Scotty Pippen Jr and Shareef O’Neal chase NBA dream amid long shadows | Los Angeles Lakers

Lliving in Los Angeles, California, nepotism is as ubiquitous as sun, sand and palm trees. It feels like every other day you find out someone is so-and-so’s son or so-and-so’s daughter, from the guitarist for an indie darling to the top-billed name on a movie marquee. There’s a lot of understandable resentment harbored amongst my fellow children-of-nobody-of-note when it comes to those who were born into opportunity. But I’ve always found it a sort of dark catch-22: sure, you’re sort of born on third base as the child of a famous parent (or parents), but to what end? Can you ever really figure out who you are when you’re growing up in the enormous cast of someone else’s shadow? And in true tree falls in a forest fashion, if you’re able to do so, but no one on earth sees you as anything more than someone’s kid, does your self-actualization ever make a sound?

Scotty Pippen Jr and Shareef O’Neal are two such shadow-dodgers, and they just so happened to end up on the same NBA Summer League roster this month. The two hit the Las Vegas circuit to play for one of the other most ubiquitous Los Angeles institutions: the 17-time champion Lakers. Both Scotty Jr and Shareef’s dads are retired NBA supernovas: Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal, both household names, Hall of Famers and NBA champions many times over. The elder O’Neal, in an added twist, famously reached the pinnacle of his success wearing the same purple and gold of the team Shareef spent Summer League attempting to win over.

Pippen and O’Neal have other things in common, besides having two of the most famous dads in the basketball universe. Both have tabloid fixture moms who starred on reality TV shows for much of their childhoods (Larsa Pippen, of the Real Housewives of Miami, and Shaunie O’Neal, of Basketball Wives, respectively). And both traversed rocky paths to the league, going from much-hyped prospects in high school to somewhat underwhelming experiences in college (for reasons both health-related and otherwise), leading them to end up on the undrafted heap coming out of the 2022 NBA draft.

Scotty Pippen Jr.
The Lakers’ Scotty Pippen Jr drives to the lane. Photograph: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

I was curious what would compel someone to invite the inevitable pressure that comes with following in such storied footsteps; surely there were paths of lesser resistance than attempting to emulate their fathers’ basketball success. But in talking to both Scotty and Shareef, though I could tell they genuinely love the game, there was a sense of predetermination in the way they described their path to professional basketball. As if, on some level, they felt it was simply what was expected of them.

When I pointed out to Shareef (who told me his first present was a Little Tikes hoop) that perhaps he could’ve avoided some of the hate associated with the relatively disappointing start to his career by just being, say, an actor, the 6ft 10in, 22-year-old wisely observed: “The thing about that is, if I didn’t play basketball, with a Hall of Famer dad, people could still say crazy stuff.”

Scotty, 21, offered a similar take, when asked if he and Shareef shared a special bond. He confirmed that they do, and said “the biggest difference [between them and players whose dads weren’t stars] is the pressure on us to play the game. I would say for a lot of those [other] kids growing up it’s a lot easier for them to just quit basketball,” though he did add he likes to “embrace the pressure”.

Another poetic wrinkle to the story is that, in a broader context, the Lakers organization itself plays host to an offspring trying to make their own name in the presence of a daunting legacy. Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ present-day controlling owner and president, had big shoes to fill when her larger-than-life father Dr. Jerry Buss passed away in 2013, leaving her in charge of the team. She’s faced pretty much nonstop comparisons since taking over, and while clearly a much more secure undertaking than trying to make it as a player, the similarity between her story and that of Pippen Jr and O’Neal is fascinating. One has to wonder if Buss, having experienced being in a parent’s penumbra, sees any of herself in the second-generation talents.

Shareef O'Neal
The Lakers’ Shareef O’Neal looks on during a Summer League game. Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Pippen Jr certainly has the clearer path to NBA stardom of the two prospects. The 6ft 3in point guard out of Vanderbilt University signed a two-way contract with the Lakers before Summer League began, and made a solid impression in Vegas with his court vision, passing ability and affinity for Jose Alvarado-esque steals. O’Neal, a lanky power forward, while clearly talented, spent much of his college career at UCLA and Louisiana State dealing with a serious heart condition and a foot injury, and still appears to be finding himself on the court. Whispers are that his best bet will be to spend some time on the Lakers’ developmental South Bay G-League team to further refine his game.

Both players’ paths thus far illustrate something I’ve always loved about professional basketball: it’s one of the last true meritocracies. Sure, a last name like Pippen or O’Neal might get you a spot in an AAU camp, a pro day or even a Summer League roster. But ultimately, if you can’t hoop, no one cares. Coming from the world of entertainment, where it’s all about who you know, I’ve always been enamored by this fact about basketball. The court is, in many ways, the great equalizer. And when the only true prerequisites are a ball, a pair of sneakers and access to a hoop, it rings even truer for basketball than for many other sports.

The lack of certainty with respect to family name as a bellwether for success in this particular endeavor, compounded by the added pressures associated with having a parent who reached the mountaintop of the sport, make it all the more intriguing when players like Scotty Pippen Jr and Shareef O’Neal choose to pursue a career in the NBA. It’s now up to them, under the brightest lights, to try to carve their own identities into the hardwood.

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