A small group of about 50 students, employees, and other community members were crowded into a small section of bleachers usually reserved for fans of visiting teams in the Bridgehampton School gym on Friday, August 10.
“The Today Show” was in town, and producers had transformed the north end of the tiny gym into a makeshift studio, with lights, cameras, and sound equipment, while ordering the assembly to remain hushed.
Somehow, the small crowd did not notice the entrance of the guest of the hour: Shaquille O’Neal, a National Basketball Association Hall of Famer, who played on four championship teams over a 19-year career. O’Neal, who stands seven feet, one-inch tall and whose playing weight has been listed at north of 330 pounds, is ordinarily hard to miss.
As he crossed the floor, O’Neal motioned to the crowd to make a little noise and they obliged him with a raucous cheer.
In what was one of the worst kept secrets of the year, Shaq was in town to promote Killer Bees, the documentary about the school’s near-legendary basketball team, which, despite the school’s tiny enrollment and undersized gym, has won eight New York State titles.
The film was made by Ben and Orson Cummings, who attended the school before going onto filmmaking careers.
Having O’Neal, who has been in several films and released a handful of rap albums, sign on as one of the film’s associate producers, has given the documentary, which has received good reviews from the critics — pardon the pun — a helpful buzz.
Ben Cummings acknowledged that O’Neal’s presence had helped open doors to a distribution deal.
The film can be watched on iTunes and Google Play, and Cummings said the next step is to get the film on Netflix and other streaming services.
The film, which premiered at last year’s Hamptons International Film Festival, has been screened in New York and Los Angeles — a requirement to be considered for an Academy Award.
“We’re not done yet,” Cummings said. Getting the film positioned on the “short list” for the Oscars is next on the agenda, he added.
If anyone in the small gathering wanted to hear about why O’Neal decided to back the film, they’ll have to wait until Today’s segment on the team airs sometime between 8 and 9 AM on August 20. That’s because both O’Neal and the correspondent who interviewed him, Craig Melvin, were close miked and could not be heard in the stands.
No matter. Shortly after O’Neal finished his interview, the gym doors were flung open and hundreds of people rushed in.
Kids divided into two groups and drove to the basket, like a team doing pre-game warm-up drills, while the giant stood in the lane, swatting away shots when he felt so inclined.
Later, Shaq engaged in a shooting contest with Melvin and Elijah Jackson, a former Bee standout, who was one of the players featured in the film.
“Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, wearing shades in the dimly lit gym, also made a cameo appearance, engaging in a game of Horse with kids from the Eastern Shore Players, a youth hoops team from Virginia, led by former Killer Bee, Daryl Hemby, who were in town for a weekend tournament at the Southampton Town RecCenter in North Sea.
One of their coaches, Marvin Johnson, said even though O’Neal retired seven years ago, the kids on his team all knew who he was.
The Cummings brothers and their camera crews followed the Bridgies, as the team was once known, during the course of the 2015-16 season as they tried to defend their state title. The film also explored the social-economic and racial divides that remain barely under the surface in Bridgehampton today.
The film, which was screened in the gym following Shaq’s appearance, was well received by the audience of community members.
And although it was not a day for speeches, Carl Johnson, the team’s former head coach, spoke briefly after the movie.
“What makes us special,” he told the crowd, “is we are a family, and no one can take that away from us.”