By Shawn McFarland
Friday afternoons in the Richard B. Flynn Student Union are always busy. Students swing by in between classes to grab a snack, wait in line for a coffee or just to see some friends. But on Friday, Sept 9, the foot traffic in the Union was heavier than usual, and instead of focusing on their next class or what they’re about to eat for lunch, students had their attention squared on something much bigger.
Or rather, someone much bigger.
There was a hushed sense of excitement by the main entrance of the Union. Friends whispered to each other with a giddy tone, all the while staying on guard and keeping their heads on a swivel.
A black SUV with a police escort cruised down Alden Street past Babson Library like a presidential motorcade, and a massive hand shot out from the back-right window and waved to pedestrians. The uncommonly large Union crowd erupted into cheer, with some people screaming like teenage girls at a boy-band concert: Shaq had arrived.
In collaboration with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Beta Sigma Boule, Springfield College hosted the Education and Leadership Luncheon. Keynote speaker and Basketball Hall of Fame 2016 inductee Shaquille O’Neal headlined the day.
Springfield College quite literally rolled out the red carpet for the 7-foot-1 O’Neal, as a maroon colored rug and red velvet roped created a Hollywood-like runway from the door of the Union up to the stairway leading to the Cleveland E. and Phyllis B. Dodge-Ball Room where the luncheon was held.
Cameras flashed and students cheered as O’Neal, escorted by school president Mary-Beth Cooper and Vice President for Inclusion and Community Engagement Calvin Hill, made his way down the carpet like the star he is. He posed for selfies, signed jerseys and engaged with fans before climbing the stairs to the Dodge-Ball Room.
After Fred George of Beta Sigma Boule welcomed to packed crowd at the function, each table rose to get their lunch. As O’Neal munched on his, a line formed behind him. Being the crowd-pleaser he is, O’Neal took the time to speak with every fan who wanted just a minute with him. He took more selfies, signed more jerseys, and did it all with a smile before President Cooper gave her opening remarks.
“It’s so important that we get to contribute to the community of Springfield,” Cooper said. In attendance were over 50 high school students from the city of Springfield. “We’d love to see you come to Springfield College.”
After presenting O’Neal with a Springfield College t-shirt fitted to his size, the 19-year National Basketball Association veteran hunched over the podium at the front of the room, and the room went quiet in anticipation of his speech.
“Dr. Mary-Beth Cooper is a gangster,” O’Neal said to open his speech. All it took was six words, but O’Neal had won the room.
Unlike some celebrity speakers, Shaq opened up. He was honest, and had the packed crowd clinging to his every word. He touched on everything, from education and listening to parents, to dealing with money and work ethic.
“Never give up,” he said. “If I would have gave up, I wouldn’t be here today. I wasn’t one of those kids that was great when he started playing basketball. I couldn’t dunk a basketball until I was 16-years old. I was 6-foot-10. I couldn’t play, I was a terrible player. My parents encouraged me, told me to keep pushing, and now I’m here.”
One of his biggest messages was one to the youths in attendance: listen to your parents. He brought up a story from his playing days, about how he was coached by Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkins (also in attendance for the luncheon) and that he ignored his advice during a timeout. When O’Neal told his father that, he was scolded for disrespecting a coaching legend.
And of course, one of Shaq’s biggest characteristics is his humor. He told the story of meeting Hall of Famer Julius Erving for the first time at Louisiana State University.
“True story. [Erving] woke me up in my college dorm room one day. Seriously,” O’Neal said. “He was going to speak either in Baton Rouge or LSU and I was sleeping and woke up and I saw this good-looking brother with his hand on my chest. I was like, ‘God? God is a black man?’
Continued O’Neal, “And then I said, ‘Dr. J?’ And after I said that, I thought I was dead. I said, ‘Damn, I’m dying in college? Can you believe this?’ And it was Dr. J. We talked and we had a good conversation.”
O’Neal spoke with the eloquence of a politician. His words didn’t feel hollow, like he had some speech pre-rehearsed just for occasions such as this. Rather, it felt like he was having a conversation with the hundreds in attendance. In his question and answer session, the floor was opened to students with questions. O’Neal answered each with a unique, honest answer.
When the luncheon ended and O’Neal and his party departed the Union, students followed behind, snapping photos like paparazzi. Springfield College, of course, is no stranger to basketball royalty. James Naismith famously hung the peach basket in Judd Gymnasium in the late 1800’s, and the rest is history.
But O’Neal’s presence on campus seemed to invigorate the birthplace of basketball, and even for just a few hours, it felt like the heart of the basketball world was back on Alden Street.