Christie, Shaq bring after-school funding to Camden

Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal , who grew up in Newark, at the Boys and Girls Club in East Camden. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal , who grew up in Newark, at the Boys and Girls Club in East Camden. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 12, 2013

The students assembled at the Boys and Girls Club in East Camden stood in stunned silence when Gov. Christie walked into the building Thursday.

They were not awed by the governor, but rather by his companion, 7-foot-1 Shaquille O'Neal, the 15-time NBA all-star.

"Just remember," O'Neal told the students in a soft baritone, "it doesn't matter where you're from; it just matters where you're going. . . . If Shaq can do it, you guys can do it."

And Shaq certainly did it. He began at age 7 going to the Boys and Girls Club across from the projects in Newark, N.J., where he lived. He did his homework, tried out his fledgling rap skills to be like LL Cool J, and then hit the court, learning how to turn his oversize body from awkward to awesome.

The retired 41-year-old is now an advocate for Boys and Girls Clubs nationwide and is increasingly involved in urban issues in New Jersey. Working with a prominent developer, O'Neal recently redeveloped a theater in Newark and broke ground on the city's first new housing tower in 50 years.

On Thursday, O'Neal came to Camden so Christie could announce a new initiative called Just Play, in which $500,000 in state funds will be distributed to nonprofits to create "networks" of after-school activities. Children could be referred to the networks by, for example, police and social service agencies, then screened to find the right programs. Each of the networks also will distribute a directory of after-school and summer programs in urban areas.

O'Neal told the students Thursday that Newark and Camden were "very similar," beset by drugs and gangs, but the after-school programs he attended "helped me to become the great leader I am today."

Christie said that three hours after school lets out were "recruiting hours for gangs," so places like the Boys and Girls Club provide both "protection" and "hope."

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd also attended the announcement. The Democrat, as she has done in the past, praised the Republican governor for his "courage and commitment to our city."

As part of the initiative, O'Neal will become the first "youth ambassador" for the state.

Other sports figures are expected to join him by visiting schools and making public-service announcements.

Christie said his own four children thought it was cool that he's now friends with O'Neal.

"I do think you're cool," O'Neal said. "Very cool."

609-217-8355 @mattkatz00

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