LAS VEGAS — The first time Shaquille O’Neal asked to coach the California Supreme last summer, club director Gary Franklin figured it was a joke.
Had to be. Would a Basketball Hall of Famer really want to volunteer his time in hot and crowded gyms, working with teenagers — even if one of them was his kid — and get hounded by selfie-seekers after every game?
After all, last summer O’Neal watched his son, UA commit Shareef O’Neal, play for Cal Supreme 16U club for a day in Las Vegas — and then bolted out of town for one of his many business engagements.
But this summer, having traveled to Atlanta to watch Cal Supreme’s top 17U team play in the Peach Jam earlier this month, Shaq felt like jumping out of the stands.
He asked again.
“I told the guys in the program I want to coach my son,” O’Neal said.
This time, Franklin listened.
“I said, ‘Are you serious?’” Franklin said. “I said, ‘OK, you’re a coach in Vegas.’”
As it turned out, Shaq wound up anchoring a star-studded coaching staff for the Bigfoot Las Vegas Classic this week: He worked alongside fellow Cal Supreme “assistants” Kenyon Martin and Solomon Hill, Martin also having a son on the team and Hill having played for Cal Supreme before beginning his UA and NBA careers.
Together, the three coaches’ presence meant the five-star talent of Shareef O’Neal was somewhat overshadowed.
The personable forward known as “Reef” had no problem with that.
Martin “is actually very hard on me, him and my dad and Solomon,” Shareef said. “They’re at the level that I want to be at. They’re just teaching me a lot. I’m soaking it all in and doing my best.”
While Hill is entering the peak of his NBA career, the 39-year-old Martin actually has some game left in him despite retiring in 2015, too. He left Las Vegas early to play in the BIG3 three-on-three event, meaning Shaq and Hill were helping lead the way Saturday morning when the Cal Supreme won its first game in the bracket round after a 1-2 finish in a preceding tournament called “The 8.”
The win Saturday morning came despite the fact that Shareef had to leave the game for good in the second half after slashing his right pinkie on the rim while dunking in Spring Valley High School’s auxiliary gym. He came back several minutes later with the pinkie wrapped tightly in black tape, but did not play again in the game.
“A chunk of my finger just was sliced,” Shareef said. “They’re saying that rim was sharp, like people were losing nails. (A trainer) said I’m the fourth person this week to get a finger injury on that rim specifically. That rim is dangerous. I suggest anybody to not to dunk on it.”
Dad had other advice throughout the tournament. Shaq frequently took a few steps on to the court to throw tips at Reef and his teammates, frustrated by Cal Supreme’s struggles in “The 8” as they coped with new teammates and the loss of 7-foot-2-inch UA target Bol Bol, who was summoned to play for his high school team this week.
Only Shareef and Chandler 2018 forward Tevian Jones were left from the Cal Supreme team that played in the Peach Jam. Combined with the injection of the new celebrity coaches, that made for a chemistry rebuild.
“You know what? Probably I would say yeah,” Franklin said of the challenge. A loss Wednesday “was the first game but after that, the guys got a lot of flow and we were better (Thursday).”
Shaq tried to help that process by laying down a law of sorts.
“It’s just so you’re having fun and hustling,” O’Neal said. “Our problem is we don’t make a second effort. We don’t rebound. But it’s my first time working with the guys.”
While Shaq’s influence on the Cal Supreme has been welcomed this summer, he has so far steered clear of his son’s future Arizona career. Shareef committed to the UA in April, choosing the Wildcats over USC, UCLA and Kentucky while his father stayed on the sidelines. Shareef also considered his dad’s school, LSU, before the Tigers fired coach Johnny Jones.
“It’s his choice,” Shaq said. “I love Sean Miller. It’s a great program. Great basketball tradition. I wish him well.
“I’m not one of those guys who’s going to micromanage. If you want to go to Arizona, go to Arizona.”
Shareef appears solidly committed to doing so, though he can’t sign a binding letter of intent until November. So for now, he’s been working on his game, both to prepare himself for his senior season at Crossroads of Santa Monica, California, and also for the 2018-19 season at Arizona.
A skilled and versatile power forward who actually plays much differently than the way his father dominated around the basket, Shareef said he’s been working on his all-around game and leadership this summer.
“Just being more vocal and being a leader, that’s the main thing I’m focusing on,” Shareef said. “Just trying to do a little bit of everything. A little bit of bringing it up, little bit of posting it up and a little bit of wing. I’m just trying to do all that.”
That’s a lot of work. But at least it doesn’t come with the added pressure that a five-star talent usually faces before his senior year: Because O’Neal committed to the UA in April, he has been able to exclusively worry about what he’s doing on the floor instead of who’s watching from the stands.
“It’s a lot easier,” Shareef said. “There are a lot of great coaches out there — coach K, coach Calipari — I see coaches from every single school and I feel it’s a lot easier.
“When I wasn’t committed, I tried to impress people too much. Now I don’t shy away. I know where I’m going. Me and coach Miller, we talk a lot and he says he loves my game, so that just boosts my spirits, and I can just play how I play.”
Shaq is glad to see him do just that.
“He’s getting better,” Shaq said. “I just want him to get better. I want all the kids to get better. … I love working with the kids.”
- Point guard Devon Dotson, a 2018 recruit from Charlotte, N.C., said he will take an official visit to Arizona starting on Tuesday. It will be his first official visit, though he has visited Kansas unofficially and has Florida and Maryland among his top choices so far.
- Texas 2018 combo guard Quentin Grimes said he will “definitely” take an official visit to Arizona after having visited the UA unofficially for the Red-Blue Game last October. Grimes said he’s planning to visit Kansas and Arizona, with others possible.