Shareef O’Neal hears the same questions on a daily basis.
Is he back playing? How does he feel? Is everything all right?
Everybody can see for themselves Wednesday night.
O’Neal will make his UCLA debut during the Bruins’ season opener against Long Beach State at Pauley Pavilion, showing just how far he’s come since undergoing surgery last December to correct a heart defect.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time,” O’Neal said before practice Monday.
The redshirt freshman power forward played in the Drew League this summer and had six points and five rebounds last week during UCLA’s exhibition victory over Stanislaus State, but he’s eager to contribute in a game that counts.
He’s expecting a large family turnout including his father Shaquille, the Lakers legend, and mother Shaunie, a celebrity in her own right as a successful businesswoman and entertainer.
Shareef’s teammates enjoyed seeing his father at a recent practice, with forward Jalen Hill joking that the wide-bodied center who stood 7 feet 1 and 325 pounds during his playing days needed both of the double doors to enter the facility.
“It was great because having such a legend sit right there,” Hill said, looking toward a nearby baseline seat, “it’s just like, what can you do but not go 110%?”
Hill said Shaquille had given the big men tips and addressed the entire team last year in the locker room, sharing some of his basketball experiences.
Shareef, who is 6-9 and 220 pounds, said having his father around is no longer a distraction because their games aren’t that similar and the elder O’Neal tries to stay out of the way.
“He said when he was in college, his dad didn’t tell him how to do anything, so he’s now going to do the same for me,” Shareef said. “He’s just going to let me enjoy the college life and play.”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin described O’Neal as a hard-working team player who can defend multiple positions and reliably make shots from 15 feet and in. He’s also been open to input, positive or negative.
“He never views coaching as criticism, so he wants you to coach him,” Cronin said. “He knows that’s his way to gain knowledge in practice and continue to grow, so that will accelerate his growth as a player. He’s a coach’s dream when it comes to that.”
O’Neal has a large scar running down his chest as a reminder of his ordeal and wears a device in practice that monitors how his heart reacts post-surgery for research purposes, though he doesn’t wear it during games.
“I know people probably have a lot of questions in their head after the surgery, but it’s not something that bothers me,” O’Neal said. “I don’t worry about it when I play; I just go out there and play my game.”
A family affair
Cronin’s UCLA debut might seem like old times in one sense — his brother will be within earshot.
Dan Cronin had missed only one home game during Mick’s 13 seasons at Cincinnati, when a conflict arose with Dan’s son playing in a city championship. The Bearcats appeared to sense Dan’s absence.
“They lost to Marquette in overtime and [Mick] called me after the game and said, ‘Don’t ever miss another game,’ ” Dan said last spring with a laugh. “And I was like, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t.’ ”
Dan will be able to attend just a sprinkling of UCLA games because he still resides in Cincinnati. Mick might be thankful that his brother will be seated several rows up from the court because he occasionally acted like he was part of the coaching staff while seated directly behind Mick’s bench at Cincinnati.
When the Bearcats played Southern Methodist a few years ago, Dan recalled, he screamed at a referee.
“The ref turned around and said, ‘Who is that?’ ” Dan recalled. “Mick said, ‘That’s my damn brother.’ He’s like, ‘Well, shut him up.’ [Mick] turned around and said, ‘Shut the ... up.’ I just started laughing and I said, ‘Well, I’m part of the staff now.’ ”
Cronin’s father, Hep, and daughter, Sammi, are among the other family and friends expected to attend.
Cronin varied his lineup to start the first and second halves of the exhibition and said he still was tinkering with which groupings work best. “It’s a challenge with this team because we have a lot of depth,” Cronin said, adding that some lineups would be better for offensive purposes and others for defense. … Redshirt senior guard Prince Ali, who suffered a sprained ankle during the exhibition, appeared to be moving without limitation in practice Monday.