and paparazzi for years. His humility and the respect he gives to strangers, though, shows an 18-year-old who has very much listened to the teachings of his parents.
“A lot of people probably learned in school to treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said. “I just saw how my dad treated people with respect. I wanted to be like him. On the court, he could be a monster. But off the court, he could be real nice to people. I know my parents have always told me to have a kind heart. That’s how I carry myself.”
“This summer, my dad told me, ‘We’re going to work on the things you’re not so good at and we’re going to try it in games. Sounds crazy but trust me.’ He told me to be more of a leader, to have that mamba mentality, how Kobe [Bryant] is cool off the court and when he gets on the court he turns into a whole different person. That’s the kind of mind-set I’ve been trying to have.”
It wasn’t long ago when O’Neal was feeling pressure to live up to his name and the expectations that came with it. He was a freshman hardly playing at L.A. Windward before transferring to Crossroads as a junior.
“It used to be real hard on me,” he said. “My dad told me, ‘Sooner or later, everyone is going to be saying, ‘This is Shareef’s dad,’ instead of, ‘This is Shaq’s son.’ That motivated me a lot. My name is not Shaquille O’Neal for a reason. It’s Shareef O’Neal because he wants me to be my own person.
“My dad is one of the best bigs to ever live. I just try to step away from that as far as possible. That’s why growing up he didn’t teach me any of his moves. He taught me moves of the players he felt I would be like — Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Kobe.”
Asked if he has beaten his 46-year-old father in a game of one-on-one, Shareef said, ”Yes I did. He’s starting to get old. I beat him one time, but he can still get up there.”
O’Neal recently changed his college commitment from Arizona to UCLA in the wake of an ongoing FBI probe of college basketball.
“I think everything is going to work out,” he said. “There were a lot of people in my ear telling me this was true and this was not true. Me, being 18, it was a lot. I stuck to my heart and wanted to stay close to my home and chose UCLA.”
Now Bruins fans are joining Crossroads fans on the O’Neal bandwagon, and with good reason.
“This is the best basketball I’ve seen him play,” says his coach.