We previously reported how O’Neal was preparing to start his career at UCLA last summer when doctors discovered he had a heart ailment during a routine checkup. The freshman had to have corrective surgery for a congenital heart defect that caused an artery to grow in the wrong place.
“A lot of people are asking if it’s career ending,” O’Neal told TMZ at the time. “The answer is absolutely not. It’s just a little bump in the road and I’ll be back in no time.”
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“The recovery was probably the easiest part,” said Shaunie O’Neal, his mother . “It was the pre-surgery and surgery that was the toughest part. Recovery, it was just patience for him. I know he was frustrated and wanted to get back faster, [but] we pushed through.”
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, sitting around for months and not being able to play during his recovery challenged him mentally.
“The recovery was hard. It was hard to sit around and do nothing for almost a year,” he said. “So the mental side I had crazy thoughts in my head [and] people telling me this and that. I had to overcome. Every time I play, I still think about it. Every time I look in the mirror, I have this giant scar on my chest [that’s] going to be there forever.”
But after months of rehabilitation, the 6-foot-9 forward was medically cleared to play in March.
“I was itching to get back after my surgery, so the Drew League was the first thing that came [up],” O’Neal said. The Drew League features high school, college, professional and street players competing on 24 teams, per the LA Times.
“I feel good playing in the Drew League. It’s fun playing here. I didn’t announce that I was playing or anything. I just showed up and then people started following along,” O’Neal added.
O’Neal says being away from basketball for so long taught him how to be more grateful.
“I learned to never take anything for granted because I thought everything was fine before. Thought I had the perfect life going on,” he said. “I thought basketball was going to be all this and that and then boom, I got the call one day that I couldn’t play.”
O’Neal recently showed off a tattoo of Shaq’s reaction after an alley-oop dunk during the 2000 Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers — see below:
MAN, this picture always had a very special meaning to me , my dad pointing to me after he catches the lob .. I believe this is how my basketball powers came , the classic point.. !! BIG THANKS TO THE GREAT @stevewiebe for making this come alive Thank you !!! pic.twitter.com/cCJb5D2FSu
— Shareef O’Neal (@SSJreef) July 5, 2019