Champion Enterprises closing doors after 40 years

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When summer days bring heat, humidity and stupidity, hardly anyone wants to spend a lot of afternoons outside and even less chasing kids.  But this has been Bill Neal’s life for 40 consecutive summers.

Neal, founder and creator of Champion Enterprises, has been the director for safe summer programs which includes basketball camps, football camps, tennis clinics and much more.

At the end of this year, the Pittsburgh-based Champion Enterprises, also known as Champions Association, will close its doors  after 40 years of achieving greatness.

“Champions is ending after 40 dedicated years of community service,” said Neal.  “We achieved our objective of serving youth and the community. After 40 years its time to move onto something else.”

Champion Enterprises are what they are: the heart and soul of the “city of champions.” The fact that the Connie Hawkins League, named for co-founder Connie Hawkins, was able to thrive in a city that loves its football was a minor miracle.

“For 40 years we were responsible for 20 plus programs every year,” said Neal. “Every summer 200 plus kids for 40 years. We would give away 500 toys at Christmas for 40 years; feed 100 seniors during Thanksgiving for 40 years. Every year we would honor 30 plus awardees at the Willie Stargell MVP Banquet.  “Forty years of serving the community and helping also to contribute to the economic improvement of the community.  Our programs needed security, parking, tee-shirts, uniforms, trophies and other program operation cost.”

 

strong-support

STRONG SUPPORT—Bill Neal with Franco Harris, left, just one of the local legends whose continuous support he credits for the organization’s gained national recognition.

Neal was born and raised in the Lincoln Park section of Penn Hills. He participated in football, and track and field during his high school years. He is even in the Penn Hills Hall of Fame. He continued his athletic career at Slippery Rock University.

Neal never expected to start his career as his own boss. Yet, two years after receiving his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, he and NBA/ABA superstar Connie Hawkins founded the Connie Hawkins Basketball League which evolved into Champion Enterprises.

Neal contacted Franco Harris and started the Franco Harris Football Camp. Next, he contacted Willie Stargell to form the Willie Stargell MVP Banquet and the Armon “The Hammer” Hard Work Basketball Camp and 16 other programs.

“I had just graduated from UNLV when Bill welcomed me into the prestigious Connie Hawkins Men’s Summer Basketball League as the first woman to play in the league,” said Karen Hall, former college basketball star. “Competition was tremendous and games were intense. To know I had the opportunity to play where most of Pittsburgh’s finest players and pros laced it up is awesome.

“Bill gave me the opportunity to coach in the league. To have coached great players in the league and coached against the coaches was pretty special. The legacy of success of the league and Champions Association carries on today. Bill has done a great deal for the Pittsburgh community. Athletics/Basketball has been a fantastic vehicle in which Bill used to help change and improve lives. All I remember hearing about when I first was introduced to Bill and Champions Association was the heated rivalry between the Cosmic Echos and the Dons.  Games such as those and others are as legendary as the talented players that played in those games.”

Champion Enterprises is a nonprofit organization committed to reaching underserved youth at the cusp of behavior and decisions that could ruin their lives and future opportunities. It helped keep youths off the streets and on the right path through its various programs. But it isn’t only about athletics, Champions Enterprises also held anti-drug, anti-bullying and anti-violence lectures at schools throughout Pittsburgh.

The mission of the program is to support academic excellence, build self-esteem, and instill life skills through the discipline of sports.

All the money raised by the organization goes directly to program operations, Neal said. There are no paid employees only volunteers; hundreds have volunteered over the years. Many of them professional athletes.

Neal said he could have never kept the programs afloat without the help of Judge Dwayne Woodruff, Bill and Jack Goodrich, Dominick Gambino and the Penn Avenue McDonald’s.

 

house-call

HOUSE CALL—Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who made a house call to tip-off The Champions Basketball Camp, with Bill Neal.

A few of the many volunteers over the years were Chuck Sanders Charities; Ed Gainey, state representative; coach Eddie Jefferies; Unrico Abbondanza; Dennis Briggs; and Rita Gregory.

“Champion Enterprises is synonymous with benevolence. An organization that serves the community with a special emphasis on the youth and has been an integral part of my life for a number of years,” said Chanel Smith, CEO of Sound Body Solutions LLC. “Bill Neal’s giving spirit coupled with the diligence of board, staff, and volunteers has been a source of inspiration and hope to the Pittsburgh community. I am blessed to be a part of Champion’s history.”

The secret to his success , Neal said, was that he was meticulous in the way he worked at building programs. He spent countless hours working with youth programs and building a community around sports programs, and that was a big part of his success.

During four decades in community service, Champion Enterprises has reinvented itself time and time again.

So, what’s next for Bill Neal? AARP meetings? Bingo and shuffleboard?

Before he stops to smell the roses, Neal will say farewell when he hosts the Champion Enterprises 40th Anniversary Celebration on Saturday, Oct. 18 at the Lounge on Verona Road, in Penn Hills.

Neal said he wants to see all the former Connie Hawkins players, coaches, models, board members, community advocates and volunteers that have helped to make Champions a huge success over the years.

“I might wear out, but I ain’t going to rust out,” said Neal. “Stay tuned Pittsburgh because in November I will be announcing what the next chapter in my life will be. All I will say for now is the best is yet to come.”

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