Rock Chalk Weekly: Strength In Numbers
Written by Kyle Charles, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
In the fourth quarter of Kansas women’s basketball’s season-opener on November 15, the Jayhawks found themselves in a back-and-forth battle with Texas Southern. Struggling to maintain the lead, head coach Brandon Schneider called a timeout and drew up a play for redshirt junior Timeka O’Neal. Competing in just her second game at the Division I level, O’Neal was in a zone, having already knocked down three long-range baskets that afternoon. She caught the ball right in front of the Kansas bench, and calmly drained her fourth triple, sealing the victory in Schneider’s first game as the Jayhawks head coach.
“We all wanted to come out with a bang and make something happen,” O’Neal said. “And we wanted to do it for Coach Brandon.”
O’Neal’s basket proved to be the last points scored for either team; a fitting end to a career-day. Her 12 points from four made three-pointers not only marked a new career-high in a Jayhawk uniform, but came in her first game back since suffering an ACL injury almost exactly one year ago.
O’Neal arrived at KU in the summer of 2014, after transferring from Johnson County Community College (JCCC) where she played basketball for two seasons under head coach Ben Conrad. After making her debut in the Crimson and Blue, O’Neal went down during practice and later received the news: an ACL tear in her right knee that would keep her sidelined for the remainder of the 2014-15 season.
“I was in a depressed mood because nobody expects to come to college and tear their ACL,” O’Neal explained. “I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but I also learned a lot. I felt like it was a blessing and a curse.”
The ability to respond to hardship with not only toughness, but also a positive attitude, helped O’Neal make a successful recovery and become a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Kansas squad. To those close to her, this came as no surprise. Since graduating high school, O’Neal has overcome adversity numerous times with some help along the way.
A product of Raytown, Missouri, O’Neal excelled at Raytown High School where her teams claimed conference titles all four years. She also averaged double-figure scoring each of her four seasons as a starter, including 20.0 points per game her senior year.
“After high school, my plan was to go straight to Division I, but that didn’t happen,” O’Neal said. “I had some setbacks, but I went to junior college and that was the best decision I could have made.”
In her first season at JCCC, O’Neal again averaged double-digit scoring and started all 32 games, leading to second-team all-conference and all-region honors. During her sophomore campaign, she continued to step up her game, with 11.7 points and 5.1 assists per game. She helped JCCC to a conference title behind a 30-2 record, and the team finished the season ranked second in the final NJCAA D-II poll.
“I think it was meant to be,” O’Neal said. “I had fun at Johnson County and learned a lot. I became a smarter player with Coach Conrad – he helped me a lot. Of course I was thinking, ‘Maybe I feel like I could’ve come straight to Division I’ but at the end of the day, I just look at it as a positive.”
In those two years, O’Neal felt that she accomplished a whole list of goals and experienced a big boost that would push her to the next level. However, the Division-I offers were not coming in and a familiar feeling started to creep back in. That’s when she received an exciting text from her coach.
“I was recruited late in respect to some of the other players on my team,” O’Neal explained. “I think I was at my grandparents’ house and at the time I was still very nervous, thinking, ‘Where am I going to go? I’m in the same position now that I was leaving high school.’ Then my coach texts me and tells me that coaches from KU want to speak to me. I was like ‘Oh my God’ so I ran upstairs to tell my grandparents.”
The news brought relief and excitement to O’Neal’s entire family. After coming to every game since the early stages of her career, family members had discussed the opportunity to continue watching O’Neal play if she landed at KU. Her parents, grandparents, aunt and cousins would now be in the stands at Allen Fieldhouse, proudly cheering her on. Looking back on all the emotions that accompanied the news, the details become a blur.
“I can’t tell you the day or the month I found out; I just remember from that day on, I was a Jayhawk,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal visited KU in the spring of 2014 before committing, and attended the senior game with her father, Timothy. The two were able to walk into Allen Fieldhouse together, and later O’Neal officially signed her National Letter of Intent (NLI) with her father by her side.
These are memories O’Neal now holds especially close to her heart. Her father passed away a few weeks after the visit.
O’Neal arrived in Lawrence less than six months after suffering the loss of her father, her mentor in the game of basketball.
“We used to practice all the time,” O’Neal remembered. “He would wake me up at six in the morning just to go shoot outside. I’d tell him I didn’t want to, but he was my motivator. He pushed me to my highest potential. He would tell guys in the gym to play me and not go soft. He knew my potential and what I could achieve.”
Playing basketball would never quite be the same. Her father’s influence on her career extended all the way to her pre-game routine.
“Our routine, even early in my career, we would do fist bumps and he would ask, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready to get down?’ and then give me a kiss on the forehead,” O’Neal explained. “That stuck with me forever. So I do that before every game.”
Basketball, instead, became an emotional escape, as sports can for so many, but the shelter of competition was short-lived. Her ACL tear meant watching the last 31 games of the season from the sideline.
“I felt like nobody knew how I felt, like I was isolated in my own bubble, and I was getting down on myself after I tore my ACL,” O’Neal said. “Then I said, ‘Scratch that. There’s a positive in this. I can do better and make myself better out of this. This is probably a minor setback for a major comeback.'”
O’Neal’s faith and those around her helped her maintain such a positive mindset. There were the support systems one might expect. Her teammates, who she compares to sisters, were always there to offer support. She started opening up more with her family members. She also found comfort in prayer.
“I prayed a lot,” O’Neal said. “I always kept God in my prayers and had conversations with Him like, ‘Why me? Why am I in this situation?’ But I feel like God puts his toughest problems to his toughest soldiers, so I just thought of things that way.”
O’Neal also formed a special bond with Ann Wallace, the athletic trainer who oversees women’s basketball, and her daughter, Addie.
Addie was around four months old when O’Neal started doing rehab with Wallace. Every day of rehab, even on road trips, O’Neal completed exercises with Addie close by.
“Their relationship formed throughout that process,” said Wallace. “She was young enough that she wasn’t running around or even crawling yet. She would just hang out with Timeka.”
As O’Neal’s rehab progressed, Addie began to play a more participatory role in the process.
“We would incorporate her into rehab, having (O’Neal) holding Addie while doing squats or monster walks, using Addie as her weight,” Wallace added.
With an ACL injury, the mental toughness to complete rehab and be confident in the recovery is just as challenging as the physical aspect. Addie’s presence, which could always uplift O’Neal’s spirits, is something she describes as a blessing. The connection with Wallace also helped O’Neal get through the darker days.
“I’m the person you can talk to about needing to scream at the top of your lungs or getting things off your chest,” Wallace said. “We formed a great relationship; I got to know her family and she got to know mine very well, and I think that we’ve become very good friends out of the situation.”
O’Neal cites positive outcomes on the court as well. After transferring from JCCC, she spent all of last season observing and learning what comes with Big 12 conference basketball.
“The interviews, the competition, the traveling, I wasn’t overwhelmed,” O’Neal said. “I could just sit back and see everything and learn. I definitely feel like the past year will help me in the long run.”
And the status of her knee? Wallace is confident that O’Neal is ready to contribute in a big way, and her performance in the first regular season game supports Wallace’s belief.
“Her knee is feeling great, she feels good about her movement patterns, she feels good on the court, and you can see that mentally she just feels confident in what she’s doing,” Wallace said. “As (Nov. 15) shows, she’s going to be a huge asset to the team this year.”
O’Neal feels the same, but also holds another belief that impacts her performance on the court.
“Any time I shoot a three or make a play, I think of my dad,” O’Neal said. “Every time I step on the court, I think of him. It’s more of an emotional thing that goes in my mind. I know he’s here.”
For whatever challenge O’Neal faces next, she now carries the confidence to overcome it, forged by the achievements she has already reached. Each game this season presents a new challenge for O’Neal and the young Kansas squad, but her family, as well as her Jayhawk family, will be there to cheer her on every step of the way.
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