If you’ve been to a women’s basketball game in the past two years, you’ve likely witnessed tenacious defense, undeniable quickness and an ability to knock down a clutch three from one player in particular — senior guard Timeka O’Neal.
While her contributions to the team throughout her time at Kansas have been noteworthy, what you don’t see, is the sizable adversity O’Neal has overcome to put herself in the position that she is in today.
What you don’t see is her pregame personal ritual. What you don’t see is the deep love for basketball that was instilled in her by her supportive father and grandparents, ever since she first picked up the sport in middle school.
If you look closely, O’Neal has her father’s name — Timothy L. O’Neal — written on the back of her basketball sneakers.
“[It shows] that he is always with me,” O’Neal said. “My father also told me this scripture: ‘walk by faith, not by sight and leave the devil behind.’ He always told me to leave the negativity behind, so I always put that on the back of my shoe.”
On Tuesday, May 27, 2014, a few months before O’Neal began her career at Kansas, tragedy struck the family. Her father died after suffering from a heart attack.
“That day, I mean nobody was expecting that to happen,” O’Neal said. “My father passed away and it was probably one of the most traumatic days of my life to this day, but I feel like everything happens for a reason and I know he’s still here, he watches me.”
The meaning behind O’Neal’s writing on her shoes brings her a sense of pride and comfort on the hardwood.
“It’s just something that I will always keep in mind when I’m out there playing,” O’Neal said. “He’s always on my mind when I’m out there.”
Heading into her first year at Kansas, O’Neal would be faced with overcoming her recent loss and preparing for a new level of competition in the Big 12.
Yet, before the season was in full swing, O’Neal experienced another sizable hardship. In practice, she had attempted a layup and landed in an awkward position. When O’Neal heard a pop, she immediately knew something was wrong. She suffered an ACL tear that brought her highly-anticipated season to an abrupt end.
“At that moment, I was just like 'Really?'” O’Neal said. “I just got here, this is not how it’s supposed to be. But I had Ann [Wallace] on my side and she helped me through my rehab. As far as me going through my surgery, my family was there with me 100 percent.”
While the injury also caused O’Neal to fall into depression, Ann Wallace, the women’s basketball athletic trainer, made sure to not only help O’Neal’s physical rehabilitation but her emotional and mental recovery as well.
“Ann had her baby Addie at the time, and she would use her as a weight for me,” O’Neal said. “That just brought light to me because she was so cute and always laughing and giggling.”
Although O’Neal admits some days were tougher than others, Wallace continued to push her through the workouts with one goal: getting O’Neal back out on the court.
While the workouts were difficult, O’Neal was determined to not let the injury define her.
“To say [O’Neal] is a tough kid, doesn’t give her enough credit,” Wallace said. “She came in every day ready to work. She did everything that was asked from her from a rehab standpoint and did it with an intent. She ended up getting cleared early to return to basketball because she worked so hard.”
It’s easy for a person to let their downfalls tear them apart, but to overcome them, hard work and undeniable ambition are required. O’Neal indisputably possessed both of those qualities.
“I think some days she did it for herself, but I think on low days she was doing it for her dad,” Wallace said. “I am very proud of, not only all that she has overcome but also the woman she has grown to be.”
As a child in Raytown, Missouri, O’Neal’s talent was immediately noticed and admired by her father, a man who worked to positively direct inner-city children’s interests toward the city’s scholastic football league. While the sport of basketball may not have been in line with his teachings, O’Neal's aspirations were instantly molded into interests of his own.
“I’d be ready to get out of school just to watch [Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus] games’ later on that evening with my dad,” O’Neal said. “It was really exciting for me. I had dreams of playing at a higher level than high school and potentially going to the WNBA when I was younger.”
Although O’Neal has been known to dominate from the beyond the arc in college, in middle school, this skill was nonexistent. Believe it or not, at the time, O’Neal was taller than most girls her age. Despite her current 5-foot-4 stature, O’Neal’s post play in middle school was propelled by a variety of now unprecedented moves.
“I couldn’t shoot when I was younger,” O’Neal said. “I shot a lot of layups, got steals and went on fast breaks. My go-to was just the turnaround, spin, jump and hook.”
Nevertheless, O’Neal was able to develop her now well-known perimeter shooting ability during her senior year of high school and college days, as a freshman and sophomore at Johnson County Community College.
In her senior year of high school, while anticipating calls from universities looking to add her talents to their roster, O’Neal instead failed to receive offers, but not because of her talent.
“I was actually still looking for a school to go to,” O’Neal said. “I was in a point where I was stuck and didn’t know where I wanted to go. My letters were actually hidden from me in high school, so I was held back as far as trying to figure out where I wanted to go.”
The hidden letters resulted in many schools making the false assumption that O’Neal was uninterested in attending their university.
However, after having O’Neal refute false reports stating that she had already made her college decision, Johnson County Community College coach Ben Conrad provided O’Neal with an offer.
“I wasn’t looking forward to going to junior college at first, but at the end of the day, I felt it was one of the best decisions of my life,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal averaged over 10 points, three rebounds and four assists in her two years at JCCC, while being named a National Junior College Athletics Association Division II third-team All-American her sophomore year. In that same season, JCCC posted a 30-2 record en route to a conference title.
In spite of her success at JCCC, the time had come for O’Neal to take her talents elsewhere.
“After I was done with JCCC after my sophomore year, I still didn’t know where I was going to go,” O’Neal said.
That was until she received one of the most memorable calls of her life.
“Kansas contacted me out of nowhere,” O’Neal said. “You just never know who is watching your games, really.”
When O’Neal received a call from Conrad about Kansas’ interest in her, she could barely contain her excitement.
“This was huge,” O’Neal said. “It was one of my dreams and I remember going upstairs, telling my grandparents and they were like 'Wow, this is crazy.' They were actually just mentioning where I might go next after junior college and they said it would be nice for me to stay home, so they could watch me play. Kansas was just the perfect fit.”
After settling on attending Kansas, O’Neal was anxious to fulfill her aspiration of being a collegiate basketball player in the Big 12. With her father by her side on signing day, O’Neal officially made the commitment to further her basketball career as a Jayhawk.
“I knew I had made so many friends [at JCCC] and gained so many relationships with my coaching staff, but I just knew it was time for me to go and explore this new journey,” O’Neal said.
Since O’Neal’s 2014-15 recovery, she has become one of the most clutch three-point shooters to ever come off the bench for Kansas. In her junior season, O’Neal shot 41.1 percent from the perimeter, giving her the seventh-best three-point shooting percentage in Kansas history.
This past season in O’Neal’s final year at Kansas, perhaps her most notable performance came in the fourth quarter of its 76-71 overtime win against North Dakota. With seconds remaining on the clock, down 65-62, O’Neal hit a last-second three at the top of the key, sending the game into overtime and allowing her team to close out the hard-fought matchup in extra minutes.
Throughout all of her games this season, O’Neal has embodied what it means to leave it all out on the floor. Though many acknowledge her valiant efforts in each game, what many don’t see, is the writing on her sneakers that has fueled her imperative contributions.
Today, O’Neal’s father continues to play a substantial role in her mindset as a player and overall person. Before, during and after games, O’Neal knows that no matter where she is, her father is with her, watching over her.
Although Kansas may have lost in the first round of the Big 12 championship this season to Oklahoma State, it’s safe to say that Timothy O’Neal was as proud as a father could be, watching in spirit, as his daughter stepped on the court for one last time.
Now that Kansas’ season has now come to an end, O’Neal will be forced to leave her jersey, teammates, friends and coaching staff at Kansas behind, but O’Neal’s father and loved ones will never leave her side.
“[Before games] Towards the end of the national anthem, I talk as if I’m talking with my dad,” O’Neal said. “People always think I’m praying, but I’m not. I’m actually having a conversation with him.”
Many may wonder how O’Neal has been able to continuously perform on the hardwood with all that she has endured, but with her determined mindset and the love of her father, she has shown that anything is possible.
“There’s a saying me and my dad used to do before my games when I was little, he would go, ‘You ready? You ready?’ And I would say ‘yeah, I’m ready dad, I’m ready,’ and we would pound fists,” O’Neal said. “So I say that towards the end of the national anthem, say I love you and picture him saying it back. So that’s how I do it.”
— Edited by Allison Crist