It can’t be easy being the child of one of the biggest and most recognizable athletes in the world. But for Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille O’Neal, it’s had its perks, aside from the obvious ones.
“I feel like being the son of an athlete of his caliber made me grow up a lot faster. I got to see things most young kids wouldn’t see. I got to be behind the scenes of the NBA life and that famous lifestyle,” he tells ESSENCE. The 23-year-old is playing in the NBA’s G-League and dodging any comparisons on the court to his famous father. Making a name for himself has been important since he was very young.
“The thing about me that not a lot of people know is nobody knew who my dad was at none of my schools until I was about 15 or 16 years old,” he shares. “All the parent-teacher conferences, it was just my mom who came. It was a set plan. We just kind of hid it so people didn’t treat us differently.”
“But when basketball season started coming around, people started filming the games. There was a small game, 8 o’clock in the morning, my dad came and someone happened to film him. They posted it on YouTube and that was it after that,” he adds. “Everyone knew.”
He admits that while the family can’t often do common things like go out to eat together, “it’s been fun” to have Shaq as his father. Younger sister Amirah, 21, agrees.
“Growing up with my dad being Shaquille O’Neal was great,” she says. “There were some good things as well as bad things, but due to the fact that I had two amazing parents growing up, paving my own and staying in my own lane has been pretty easy.”
While the siblings, including eldest brother Myles, 25, and youngest siblings Shaqir, 19, and Me’arah, 16, are going after their own passions in the world, including as basketball players, they recently made time to come together to pay homage to their dad. The five of them were photographed for an ad campaign with Silk Nextmilk wearing a plant-based milky mustache reminiscent of the old Got Milk? ads from the ’90s and early aughts. Their dad was a part of them. Always a comedian, Shaq joked with his kids about their first big time shoot.
“My dad, he always claims he does stuff first. He had to get his bragging rights out,” Shareef says. “‘Oh y’all copied my swag!’ I’m like ‘No, we were just paying homage.’ But I feel like he thinks it’s really cool to see his kids redo something that him and my grandma did years ago when he was younger. It’s just fun to see it all come full circle.”
“Working on something so special like the Silk Nextmilk campaign along with my siblings was such a great experience,” says Amirah. “I had such a good time and I’m so glad that my siblings and I had the chance to get together and pay homage to my dad’s ad.”
It was no small feat gathering the five kids (they also have an older sister, Taahirah O’Neal, from a previous relationship of Shaquille’s), who are based all over the country, including in Texas, Nevada and California. The end result is something they’re all proud of.
“I liked it a lot!” Shareef says of the photo shoot. “We’ve done a lot of family photo shoots just for Christmas cards and pictures around the house. That was first time actually doing it and seeing our billboard around the world. I didn’t realize how big it was going to be until after. People still send me the ad they see on Instagram. I was driving in Vegas and I saw a huge billboard of Myles. It’s awesome doing it with my family.”
Family is the most important thing to the O’Neals. When asked what lesson they learned from their dad and super successful mother, Shaunie Henderson, that stuck with them most, both Shareef and Amirah said it was about believing in and being themselves.
“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my parents is to always be myself, and not change for anyone,” Amirah says.
“When I was getting my heart surgery, I was at a low point at that time and I thought I wouldn’t be able to do certain things. After I had my surgery I happened to open my phone and there were people saying negative stuff like, ‘Oh you’re never going to play basketball again.’ Me being in that moment it got to me a lot,” Shareef admits. “I got in my own head thinking I can’t do it. The thing my mom and dad told me was don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything you want to do. It sounds simple but that stuck to me a lot and now look at me. A few years later, I’m doing what I want to do. After they told me that I didn’t listen to anything that people told me that was negative. I was just grinding and grinding and put my head down. I don’t let anyone tell me that I can’t do anything.”
After paying homage to their dad with a major campaign for the number one plant-based milk out there, we asked them if they would continue to follow in their parents’ footsteps by trying out TV in the future. A reality show with the O’Neal kids? We could totally see it, and so could they — if time permits.
“It would be really hard to get us all in the same place,” says Shareef. “Everyone’s so busy and locked in on what they have to do, and with basketball I only get a month and a half of free time in the whole year. Unless we can do it during that time, then I don’t know. But one day we should do it. I like that idea — just the kids doing a show.”
Amirah could see it coming together, and whenever it does, the public can expect lots of laughs.
“We have such an entertaining family. I would honestly love to do a show with all of us,” she says. “I know it would be so funny.”