May 26, 2024

WITH MINUTES LEFT in the fourth quarter of the SLAM Summer Classic at Rucker Park in New York City, Me’Arah O’Neal catches a lob pass near half court. A clear pathway to the basket and a rim just waiting to be grabbed sparks an outrageous idea. The idea is not hers alone.

“She want to dunk!” the emcee yells as hundreds of fans rise and cheer. “Get your dunk for your pops!”

A defender inches closer then backs off and motions her arms toward Me’Arah. “Go on,” the defender says and signals with her left arm that the coast is clear.

Me’Arah dribbles toward the hoop at the legendary streetball court, takes two steps and unspools her 6-foot-4 body as it elevates closer to the basket. Her right hand reaches for the rim. And the ball slips out.

She is close enough to turn the would-be dunk into a layup. But it isn’t what she had imagined.

She dips her head and makes a little fist with her right hand — How dare you lose your grip! — before flashing a look and smiling at her mom, stepdad and siblings who are watching from behind the basket. She pushes both of her arms up in a “raise the roof” motion before rushing back on defense. She knows she was close.

“My dad always tells me that pressure makes diamonds,” Me’Arah says. “I always try to keep that with me, especially in those moments where everyone is watching. I’m just trying to do me and make myself proud.”

Pressure is nothing new for Me’Arah, a senior post player at Episcopal High School in Houston. For as long as she can remember, expectations — Diesel-sized expectations — have followed her onto the basketball court. In 2016, her dad, Shaquille O’Neal, predicted during his Naismith Hall of Fame induction speech that Me’Arah would be the best women’s basketball player ever. She was 10.

She’s not the best yet. She might not ever be the best. Instead, at the age of 17, she’s learning that she can make a name for herself, one that’s rooted in her father’s legacy but defined by her own game. In her final year of high school, she’s ready to prove to herself that she has what it takes to play at the next level and be elite in her own way.

“I’m pretty sure a lotta people expect me to play just like my dad,” Me’Arah says. “Strong, big post player, runnin’ through people, what Shaq does. But I’m not that. The biggest expectation is to turn out like my dad. But fulfilling that name, that’s not really my goal. … I just wanna be my own person and make a name for myself. And I think I’m doing that pretty well.”

RELEGATED TO THE sidelines of a 6,000-square-foot basketball court inside her family’s Orlando mansion, 3-year-old Me’Arah watched her older siblings dribble the basketball and run around pretending they were NBA players like their dad. As the baby of the family, Me’Arah was usually left out. But she wanted to bounce the ball. Run with it. Pass it. Shoot it.

One day, her brothers finally gave in and let her join. With her father’s memorabilia hanging from the walls and a huge Superman logo bolted near half court, Me’Arah enthusiastically dribbled the ball, much to the shock of her family.

All the O’Neal children were gifted, but her mom says Me’Arah took it to another level.

“When I first saw Me’Arah dribble a basketball,” Shaunie Henderson says, “I actually was kind of shocked because no one taught her. She just watched her brothers. It wasn’t even like she was a little girl that watched basketball on television. … She has a God-given athletic ability that is just not normal.”

Myles, Shareef and Shaqir refused to take it easy on their baby sister.

“During the early years, they used to push her around, and she used to get mad,” Shaquille says. “And you know, for us, our vampire bloodline, when we get mad, it’s over. She definitely used to get mad. And I used to get mad at the boys for, you know, pushing her around a little bit.”

Me’Arah loved the challenge. She was fearless against her brothers. Whether it was one-on-one or all the older siblings against Me’Arah, the mismatches pushed her to get better. That was exactly what she wanted.

But no matter how exciting it was to watch their youngest dribble the basketball and get buckets against her brothers, Shaquille and Shaunie say they never pressured any of their children to play basketball.

“I’m the type that I don’t really push it on ’em,” Shaquille says. “I always wanted them to just be able to follow their dreams and be very, very educated.”

One afternoon, just a few months after kindergarten started, Shaunie received a call from the physical education teacher at Me’Arah’s school. “Hey, do you have time to come to the school a little early before pickup?” “Sure, no problem,” Shaunie said, curious about the strange request.

When she arrived, the P.E. teacher wasted no time. “I need you to see your daughter throw a football.” Shaunie looked at him, bewildered. “Have you ever seen her throw a football?” he asked. Shaunie told him her daughter didn’t even play football.

On the schoolyard, 5-year-old Me’Arah stood next to the other kids and waved at her mom. The P.E. teacher ran onto the field — in Shaunie’s memory he was some 50 yards from her daughter — and asked Me’Arah to throw him the ball. Shaunie thought to herself, “There’s no way my little girl is going to make it to him. She’s only 5.” With one smooth motion, Me’Arah launched the football in the air straight to the teacher.

“It was that moment that I was like, ‘Oh she’s special,'” Shaunie says.

Shaunie signed her daughter up for flag football and recreational basketball in Orlando at the local YMCA. “All weekend, we’d be at the rec center playing games,” Shaunie says. “She clearly had a talent level beyond her age.”

Nearly every day, Me’Arah returned to the family’s indoor court to take on her brothers.

“She just wanted to play basketball all the time,” says 23-year-old Shareef, who played at UCLA, LSU and most recently in the G League. “We’d all play with each other and my friends, you know, some of my friends that are in the NBA now. She’d rather play with us than play with her friends. Even from when she was single digits, she always wanted to play with the boys — the older boys.”

WEARING A BRIGHT pink dress and sitting between her sister Amirah and brother Myles, Me’Arah watched as her dad walked up to the stage to be formally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2016 class.

His speech reflecting on his career — four NBA championships and a 15-time All-Star — spanned a half-hour. Toward the end, he surprised his kids with a request. He asked each one to stand up individually.

“My youngest baby, Me’Arah. Stand up, baby,” he said. Her dress glistened under the bright lights. She raised up her right arm, pressed her lips together, smiled and waved to the crowd. As the audience cheered, she looked straight at her father before sitting back down.

“I don’t like to put pressure on my babies, but she works out with my sons, and I think it’s fair to say one day if she continues, Me’Arah will probably be the best women’s basketball player ever,” Shaquille said. “She’s that good.”

With her legs crossed and her hand fidgeting with her dress, Me’Arah smiled at her dad before turning to her brothers and mother. Her smile never faded as she gently shook her head and turned back to look at her father.

Later that night, she confided in her mother: “Oh my God, I can’t believe he said that.”

Shaunie wasn’t surprised by Shaquille’s praise. If anything, she was surprised by Me’Arah’s surprise at his praise.

“I don’t think she felt pressure negatively,” Shaunie says. “I think she felt pressure to get it together and really hone in on what she wanted in that moment. I think it was a special moment for the two of them.”

Me’Arah had long ago come to understand how much her father was adored. “Every time we would go out or just do stuff as a family, there was a huge crowd of people screaming, ‘Oh my God, Shaq!'” she says.

What she didn’t understand is what, exactly, he saw in her. Or even how he saw it. Throughout her childhood, there would be weeks — sometimes months — where her father wouldn’t be around. Her parents’ divorce was finalized in 2011, years before that Hall of Fame ceremony, and he seemed to always be on the road. Since she was born, he played for Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston. Sometimes, even when he was around, Me’Arah felt like he cared more about what her brothers were doing on the court and less about how she was progressing.

Shaquille says he knew Me’Arah’s game was in good hands with the guidance from her mom, brothers and coaches.

“I like to think I can see the future,” Shaquille says. “You got a little baby doing that and looking like that. And I only dream positive thoughts. If you’re in the house and her form is perfect, and she’s not beating her bigger brother and sister but hanging with ’em at a young age, like oh, you just know.”

His prediction was confusing then. It’s confusing now.

“It’s scary,” Me’Arah says, “that he actually believes that.”

WHENEVER ME’ARAH OR one of her siblings stepped foot in a gym for a basketball game, crowds followed. They were “Shaq’s kids.” It didn’t matter if they were hooping at the local YMCA or at an AAU tournament, people came for the “O’Neal” name and stayed to see what the kids could do. Oftentimes, pictures or videos made their way to social media. Comments flooded in.

“When I was playing, my brothers were playing, we would have huge crowds in the gym just because people knew either my dad was in the gym or they just knew that we were playing,” says 21-year-old Amirah, who walked on at LSU (her dad’s alma mater) before transferring to Texas Southern. She no longer plays. “People had all these expectations of us to be just so great even at a young age.”

For Me’Arah, a teenager who was just starting to take her game seriously, that attention and those expectations were paralyzing.

Before some of her games, Me’Arah confided with Amirah.

“What if I play bad?” she asked. “People are going to say I suck.”

Amirah had a patented reply. “You’re going to have bad games. Everyone has bad games occasionally. People are just going to want to come for you because of your last name. You can’t let it get to you.”

Me’Arah had grown accustomed to the chaos that followed her family practically everywhere. “You know how it goes… just big ol’ crowds yelling his name, asking for pictures,” she says. But on game days — her game days — it felt different.

“If he just showed up just to show up, then it threw me off,” Me’Arah says. “It used to mess with me.”

The expectations and pressures of not just living up to her father’s legacy but being even remotely good enough to have a chance to step into those expectations weighed heavily on her. Me’Arah’s self-confidence plummeted, especially when it came to basketball.

“It’s not even the expectations with my dad,” Me’Arah says. “It’s just me as an individual. I’m really, really hard on myself. I just feel like I’m not good enough or I’m not doing this good enough or I’m just not good enough as a person.”

The idea of not being “good enough” reached its peak when she started playing AAU tournaments. Right before her freshman year in high school, her family moved from Orlando to Los Angeles, and she wanted to make basketball more than a beloved after-school activity.

The more seriously she took basketball, the more vulnerable she became. She played in bigger gyms, in front of more people, which meant she opened herself up to more criticism and outside opinions.

“The unfortunate thing with the last name,” Shaquille says, “they’re always going to be expected to be great.”

Amirah noticed the attention negatively impacting her sister’s mental health.

“People think that everything is so easy with us without really looking at all the mental stuff we have to go through with everything, especially with social media and all the negative things people have to say,” Amirah says. “People will even come to games and scream negative things at you just because of who you are. I feel like just because of our last name, people want to just kind of taunt us and make us feel a certain way. There is a lot of pressure that she has to deal with.”

As Me’Arah struggled to cope with the pressure of living life in the spotlight, she encountered a whole new set of challenges with living life in isolation.

SHAUNIE FELL IN LOVE again. She planned to get remarried. She moved Me’Arah, Shaqir and Amirah from Los Angeles to Houston to be near her fiancé, a pastor named Keion Henderson.

The COVID-19 pandemic held a firm grip on the country, and Me’Arah, a sophomore in high school, started virtual school in a new school in a new city.

Endless hours stuck inside left Me’Arah with little to do and a lot to think about. Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Even if I do, will the pandemic ruin my dreams?

Keion noticed Me’Arah spiraling and hatched a plan. He went to a sporting goods store and found exactly what he was looking for.

Admittedly not a handyman, Keion took out his tools and flipped through the instruction manual. With cardboard boxes and metal parts spread every which way, he started with the base and made sure the foundation was sturdy. After bolting the pole attachments, his vision started coming to life. A few hours later, a basketball hoop towered over the driveway.

The next morning, Me’Arah went outside and christened his creation. She made her first basket. Every morning, rain or shine, she practiced in the driveway. Keion became her teammate, her partner, her advisor. The makeshift court was a far cry from the indoor extravaganza in Orlando where she learned the game, but it was exactly what she needed.

“I had to first get Me’Arah to actually focus on two things: Who she is and what she comes from,” Keion says. “I had to get Me’Arah to understand early, ‘You’re not normal. Your father is an icon, which means that you’re gonna have attention and expectations on you that the average kid won’t have. You can either let this make you bitter or you can allow this to make you better.'”

They set up goals and quotas. Sometimes the goals were as simple as “not missing a layup.” When quotas on the court weren’t met for the day or goals not accomplished, she would run down her sloping driveway to the street and run back.

At first Keion noticed that Me’Arah was trying to please him. But then something switched.

“She finished off not wanting to let herself down,” Keion says. “And when I saw her not wanting to let herself down, I knew we had a winner.”

Keion introduced Me’Arah to former NBA player and private development and skills coach Moochie Norris. With restrictions lifted and AAU starting again, it was time for Me’Arah to lock in for her final few years of high school.

“I’m working with her, really just helping her define more parts of her game,” Norris says. “We know Shaq was one of the most dominant players to ever play this game. She will never be that. She’s not even trying to be that. She’s going to be effective on the box and around the basket. But her game is so much more out on the perimeter and the mid-range. Because she can actually handle it and shoot it.”

By the end of her junior year, letters from colleges had flooded her mailbox. The University of Virginia was first, back when she lived in L.A. She had saved it in a plastic box. Soon, there were so many letters that the top of the box wouldn’t stay closed.

“Just seeing the progress over the years, seeing all the D-I offers and all the opportunities that have been given to me,” Me’Arah says, “I realized, like, ‘I actually can do this… I got this.'”

This past summer, Shaquille showed up at one of Me’Arah’s tournaments in Chicago. He stood by the bench and watched his daughter dominate in the paint. He decided it was time to challenge her, to test her, to see what his baby girl was all about. (Sorry, Coach.)

“She had the ball, and I said, ‘Step back and shoot a 3.’ And she stepped back and shot the 3 and made it,” Shaquille says. “That’s when you know a person’s good. Like, when you can tell a person to do something and they don’t have to think about it and they do it right then.

“I’ve been seein’ her get better and better.”

Most college coaches agree. Soon after the tournament, Me’Arah looked through the plastic box full of college letters. Ranked No. 33 in the espnW Top 100 for the 2024 class, practically every top school in the country had contacted her.

“The word ‘elite’ is a little overused,” says Shane Laflin, director of ESPN recruiting analysis. “But if you’re talking elite, she’s elite. There’s no question.”

One month after looking at the box, Me’Arah shared with her social media followers her top eight schools: LSU, Florida, Baylor, Kentucky, Cal, Arizona State, Georgia Tech and Tennessee. Over 350 comments and thousands of likes flooded her post. With every positive comment and like, her confidence grew.

ALMOST ONE YEAR after her first practice with Norris, Me’Arah walks into the community center attached to Keion’s church. The gym is aptly called The Dream Center Houston. Spread across the entry walls are inspirational and aspirational quotes. A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work. And, All your dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them. Michael Jordan and Barack Obama quotes have also made their way onto the walls.

Four hours ago, the final bell rang at Episcopal High School, and Me’Arah’s busy after-school schedule commenced. She practiced with her high school team, lifted weights and drove an hour north to Humble, Texas, to train with Norris.

Even some of her toughest rivals — her brothers — applaud her work ethic and the improvement in her game.

“I’ve seen it develop tremendously,” says Shaqir, a redshirt sophomore forward at Texas Southern. “Because when we were kids, we’d always go at it. And like I said, I’d rough her up.”

Norris thinks Me’Arah’s ceiling is still far away.

“We haven’t seen the best of her yet, like, not even close,” he says. “I think we’re just scratching the surface. She’s just starting to blossom. … But we’ll see some amazing things.”

Me’Arah O’Neal is never going to be Shaquille O’Neal. She’s never going to dominate the way he did. Her skills are more versatile. She can handle the ball, make outside shots, even make free throws. It’s her game, her name.

Her aspirations, too.

“I wanna make it to the WNBA,” Me’Arah says. “I wanna hold my own name. I wanna just be the best basketball player that I could be. Just reach my full potential and get a championship, make All-Star. Do all the big stuff and eventually make the Hall of Fame.”

As big as those goals are, Shaquille thinks they’re possible. His belief in his daughter hasn’t changed.

“If she keeps it up, she will definitely be in the history books,” he says.

On Sunday, she’ll announce her college decision. She recently went out to dinner with her dad to let him in on her plan. But for now, there’s still things to improve, work to be done.

As Me’Arah waits for Norris to get a basketball, she sets up her phone on a padded wall behind one of the baskets.

Sporting a black T-shirt that reads “purpose > popularity,” gray sweatpants hanging low on top of tie-dyed white basketball shorts and aquamarine Crocs, Me’Arah looks into her phone camera and wiggles her body in a little dance before walking to the hoop.

She reaches her right hand up. She loops her finger through the net.

“I’m, like, so close,” she says.

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