Zipper Boy Returns

In 2018, a rare heart condition nearly cost Shareef O'Neal his life. Now, after open-heart surgery, "Superman 2.0" is on his comeback ish. His next miracle? Take the college hoops world by storm.
Eric YeboahContributor IPhotos by Jineen WilliamsJuly 25, 2019

Shareef O'Neal is known as "Reef" to his close friends and family. But holler "Reef" on the street or at UCLA, where he is entering his second year, and he'll usually respond warmly with a gesture or smile.

As he arrives at the Drew League, the country's premier summer pro-am, George Preciado, the longtime in-game announcer, shows love. "Shoutout to Reef!" he says into the mic as Shareef walks toward the seating area at King Drew Magnet High School.

Shareef nods his head and grabs one of the available courtside seats. He is rocking black oval-framed glasses, a black fitted "LA" hat, an exclusive Campus Drip black hoodie and a pair of '90s retro pinstripe Orlando Magic shorts. A white-and-black banner hangs on the wall adjacent to the shot clock bearing the Drew's motto: "No Excuse, Just Produce."

He drove from Westwood, California, to watch his dear friend and top 2020 high school prospect, Josh "Gup" Christopher play. Shareef is friends with other basketball royalty: Bol Bol, Zaire Wade and Bronny James. Like LaMelo Ball, another close friend, Shareef has regularly appeared on reality shows—his mother, Shaunie, is the mastermind behind Basketball Wives and Shaunie's Home Court. Shareef also has his own personal photographer. TMZ trails him regularly around Los Angeles. He has a relationship with Quavo from Migos. 

The game quickly turns into a blowout. Shareef walks over by the rim to chat with friends, play one-on-one with kids. They can't get a bucket over his 7'0" wingspan. Nipsey Hussle's "Ocean Views" fills the gym. Shareef is in his element on this Saturday. He loves the Drew, loves Los Angeles deeply. "I got 'LA' tatted on me because it's such a big part of me," he says.

A month prior, he chose to make his public return to competitive basketball here, in front of the ones who have supported him and his family. It was a coronation and, considering what he had been through, a rebirth. In 2018, Shareef went from hoops royalty to 4-star recruit to not knowing if he would be able to continue playing basketball due to a rare heart condition.

Today, he wears a wide, boyish smile. Every few minutes he pauses to take a photo with a young fan then continues with his conversations. He doesn't take that kind of love for granted. "I know kids look up to me," he says. Looking at him now, it's hard to understand how much he has overcome. 

By the start of his senior season at Santa Monica's Crossroads School in fall 2017, Shareef had earned the title of No. 1 player in California, according to ESPN100. Nationally, he was only ranked 32nd overall and just ninth among his class at his position. He had played well the previous summer on the AAU circuit as a member of the Cal Supreme Elite. Scouts gravitated toward his length, skill and athleticism. His dunks were breathtaking, and he had a graceful shooting touch for his size that, with some work, had potential to make him a threat inside and out.

Shareef had been in the public eye and around high-profile names his entire life. He felt the weight of the expectations attached to him as the child of one of the greatest NBA players ever. "Negative energy been there since the day I was born," he says. "Right when people found out Shaq had a son they probably had all types of thoughts. Is he going to play basketball? Is he going to be as good as his dad?"

“I got ‘LA’ tatted on me because it's such a big part of me,” Shareef says.
“I got ‘LA’ tatted on me because it's such a big part of me,” Shareef says.Jineen Williams for B/R

When the announcement came that he was not selected to the 2018 McDonald's All-American team, Shareef watched on TV, checking his Twitter feed, hoping to see his name pop up somewhere. When it didn't happen, it was as if a fire was lit in him. A day later, LeBron James dedicated a post to Shareef on Instagram:

"Nephew listen, Even though we all know you should have made that McDonalds game use it as motivation to prove not to those who didn't vote you in, not to those who is actually in the game but more importantly to yourself that u belong!"

At Crossroads' next game, Shareef dropped 30 points in a 76-64 win over Campbell Hall, Jrue Holiday's alma mater, much to the chagrin of a few trolling students who brought McDonald's Happy Meals as jokes. A few games later, he led a comeback versus rival Brentwood School by scoring 23. He kicked it up a notch in the playoffs, posting 25 in a road game.

As he displayed more and more promise on the court, Shareef was monitoring the developments of the FBI NCAA college bribery scandal that had made headlines the previous fall. The FBI report implicated University of Arizona assistant coach Emanuel "Book" Richardson and head coach Sean Miller. Shareef had committed to Arizona as a junior. "I was just hearing things. A lot of rumors were going on," he says. In February, he switched his commitment to UCLA, removing himself from a toxic situation that could impact his future. "I played it safe. I didn't know what was going to happen to the program. So I just came to my second choice, UCLA."

"Negative energy been there since the day I was born."
—Shareef O'Neal

Some Wildcat faithful took the news of the decommitment to heart. An online Wildcat fan group lashed out at Shareef online. "They were saying some wild stuff, like stuff you shouldn't say about your worst enemy," Shareef says. Shaunie recalls threats: "The things people were saying. Like, 'Next plane you get on, I hope it blows up,' and 'Don't come here. We'll tie you to the back of a truck.'"

Shareef tried to block it out as best he could. In March, he led Crossroads to its first state championship since 1997, when Baron Davis, another Bruin alum, delivered a D4 chip. Shareef earned an invitation to the Jordan Brand Classic shortly thereafter, a nice cap on his high school career.

All was well in his mind. Physically he was maturing—getting stronger, faster and more athletic. He felt primed to make a statement his freshman year. A few months later, after arriving on campus, Shareef was required to complete a routine, handwritten physical. As he worked his way through questions about his medical history, one in particular—a question about whether he had any heart issues—caught his attention.

Shareef called his mother, who then shared details of his heart history with the trainer. When Shaq played for the Miami Heat between 2004 and 2008, a doctor had detected a "little ablation" in Shareef's heart—supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT. Since then, he had been going to annual checkups with a cardiologist. But every year—from childhood through his teenage years—he was cleared. "I felt like I was taking all the steps to make sure that my kid was OK by getting him checked by a cardiologist," Shaunie says.

Several days later, the trainer decided to run some tests, including placing a heart monitor on his body for five days. Shareef, feeling that there was nothing wrong with him and that the heart monitor was unnecessary, wasn't happy.

On Sept. 24, 2018, a group of 15 UCLA doctors called Shareef and Shaunie into an office to deliver the results. Shaq joined via FaceTime. The doctors said Shareef had a heart abnormality called anomalous coronary artery, or ACA. The tests showed that whenever Shareef's heart had an abnormality, if it went over a certain number of beats per minute, it was being squeezed. As a result, the coronary arteries could not supply the necessary blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the heart. At any moment, that could have led to a heart attack and possibly death. He would need open-heart surgery and a medical redshirt for his freshman year.

"You know, you could play ball a million times and be fine," Shareef recalls one doctor saying, "but that million-and-one could've been the time to take you out, or the million-and-seven could've been the time to take you out."

Shareef was consumed by his emotions. He broke down in tears.

"I kind of felt lied to a little bit. I was going all that time thinking I was fine," Shareef says, looking back on that moment. "I was living the rest of my life, 14 years, thinking I was fine playing every day, didn't know that I could possibly die that day."

In 2018, Shareef was diagnosed with anomalous coronary artery.
In 2018, Shareef was diagnosed with anomalous coronary artery.Jineen Williams for B/R

Shaunie wonders why doctors didn't catch the ACA when Shareef was younger. "You know, when he would say his heart was beating really fast, we were told, 'Oh, it's just him growing too fast. His body's too big for his heart, and his heart's not keeping up with his growth,'" she says.

"Why didn't they do more testing to see that this was what this was? From what I was told, they went through the proper procedures. Like you don't just give people MRIs and CAT scans and all that kind of stuff based on your heartbeat [going] up sometimes when you're doing things."

According to Stanford, ACAs are present at birth but often go undetected until late adolescence or adulthood. Early diagnosis is difficult thanks to "the lack of symptoms or because symptoms may not be recognized as being caused by ACA."

Shaunie and the family were devastated by the news. She considered Shareef the "nucleus" of the family. "My mom calls him the dad," she says, referring to Shareef's grandmother, Dear, "'cause he is very in tune with where everybody is, what everybody's doing, making sure everybody's OK. And he's kind of always been that. He is kind of like a dad."

Shareef's cousin and close friend Greg Jordan noticed a dramatic shift in the mood inside the O'Neal house. He struggled to cope, as well. "My heart dropped," Jordan says. "I know how bad he wanted it and how hard he worked to get to where he is, and once he told me, I just lost it. I didn't know what to do. Because I knew he was down."

Jordan says Shareef was "always a happy person." But that changed somewhat after the diagnosis. "Every day I was talking to him," Jordan says. "I called him, checked [in] and made sure he was good. Once, I found he was really depressed, sad, not good energy. It was like everything just changed."

Shareef did research on the kind of heart surgery he would need—the complications and death possibilities sent him into a complete "panic mode." "The stuff I looked up is probably stuff I shouldn't have," he admits. His surgeon, Frank L. Hanley, MD, professor of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the Children's Heart Center at Stanford, offered his reassurances during one of his pre-surgery appointments.

"The surgeon told us, 'Some people decide to get the surgery, and some people are just like, I'm going to live with it and hope nothing ever happens.'" After hearing that, Shareef thought, I don't want to get this surgery. I might just stop. "I was so scared because I was reading all that stuff," he says. "But then I could see the face my mom and my dad made. I can't just live with this because I don't wanna go the next day, pick up a ball and be like, 'This could possibly be my last day playing.'"

Hanley then told a joke to lighten the mood: "LeBron James is the Frank Hanley of basketball." That helped soften Shareef's trepidations some—at least for the time being. "When he said that, I said, 'This guy is accomplished. I'm going to let him do it,'" Shareef says.

Surgery was set for Dec. 13, 2018 at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.

The week of the surgery, family and friends threw a pre-surgery gathering. Shaunie cooked food. "We just had a good vibe," Shareef says. Nobody really spoke about the operation. The purpose was to shower Shareef with love. People gave him hugs, laughed and hung out. "It was like a regular day. Nobody was talking about it."

Shareef continued to go about his regular life. The day he was scheduled to leave for Stanford, he took a final. "I felt really good about the final," he says. "After I handed it to the teacher, he was like, 'What are you doing now that school is over?' And I was like, 'I got to catch a flight right now and go get heart surgery.'"

When he got to Stanford, Myles, Shaqir, Amirah, Me'arah and other family members were there. Shaqir helped keep Shareef's energy up. "Thank God I have a brother like Shaqir," he says. "Because he such a funny kid and he kept the energy. I can't really imagine being an only child."

On surgery day, Shareef awoke at 4 a.m. to prepare for going under the knife. He had to be at the hospital at 6 a.m. He had to wipe his body with sanitizing wipes. He got into his surgery gown and put a hoodie on to stay warm. The family crowded around the prep room while a crew readied him for anesthesia. They hadn't met the anesthesiologist at the pre-op meetings, Shaunie says. When it was time for him to go under, she watched as her son get wheeled away. "I just wanted to go with him," she says. "You know, I just didn't want him to feel by himself."

"You don't want to say goodbye," Shaunie adds.

Shareef hates needles. While the staff prepared him for sedation, they gave him a virtual reality game and let him listen to music. "They were being slick, and I could feel it," Shareef says. He became light-headed and felt his body "rolling." He blinked, then blinked once more and was out. The last song he remembers was "Say You Will" by Kanye West. Those few seconds, he says, were "the scariest moment in my life."

Those few seconds before open-heart surgery, Shareef says, were "the scariest moment in my life."
Those few seconds before open-heart surgery, Shareef says, were "the scariest moment in my life."Jineen Williams for B/R

When he awoke hours later in the ICU, his mother and father were standing bedside. Shareef was laboring to breathe. "I had this big tube I was breathing through, and I had like a chest tube and something in my stomach," he says. "I was just trying to catch my breath. Then I started crying when I got up because I was just so confused. I seen my mom and them and they were like, 'Its all over. It's all over.'"

Before Shareef dozed off, a staffer told him to dream about happy things, but he also had thoughts that something bad might happen. "I was like, 'What will make me happy?' I never really told anybody this, but I was like—LeBron! While I was asleep during my surgery, I had been dreaming, and LeBron was in the dream," Shareef says. "Damn, that's crazy."

He was in a lot of pain. He pressed the nurse call button "like crazy." "I never been hurt like that in my life," Shareef says. "I've broken bones and all that, but there wasn't a pain like that."

The surgery had left him with no power in his body to stand up. And yet, he eagerly requested to walk the second day. Hour by hour, he was progressing—faster than what a number of doctors expected. "He was a real soldier through the whole thing," Shaunie says.

He found inspiration in unlikely places. One day, he met a fellow patient—a 16-year-old, by Shareef's estimate—wearing a red superhero cape. The boy had already undergone two transplants and was headed to his fifth surgery. Shareef was impressed by the boy's spirit. "He was the happiest kid I ever seen in my life," he says. "I thought it was cool that he had such a good mindset after all this."

It was then that Shareef's outlook on his recovery changed. He started thinking about how he might draw from his experience to create something new. He had a sizeable scar running down the middle of his chest with stitches sewn together like braids. (In most open-heart operations, surgeons must make a long incision through the sternum.) Like his father, Shareef liked to create nicknames for himself. One is SSJREEF, which serves as his Twitter handle. So after some thought, he came up with a new moniker: "Zipper Boy."

"I found out what a zipper scar was, and my dad was Superman," Shareef explains. "I wanted to make something good out of something bad. I wanted to make a superhero."

Five days later, he was released from the hospital. But his recovery was far from over. Sleeping was painful, breathing hurt, lifting bags seemed impossible. Shareef could barely pick up his cellphone. He describes himself as resembling "a walking mannequin." (Before surgery, he weighed 222 pounds; after he walked out, he had dropped to 197 pounds.) The recovery instructions from his doctors were simple: eat and rest.

He received a lot of positive words from some of the biggest stars in basketball. LeBron left a comment on Shareef's Instagram post with encouraging words following the news of his surgery release. Kobe called him weekly leading up to his surgery. Tracy McGrady, with whom Shareef has previously trained, stayed in touch.

Some hoopers knew Shareef's struggles personally. In 2007, Etan Thomas underwent open-heart surgery to repair a leak of the aortic valve. "I would tell him to take his time but to use any negative criticism or doubters as motivation," says Thomas. "Let it fuel his fire and remember that what God has for you, nobody can take it away from you."

Current Utah Jazz forward Jeff Green missed the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season due to an aortic aneurysm that could've burst and bled inside his body at any moment. "He's just 19, so when you are younger you heal a lot faster, and I just told [Shareef] it's going to be a process," says Green. "My thing was always to keep your faith. Stay strong and just believe."

Shareef found hobbies to keep himself busy. He watched movies like Creed 2, Unbroken, The Revenant—one of his favorites—and Dragon Ball Z. He watched Fortnite clips on YouTube and played video games. He started getting into beat-making and film editing, crafting mixtapes and short movies. Southside of 808 Mafia, who follows Shareef on IG, invited him to the studio. "He was in there recording some songs, and I was listening to beats, and the day after I was like, 'I'm going to Guitar Center and get a beat machine right now,'" Shareef says. "Music probably helped me get through a lot."

He also started to reassess life and prioritize his well-being. "I made sure I was good before making sure everyone else was good. After that, I shut that all down and had to realize what was important: school, family and all that." Unsurprisingly, some of the people he knew pre-surgery didn't reach out during the most frightening time of his life.

"He was a real soldier through the whole thing."
—Shaunie O'Neal on Shareef

"My parents told me there would be some people hang around me just because my name or what I have," says Shareef. "I feel like people saw me go down for a second there, and they were like this might be the end of Shareef. We might just pass this off and go to the next hot name.

"I noticed it, and I don't have any beef with those people. No hard feelings. That's how they roll, so I'm just going to let them be."

He lost contact with a lot of folks, became less social. Meanwhile, he was working out, slowly gaining steam physically.

In March 2019, he took a stress test. The test required him to run for an extended period of time while doctors assessed the electrical signals that triggered his heartbeats. Shareef doubled the expected time and was cleared to resume activities.

He announced his clearance on social media in a video of him running in slow motion on a treadmill. "I always get back up," flashes across the screen.

Shareef O’Neal @SSJreef


Excitement poured into the comment section from fans, friends and members of the NBA family like Tyson Chandler, Trae Young and Stephen Jackson.

Shareef's next move was to work out in L.A. with Gup, Caleb Christopher and Billy Preston. His first shot was a mid-range swish. He then threw down a few dunks. It was a day he and his "brothers" would never forget.

On June 15, 2019, he made his Drew League debut. He wanted to stay low-key and chose not to alert the public. But it didn't matter. His team, Tuff Crowd, was scheduled to play at 1:00 p.m. that day. LaMelo Ball was expected to play in the 3:45 time slot. A line outside wrapped around the building. As Shareef put on his No. 7 jersey, he got anxious. He told himself he could either crumble under pressure or "turn up."

Just after tip-off, Shareef snagged the rebound off a miss, raced down the court toward the right side of the floor and missed a pull-up three-pointer. I missed my first shot, he thought to himself. Next time I get the ball, I'm going to do something.

A few possessions later, his teammate and NBA free agent Brandon Jennings grabbed a long rebound and passed the ball to Shareef in the right corner. He drove baseline and powered through his defender with his left shoulder, sending the defender into the floor. Shareef then rose over the next defender who came to contest and threw down a right-handed dunk that sent waves through the crowd. Some flinched in their seats, and some made a face like they tasted a lemon.

"Shareef O'Neal!" Preciado yelled over a raucous crowd.

It was a moment of redemption. The return of Shareef O'Neal.

Shareef thinks often about what got him through: his support system of family and friends. "I have 'Family first' tatted across my whole chest for a reason," he says. "My family is real strong. A lot of people say my family really sticks together. We never really go anywhere alone."

The ups and downs have been humbling. He tries to smile more. Be more gracious with fans. "I think people who don't really know think I live the smooth road," he says. "Nobody lives a perfect life. You can have everything you want in the world, but I don't think it will be perfect. People think I have never gone through struggle moments, and there has been plenty of times I've gone through struggle moments."

“He's definitely more focused, a lot more, you know, appreciative … He was always a good kid, but I think now it's just—he appreciates everything,” says Shareef's mother, Shaunie
“He's definitely more focused, a lot more, you know, appreciative … He was always a good kid, but I think now it's just—he appreciates everything,” says Shareef's mother, ShaunieJineen Williams for B/R

The ordeal has made him all the more grateful. "He's a different Reef for sure," Shaunie says. "He's definitely more focused, a lot more, you know, appreciative … He was always a good kid, but I think now it's just—he appreciates everything."

Shareef is preparing for his first season at UCLA. He's put on weight again, tried to improve each day. His bounce is as springy as ever. He is more aware of his body and flags things quickly. "He calls me more," Shaunie says. "He's just more open to talking." Shareef says this summer and the summer he declares for the draft will be big tests for him. "This will probably be bigger because I feel like I was forgotten in the basketball world a little bit," he says.

He thinks back to the decision to come to UCLA in the first place. "A lot of people say 'God's plan' because if I was still at Arizona, who knows what could have happened to me," says Shareef. "I don't know if they would have found the same problem. I'm glad I made that decision. That probably was the biggest decision of my life."

Now that Shareef has entered a new chapter in his life, he's been cooking up a new nickname—and he's had some help.

"My dad told me you might need to take that new Superman name," Shareef says. "I thought about it. I didn't want to take it. [But] he made it a big deal. I asked him why and he said, 'I didn't make it through a heart surgery. I didn't have to go through what you did at 19. I don't think I would have been able to make it. You're strong. You're on top of the world. Nobody can stop you. After your new heart, you will be the baddest man out. You take the Superman name.'"

After some hesitance, Shareef decided he would take the name, but with a slight twist. "I don't want to say I'm the new Superman, but I will say I'm Superman 2.0," he says. He got the shield tatted on his left arm. "That will be my new little nickname because he was the OG Superman."

Eric Yeboah is a producer at Bleacher Report.