Standing Tall

Basketball Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Shaquille O’Neal field questions from the press during their visit to the campus.

Basketball Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Shaquille O’Neal field questions from the press during their visit to the campus.

By Marty Dobrow | Spring 2017

Physically, they are not an imposing pair. Mary-Beth Cooper, Springfield College’s effervescent president, stands 5 feet 5 inches tall. Calvin Hill, the stylish vice president for inclusion and community engagement, checks in at 5-6—but only on what he calls “a good shoe day.”

But when it comes to Springfield College, they tend to think big. Very big.

No, they are not looking to transform a school long prized for its small classes and close relationships into some impersonal colossus of a college. But when it comes to our mission (you know the drill: educating students in spirit, mind, and body for leadership in service to others), the sky itself is not even the limit.

So it came to pass that on the Friday of the first week of classes, Sept. 9, Springfield College hosted its first Education and Leadership Luncheon. Cooper and Hill walked into the room with the keynote speaker, a 7-foot-1-inch man by the name of Shaquille O’Neal.

Sometimes known as Shaq. Or The Diesel. Or The Big Aristotle. “But my favorite title for our guest speaker,” said Cooper in her introductory comments, “is Dr. O’Neal.”

Indeed, O’Neal has not just an MBA to go with his stardom in the NBA; he complements his 1999 MVP with an EdD—earned in education in 2012. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,” O’Neal told a packed house at the Cleveland E. and Phyllis B. Dodge Room.

O’Neal was in town for his accomplishments on the court, getting enshrined later that night at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His credentials there in the sport where James Naismith once hung the peach baskets are, well, unimpeachable: 15 All-Star selections, MVP awards for the season, the All-Star Game and the NBA finals; four NBA titles; an Olympic gold medal; top 10 in league history in points and blocked shots.

Not too shabby for a guy who was cut from his ninth-grade basketball team. “I couldn’t play,” he said. “I was a terrible player.”

What made him good, he says, were two things that his mother insisted on: “You’ve got to educate yourself and you’ve got to listen. If you can do those things, you can become anything you want.”

Asked by one student what kept him going in pursuit of all these disparate goals, O’Neal stated, “It’s simple: continue to see my mother smile.”

The edge-of-the seat crowd consisted mostly of students from area high schools and Springfield College. (SC women’s basketball player Ava Adamopoulos, after sitting at the head table with Cooper and O’Neal, dubbed it “a super cool experience.”) There were also representatives from the two other co-sponsors: Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity—the “Boulé” (a fraternity founded by African-American men whose mission is “Inspiring Our Youth to Succeed”); and the Hall of Fame (including Hall of Famers Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and the ever-dapper Lenny Wilkens, one of only four people enshrined as both a player and a coach).

The partnership, which Cooper credited Calvin Hill with forging, made for what she called “a perfect day.”

Her admiration for O’Neal was tinged with some good-natured teasing. Noting in her introductory comments that he graciously accepted an endless slew of interruptions over the meal to pose for photos with the audience, she said his receiving a doctorate was especially impressive. “He persevered and finished his degree,” she said. “Can you imagine? He can barely eat lunch.”

O’Neal was happy to return the favor. Commenting on Cooper’s admission that she, too, had cajoled him into a selfie the night before at the Hall of Fame, he said with his first words: “Dr. Mary-Beth Cooper is a gangster.” He later added, “She had the look of where I couldn’t say no.”

Cooper laughed out loud. She clearly looked up to the man of the hour.

And she wasn’t done. The next day on campus she gave a tour to one of Dr. O’Neal’s fellow enshrinees in the Hall of Fame Class of 2016: Yao Ming.

All 7 foot 6 inches of him.