UCLA Basketball: Shareef O’Neal is the beacon of optimism the Bruins need

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 07: Former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal (L) and son Shareef O'Neal at Apple Music Launch Party Carpool Karaoke: The Series with James Corden on August 7, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Apple)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 07: Former NBA player Shaquille O'Neal (L) and son Shareef O'Neal at Apple Music Launch Party Carpool Karaoke: The Series with James Corden on August 7, 2017 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Apple) /

UCLA basketball’s Shareef O’Neal has been a beacon of optimistic for all Bruins fans, which is why he has quickly become a fan favorite.

Can you imagine coming out of high school as one of the elite power forwards in the nation, receiving and accepting a scholarship from the UCLA basketball program, missing your first year due to heart surgery, making your way back onto the court and having a smile on your face during the entire process? Well that, in a very expeditious summation, describes the journey of redshirt freshman Shareef O’Neal.

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O’Neal started on his path to Westwood began back in February 2018. The former Crossroads High School standout had decommitted from Arizona amid an FBI probe, resulting in him committing to UCLA. He was going to highlight a lackluster recruiting class in the desert, but instead, opted for the Bruins where he would be the icing on the cake for a very impressive recruiting class.

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Last year, the Bruins brought in the #6 recruiting class in the nation with 5-star center Moses Brown, 4-star O’Neal, PG Tyger Campbell, SG David Singleton, SG Jules Bernard, and 3-star C Kenny Nwuba. It was an impressive class, but with all of that talent, former head coach Steve Alford would not be able to utilize two of these players for the 2018-19 season.

UCLA would lose both Campbell and O’Neal before the season started. Campbell would go down with an ACL injury, but O’Neal would be dealing with a more severe situation. He did not have a strain or bone fracture or cartilage tear that would have him back on his feet and playing ball in five to eight months. He had something more serious as his “motor” was not functioning correctly.

In late September 2018, a month and a half before the start of the season, it was announced that O’Neal would need heart surgery to fix an undisclosed issue. It was a blow to the entire UCLA community. For fans, it was heartbreaking knowing they would not get to see the son of Shaquille O’Neal in Bruin blue and gold, but everyone knew that this matter was bigger than basketball.

Everyone knew that this was about life and death.

Still, O’Neal was staying positive. He was not only taking this challenge head on, but he was determined to come back better than ever.

That, I think, is what has made him a fan favorite. Not because he is the son of an NBA legend or because he is on the UCLA basketball team or because he shares the same goofy attitude as his father (though all of that helps). He is a fighter. He has determination. He has been Mr. Optimistic throughout the entire process, and at UCLA, optimism goes a long way.

That process started in mid-December when the surgery took place. I cannot imagine what it is like to go through heart surgery, but I’m sure it was quite difficult for a young man that was hoping to play basketball in his first year in college but instead had to go under the knife. But if there was any fear in O’Neal, he never let anyone see it.

In the months since his surgery, O’Neal has taken to social media to tell the tale of his journey. From being able to laugh about the whole situation by calling himself “zipperboy” to showing pictures of his scar on Twitter (and owning that battle) to showing pure elation in knowing that he is on his way to playing basketball again, Shareef has been the shining light of positivity the Bruins (and their fanbase) need to take them into the next era of UCLA basketball.

About a month ago, UCLA hired Mick Cronin to take over the UCLA basketball team. With the new coach wanting to bring back heart, toughness and fight back to this storied program, I cannot think of a better representative of this new UCLA way than Shareef O’Neal.

O’Neal keeps fighting. He wants to be the best, and he is doing everything he can to get to that point. And maybe, this heart surgery was a blessing in disguise. As O’Neal stated, something was missing from his game.

If UCLA doctors had not picked up on the issue with his heart, something terrible could have happened. But that is not the case anymore. Instead, O’Neal gets to use his new “motor” which will help improve his overall game. So not only does UCLA have an athlete that has fire in his heart, but that heart is making him a better player and person.

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Still, O’Neal is not at 100%. Yet. There are still eight months until the start of the 2019-20 season which gives him plenty of time to get back into game shape. But he has to take it day by day until then. Still, once he has that opportunity to show the world what he is now made of, we are going to see the heart of a champion. We are going to see the epitome of #FightFightFight!