The students at Columbia’s Crayton Middle School were excited to get a visit from Shaquille O’Neal on Wednesday, even if they knew him better from his role as commercial pitchman than his exploits as an all-time great basketball player, according to Principal Angela Burns.
Why was the NBA legend talking to kids in Columbia?
His visit was their reward for academic success, Burns said.
Deon Wallace, a member of her staff at Crayton Middle School, is friends with O’Neal.
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“He grew up with Shaq, and even played youth basketball with him,” Burns said of Wallace, who told her a year ago that he could arrange a visit from the 7-foot-1 big man, who won titles playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat.
Rather than have O’Neal just come to the school, Burns decided to use a possible visit as a challenge to her students. She told them the Basketball Hall of Fame player would only visit if the students performed in the top of the school district in all grade levels in every subject in standardized tests. That meant the students had to have Richland County School District One’s best scores in math, science, English and social studies.
“They did,” Burns said enthusiastically.
All Burns and her staff had to do then was arrange a time for O’Neal to visit. He called Wallace on Tuesday to let him know he was coming through Columbia in 24 hours, and a reception was quickly arranged.
O’Neal got to Crayton at 11:30 a.m. in his tricked-out bus and entered the school gymnasium where 1,150 students and more than 100 members of faculty and staff were awaiting him, according to Burns.
“It was so exciting,” Burns said of the visit. “He is larger than life.”
During his 45 minute visit, O’Neal received a warm greeting, with hand-drawn banners and had the students enthralled, according to Burns. He talked to the students about following their dreams, and after a speech he took questions from students, but only if they told him what they were “going to become when the grow up, not what they wanted to become,” Burns said.
The principal said O’Neal was inspirational, entertaining and delivered a positive message about focusing on education.
When he wasn’t dancing with students or challenging them at basketball shooting competitions, he was dropping little bits of wisdom that Burns called “Shaqisms.”
In one of them, O’Neal told the crowd “his kids need two degrees if they want the cheese,” saying he would only give them money if they achieved academic success, the principal said.
Burns said the students are more familiar with O’Neal from his commercials for The General insurance or Icy Hot pain relief than his backboard-breaking dunks. But he gave them several thrills.
One of them was when he joked former teammate Kobe Bryant was with him, briefly sending the students into hysterics, according to Burns.
“This is a moment in time these children will never forget,” the principal said. “These kids might tell their grandchildren about the time they met Shaq.”