The lights dimmed in Littlejohn Coliseum on the campus of Clemson University. The spotlights popped on, the band played Tiger Rag and the crowd roared.
Standing in the wings just off the basketball court, O'Neil McBride admits he was a bit nervous. Jacksonville University was getting ready to tip off against the Tigers. Jacksonville was the first school to offer O'Neil a scholarship. But it wasn’t a Jacksonville uniform he was wearing that evening.
For O'Neil, a long sought after dream had come true.
He was taking the court as the newest Tiger on this year’s squad.
The Myrtle Beach High School graduate had always wanted to play for the Tigers; probably to the surprise and maybe a bit of dismay to his parents Mark and Laura who were graduates of Clemson’s archrival University of South Carolina.
O'Neil finished his high school playing days at Myrtle Beach as one of the Seahawks’ top players but didn’t have many large schools calling on him. He knew if he was ever going to make it to the top collegiate level and get a shot at playing for Clemson, he would have to improve on some skills and probably bulk up a bit to be able to hang with the larger guys on the court.
So after high school, the 6’8’’ McBride packed his bags and basketball shoes and headed northward to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia to hone his on-court skills. Over 250 NBA and Division One players have used the training at Fork Union to further their basketball careers.
It didn’t take long for scouts from other schools to take notice to this tall, skinny kid from Myrtle Beach who was comfortable shooting three-pointers and slamming it home under the basket. Jacksonville and a few others stepped forward with scholarship offers but it still wasn’t where O'Neil wanted to be. Finally, through different channels, some coaches at Clemson saw what the other schools had been watching. The problem was there weren’t any more scholarships available to the ACC school.
But he wasn’t deterred and told the coaches he would do whatever it took for a shot on the Tigers’ roster, even if it meant that he was a walk-on without a scholarship. This determination and his obvious potential to play big-time basketball convinced the Clemson coaching staff that they needed to make room for McBride.
So, for the first time under Coach Brad Brownell’s watch, O'Neil was offered a preferred walk-on status that meant he would have to pay his own way but would have the privileges and opportunities afforded to the other players on the team.
Brownell probably had in the back of his mind another Myrtle Beach area athlete who got his first shot at Clemson as a preferred walk-on. That young man, Socastee High graduate Hunter Renfrow went from a walk-on for the school’s football team to become a Clemson legend and is now making his mark as a star receiver for the Oakland Raiders.
Walk-ons usually stay on the scout team, the guys who pretend to be opposing players in practice for the starters on the roster. In most situations, they don’t travel with the team.
But in O'Neil's case, injuries and other situations with the regular squad opened up space on the team roster. His work ethic was duly noted by the coaching staff and he was informed just before the start of the season that he needed to get his official picture taken for the team photo — he had made the team he had longed for since he was a little guy playing around Myrtle Beach gyms.
So, how does it feel finally achieving the goal he has sought for so long?
“I feel very blessed that God has given me this chance,” he said. “I want to thank my parents for supporting everything I’ve done. And I want to thank Coach Martin at Myrtle Beach and my coaches at Fork Union for helping me get here.”
O'Neil said it’s been quite a change going from high school hoops to playing Division I. First, he’s bulked up to around 200 pounds to help him stave off the bigger guys he’ll be going up against.
He’s had to learn how to balance college classes with an intense schedule that includes long practices and sessions in the weight room.
Laughing, he said that doesn’t leave much free time to enjoy campus life. “Most nights, I come home do school work and fall into bed.”
Playing at this level does have its perks. Instead of long school bus rides, often times he travels to away games on chartered flights. So far, he’s been to Las Vegas and Minneapolis.
He says it’s been great getting to know all of his teammates who have accepted him as part of the team.
“I’ve already made some good friends on this team,” he said. “They’re really great guys and everybody wants to help each other.”
Another perk, he added, is getting to learn under some top coaches.
“Coach Brownell is a great guy,” he said. “I’ve already learned a lot from him and the other coaches.”
Being the new kid on the block means he doesn’t get a lot of playing time…yet. But he’s had the chance to take the court in a few games and get some points and he says he’ll just be patient and learn all he can to be ready for his time.
“I just want to do whatever Coach Brownell and my fellow players need to help the team,” he said.
Brownell said O'Neil has been a big asset already for the team.
“O'Neil is a great kid to have in our program,” Brownell said. “He works hard for us every day.”
After a semester, O'Neil said ending up at Clemson has been everything he dreamed of…and more.
“Everyone is right,” he said, “when they say there is something special in these hills.”