Shaq’s Visit Shakes the Bee Hive
The Hive was swarming Friday as Shaquille O’Neal shot hoops with youngsters and who, prior to a screening of Ben and Orson Cummings’s documentary on the 2015-16 Bridgehampton High School boys basketball team, the Killer Bees, and the inspiring tradition behind it, told the crowd that he, too, had gone to a school like Bridgehampton.
Recounting his appearance afterward, Ben Cummings said, “Shaq said he also had had a relationship with his high school coach that reminded him of the dynamic that existed between Carl [Johnson] and the boys in the movie.”
“And he said he was happy to support a film that addressed so many of the nation’s problems, but which at the same time showed how sports can steer young people in the right direction, can help them value such things as teamwork, cooperation, and discipline, which he said were crucial if a young person were to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of the country’s present political and economic situation.”
Jimmy Fallon, the talk show host — and honorary Killer Bee who has known Johnson for a number of years — was there too, amiably dueling from the free-throw line with Ellajah Miller, a player on one of the former state-champion Killer Bee Darryl Hemby’s Eastern Shore Playaz youth basketball teams, who had made the trip up from Virginia, the first time about half of them had been out of their state.
“Meeting Shaq and Jimmy Fallon was a once-in-a-lifetime for them,” Hemby’s wife, Nicki, said in an email Monday. “You don’t get opportunities like this where they’re from . . . they woke up as local celebrities this morning on social media.”
“Endless car washes, bake sales, and fund-raising,” she said, had enabled the boys, who wore the black-and-gold Killer Bee colors, to accept the Cummingses’ and Carl Johnson’s invitation.
“The Eastern Shore,” she continued, “is one of the poorest counties in Virginia, and has many of the same issues that Bridgehampton has been dealing with for 40 years or so. So having the boys watch the film really hit home in so many ways.”
O’Neal’s visit to the Bee Hive was, said Orson Cummings, “historic for everyone who loves this place and the culture of the school and the [nine-time state champion] Killer Bees team. Many felt it was surreal, it was hard to fathom that Shaq was really there. He’s such a tremendous presence, and he’s so warm and playful with the kids. We all found it a bit overwhelming. And then when Jimmy Fallon, who is good friends with Shaq, came in, people’s minds were kind of blown. It was off the charts.”
Among those in the packed gym were players of the 2015-16 team, and — the Cummingses were very happy to say, because they have been lifelong friends of his — Julian Johnson, a star of the pluperfect 1986 state-champion Killer Bees, who later spent years in the Elmira Correctional Facility, having been incarcerated as the result of a minor drug conviction. An interview the Cummingses did with him at Elmira is in the film — as was one with Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein, advocating judicial reform in this regard.
“We’re so excited to see Julian as a free man now, with his family, which includes a brand-new baby girl,” said Ben. “We’ve known him for many years, and venturing up to Elmira to speak to him was emotionally difficult for us. We wish him well in this new chapter in his life.”
Following the documentary’s premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival last fall, the only cavil, it seemed, centered on the seniors’ educational futures. Were they all college-bound? Were some not going? The question left hanging inspired some former Killer Bees, including the team’s present coach, Ron White, to hold a forum of Killer Bee alumni young and old soon after in the Hive, a lively give-and-take making the point, in sum, that there indeed was life after the Killer Bees.
Coach Johnson, when questioned Friday, said all six of the 2016 team’s seniors had gone on to college, but that Josh Lamison and Tylik Furman, the team’s best players, who had been attending the University of New Haven, “experienced financial problems and had to come back after two years.” Asked if they’d continue their education, Johnson said, firmly, “They’d better.”
“Everyone is putting their heads together to figure out what needs to be done to get them back into school,” Ben Cummings said. “The community, especially Carl, has taken this situation very seriously, and we are hopeful for a positive resolution. We hope the film has contributed in some way to people’s awareness of situations like this one and therefore its solution.”
“To screen the film in the Hive, with Julian there and so many of the people from the community, including the players from the movie, was overwhelming,” said Orson Cummings. “Coach Carl,” the film’s central figure, who stands alone as the only person to have played for three New York State-championship teams and to have coached four of them, “was very emotional about the experience as well. It made him really proud and happy to be able to bring this story to the community, and to be able to spend some time with Shaq. They huddled up and spoke about life and basketball for a while when we went to dinner afterward.”
Orson added that the film “enjoyed an extremely successful release [at Cinema Village in New York City and at Monica Film Center in Los Angeles] three weeks ago. The New York Times made it a Critic’s Pick, which is a huge thing for any film to receive. The Los Angeles Times also gave it a terrific review, as did the Film Journal International magazine, a very important trade publication. So, we’re thrilled with how things went, and are now excited about having the movie available on VOD everywhere. That includes iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and more.”
“Bringing these boys to the Hive,” Nicki Hemby said, “was an honor for us all. Our boys have heard so much about Bridgehampton basketball that they were beginning to think it was an urban legend. . . . No matter how old or how young, whether you still live in Bridgehampton or are hundreds of miles away, once a Killer Bee always a Killer Bee. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth. I doubt you can find any alumni who will tell you differently.”