Shareef O’Neal doesn’t even know how many tattoos he has – all he can do is guess.
The redshirt freshman forward – who announced his intentions to leave UCLA men’s basketball Wednesday night – said he thinks he’s gone to get a tattoo at least 30 times, and that he puts as much artistic thought into them as he can.
“I feel like they tell a story, and I’m a big art guy,” O’Neal said. “I like art, I like it enough to put it on my body. And yeah, I’m not the best at doing it, but I just like seeing it.”
O’Neal got his first tattoo when he was still in high school. The then-18-year-old decided to get his favorite Will Smith quote inked on the inside of his left forearm – “If you’re absent during my struggles, don’t expect to be present during my success.”
From Will Smith to Michael Jackson, “Dragon Ball Z” to Superman, O’Neal said he wants his tattoos to express who he is, rather than just being cool black ink on his skin. He said he’s been inspired by his friends, teammates and family, getting matching tattoos with Washington Wizards guard Gary Payton II, Denver Nuggets center Bol Bol and his older half-brother Myles O’Neal.
But more than anyone else, Shareef’s Hall of Fame father, Shaquille O’Neal, has left a major mark on him – both literally and figuratively.
Passing down the basketball powers
Shareef said he could go on for days talking about the impact his parents have had on his life, but when he decided to get a tattoo of his dad over the summer, there was one moment that came to mind: Lakers versus Trail Blazers, game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
After flushing home a game-sealing slam off a lob from Kobe Bryant, Shaquille ran back down the court pointing up to the luxury box where his then-6-month-old son was sitting.
“He was pointing at me; it has something to do with me,” Shareef said. “He always told me this moment was him passing down his basketball powers to me, so I’ve just always stuck with that and that was always special to me.”
But for as much traction as that play had in the O’Neal household and among NBA fans, the former All-Star had no idea his son was going to come home with it inked on his right calf.
“I could tell he was surprised. I didn’t tell him I was getting it,” Shareef said. “I kind of just showed him and it looked like he wanted to tear up – I could see it, but he doesn’t like showing emotion. He was like, ‘Man, that’s dope.’”
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Vancouver-based tattoo artist Steve Wiebe is the one who brought life to the Shaquille tattoo, which took nearly nine hours to complete. A friend of Shareef’s mom did his first few tattoos, and after a brief stint with another artist last year, Shareef made the switch to Wiebe to add more portrait-style art to his legs.
Shareef may be a former top-five recruit in California and the son of a Hall of Famer, but he is far from the biggest name Wiebe has worked with in the past.
Wiebe has inked up Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Future – among other basketball and hip-hop stars – but he told ESPN’s The Undefeated in the summer that everyone he does work with is important to him.
“My clients are real special people,” Wiebe said to The Undefeated. “It’s not just like, ‘Oh, I tattoo basketball players.’ These are like my family.”
Heart to heart
Shareef has gotten tattoos of his favorite pop culture and sports idols, working with everyone from family friends to industry giants, but he said one of his favorites isn’t even a tattoo.
It’s the scar running through the center of his chest, a result of the open-heart surgery he underwent Dec. 13, 2018.
“That was probably the biggest moment of my life,” Shareef said. “I just love the scar, I kind of think of it as its own little tattoo.”
One doctor had detected a supraventricular tachycardia in Shareef’s heart sometime between 2004 and 2008. From that point on, however, Shareef had always been cleared to play without a hitch – until Sept. 24, 2018.
A team of UCLA doctors told Shareef and his parents that he had an anomalous coronary artery, a heart condition that put him at risk of a life-threatening heart attack every time he stepped on the court.
Shareef had surgery three months later and was unable to return to basketball until the following March.
In his departing statement released Wednesday on Twitter, Shareef thanked the UCLA medical staff who operated on him just over a year ago and added that a piece of his heart would literally and figuratively stay at UCLA forever.
Shareef spent his postsurgery downtime hanging around his former UCLA teammates and getting new tattoos, and he said some of the guys started to take notice.
“In the last year, I had a lot of down time, not playing,” Shareef said. “I did my whole left arm in a year and every time I would come back (my teammates) were like, ‘Man, you have another one?’”
Sophomore forward Kenneth Nwuba and freshman guard/forward Jake Kyman are the only other Bruins with ink, Shareef said. He added that several others have approached him about getting body art of their own, but that most of the questions they ask are about how much it hurts.
The idea for Nwuba’s lone tattoo – a scroll surrounded by angels on the inside of his right forearm – was taken directly from Shareef’s own ink, and the Nigerian-born forward said the friends’ shared tattoo has created a bond between them.
“It was something I had in mind to do, but I was looking for ideas,” Nwuba said. “(Shareef) came in and I saw the scroll and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ so I just copied it.”
The 14 games Shareef played with UCLA this season were the first of his collegiate career.
He averaged 2.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in 10.2 minutes per game as a Bruin, shooting 32.1% from the field, and he had missed five games because of minor injuries and a crowded rotation.
Shareef said his struggles on the court – and his inability to stay on it – have given him an idea for another iconic sports moment to tattoo on his leg: the award-winning shot of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston on May 25, 1965, telling him to get back up and keep fighting.
“I always used to watch Muhammad Ali documentaries and all his movies and the way he kept pushing and kept fighting,” Shareef said. “He was just so uplifting to himself, and that’s what I think about when I play basketball. … That’s why I’m going to get a tattoo of him, because he just inspired me a lot.”
But even before he gets Ali inked onto his leg, Shareef is running out of space for additional tattoos.
He said he doesn’t want to get his older ones redone – the ones on his arms that have been scratched up in games or his “Family First” one with a fresh surgical scar running through it – and he doesn’t want to get any on his face, neck or hands.
So even though his days in Westwood and of getting fresh ink may be numbered, Shareef said the ones he has now will forever represent who he is – no matter what anyone else thinks.
“I feel like people can take (tattoos) in two ways – you either like them, or you hate them,” Shareef said. “I see tattoos as a way to express how I feel, what I’m going through. … I have a tattoo from my heart surgery, different stories, siblings, so I’m not getting tattoos just because – they all have meaning.”