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Our Stories: Zaire O'Neil

Zaire O’Neil
Georgia Tech women’s basketball

“Our Stories" is a feature that provides first-person stories from current Georgia Tech student-athletes on their journey through academics, competition and life once their athletic careers are over. These young men and women represent the ideals of what it means to be a STUDENT-athlete at Georgia Tech. These are their stories.

*Bigger than basketball: Zaire O’Neil hopes to give back to her community once playing career is over

Before I could walk, basketball was a huge part of my life. Growing up in a family where every parent and sibling played college basketball, I had a clear path laid out in front of me before I knew how to dribble a ball. Now, as I near the start of my senior season as a student-athlete at Georgia Tech, basketball remains a focal point in my life, but what I hope to accomplish extends far beyond the basketball court.

There’s a lot of talent that goes to waste in northern New Jersey, where I’m from. I’ve seen one man with the talent of an NBA player make it to a Division I school, and then get kicked out. He let his environment follow him and it brought out the worst in him. I’ve seen a woman who grew up five minutes away from me and attended the same high school wind up on the same street corners selling drugs after her college playing days were over. It’s not easy to make it out and be successful where I come from, in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. But I was determined, I had the family to support me and push me, and I had basketball.

It doesn’t get more "basketball family" than my family. My parents encouraged me and my three older brothers to play many different sports, but when college arrived, we all chose basketball. My mother Toinette played at Montclair State and Norfolk State and father Joseph played at St. Francis and overseas in Barcelona. The two were corrections officers and I’m thankful for that because they made sure to keep me out of trouble.

In addition, my brothers Zakee, Calvin and CJ have always been like fathers to me, especially after my dad passed away my junior year of high school following an extended battle with cancer. Zakee and Calvin are 13 and 12 years older than me, respectively, and CJ is six years my senior, so combined, they have plenty of years of maturity to be able to give me advice. And they’ve all been where I’ve been, playing college basketball, while striving to make strong grades and planning for a future. 

I swear, when I talk to one of my brothers, I talk to all three of them. They call me back-to-back-to-back, as if they’ve planned it out. I’ll talk to one about basketball, the other about school and the third about life. When I had to decide on a college to attend for basketball, there were many different people trying to tell me where I should and shouldn’t go, but the loudest voice came from the advice my family gave me.

Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy. Do what you love and don’t let anyone take that decision away from you.

I was excited to start my freshman year on the Georgia Tech team, but it wasn’t until after Thanksgiving that my work started to pay off. Early in the season, I struggled to gain significant playing time. After playing only three to four minutes against Georgia, a rivalry game, I knew I wanted to be on the court much more often. I learned that our coaches aren’t going to give me more playing time because I think I’m better than someone else. They’ll play me because I outwork someone else. So that’s exactly what I did. 

Now, as a senior, I can confidently say I’m in the best shape of my life. I’ve treated this offseason with the urgency that comes of having one more season to make a difference. Last season, when we advanced to the WNIT Finals, it showed some of what our team is capable of. It also exposed some of our weaknesses. If we made more of our free throws, we would have been WNIT champions. As a result, we’ve spent the offseason working on hitting our free throws and, more importantly, learning to thrive in pressure situations. We also spent 14 days in Italy, playing against international teams. In another country, we held our own, even beating a team that had beat UConn. Learning to play our best on another team’s court in another country gives us the confidence to better handle our games on the road this season without feeling like we’re at a disadvantage. We beat multiple NCAA Tournament teams last year. That’s the bracket we hope to advance far in this season.

However the season turns out, I’ve learned to put the results, both good and bad, in perspective. No one taught me that like my father. I was in fourth grade when he was first diagnosed with cancer, but through his smile and determination, he never showed his pain. The doctor once told him he wouldn’t be able to walk again, and soon after, he walked out of the hospital and straight to practice to be with his children.

"If I can battle this, I can battle anything in life," my father told me. "You guys can make it out of here with a brighter future."

That’s exactly what I did, but I’m not averse to someday returning to the place where I grew up. I’ve been blessed with a loving and supporting family, but I know that many others don’t have that same support. I try to keep that in mind as I prepare not only for the basketball season ahead, but also for life after college. 

In addition to possibly playing overseas after college or getting into sports broadcasting, I want to follow in the footsteps of my parents, who were both in law enforcement. I want to continue the legacy, not just of my parents, but of my hometown by helping more kids end up like me and my brothers instead of the kids who start with so much promise but instead put it to waste. 

I hope to change lives for the better and give others the direction and guidance my family provided me. Basketball is a huge part of my life, but it’s not the only way I plan to make a positive difference in this world.


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