GARDNER -- Former NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal was a huge presence -- in more ways than one -- at the Rolle All-Star Basketball Clinic here last weekend.
He spoke, played, taught and joked with the kids who signed up for the camp.
And the man they call "Shaq Daddy" had one final offer for the kids in the crowd as the clinic wound down.
O'Neal told the campers that if 11-year-old Armani Perkins of Brockton could sink a long-distance shot in one try he would buy basketball shoes for every kid in the gym.
Perkins took his shot from near the three-point line. The pressure didn't seem to bother him at all -- he swished it through the net and the gym erupted.
O'Neal, a four-time NBA world champion, was at the two-day clinic at Gardner High School as the guest of his girlfriend, Laticia Rolle, a Gardner native who organized the camp. She saw the clinic as an opportunity to give back to the community, like so many had given to her back in her youth.
And her special guest, a 15-time NBA All-Star, did not disappoint.
"Shaquille is an inspiration to young people, and to be honest, I live with that man, and he's a big kid himself," Rolle said. "This was a walk in the park for him, he loves the kids, and would do this every day."
She had high praise for the community, as well. "The support here in Gardner has been amazing," Rolle said. "That's why Gardner will always be home.
The clinic initially aimed to have just 50 boys and 50 girls, but by the start of the event, well over 200 kids took part. The session was open to third through sixth graders.
"I'm going to be honest, there were a lot of kids that wanted to come, and I can't say no to kids," Rolle said. "I was a kid here once, and I started here once, and I can't say no to them, so I let them all come. We sponsored a lot of kids, and let all of the kids who want to be a part of it to be a part of it."
The format of the clinic was to have a skills and drills portion for the first segment, working on passing, shooting, and defensive principals. The final hour of the camp allowed for the participants to take a picture with O'Neal and hear a short speech.
The Naismith Hall of Fame inductee seemed to enjoy the experience, giving high fives and joking around with the children; even hoisting some over his 7-foot-1inch frame.
When O'Neal addressed the students, he emphasized the importance of respecting your parents and those in authority and to pursue their dreams.
"I just hope (the experience of this clinic) is something for them to keep going," O'Neal said. "If it wasn't for camps I wouldn't have the dreams or aspirations to be the Shaq Man. I guarantee you that four or five of these kids will go onto big things in high school, and go on and play college ball."
Leominster native Tyler Strange, a former Division 1 scholarship basketball player at Gardner-Webb, helped out at the camp. Strange was a prime example of the power of the prime message of pursuing one's dreams, as he is playing professional overseas currently.
"I love to give back to the kids, and show that their dreams are reachable," Strange said. "I was at that age, and that little, and was told I would never be able to accomplish what I accomplished. Shaq's 7 feet, and I'm 5-11, it shows that basketball players come in all different sizes and shapes."
Camps like the Rolle Clinic can help inspire the next generation of high school basketball players, and help improve skill level down the road.
"My message is always the same," said O'Neal. "Listen to your parents, listen to your teachers and follow your dreams. It will never change."
Rolle called O'Neal "an amazing person."
"He's a big guy, but his heart is even bigger," she said.