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‘Hand of God moments’ lead Philadelphia 76ers CEO to join LDS Church

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At the end of July, friends of Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil received a text from him that simply said, “I believe.”

The text was his way of informing them of his decision to be baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

O’Neil, who is not only CEO of the Sixers but also of the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center, had been married to his wife, Lisa, a lifelong member of the LDS Church, for nearly 21 years. The two are parents of three daughters, Alexa, Kira and Eliza. He attended church with family on Sundays, held family home evenings each week, led his family in scripture study and paid tithing for years.

So what changed? Why now?

If you ask O’Neil, he will tell you that while his wife, who he calls "a wonderful example in terms of how to live," had the most influence on him, his choice to be baptized was not the result of one thing in particular, but rather the product of the actions of many people over time.

“I guess I would make it analogous of the story of the rock where you pound the rock and pound the rock, it’s like a thousand times that you can hit it and it’s not that last hit but the thousand ones before it,” O’Neil said, referencing a famous quote by Jacob Riss. “Maybe that’s a bad analogy because things were breaking off rather than coming together, but we’ve been really fortunate. We’ve had tremendous friends, we’ve lived in six or seven different cities. We’ve had incredibly strong home teachers, incredibly strong wards, incredible bishops, we’ve had the good fortune of meeting several general authorities, too, and that’s been a good experience. If there was ever a hand of God in giving us an opportunity to make a decision, it was certainly there.”

Scott and Lisa O’Neil met while working for the New Jersey Nets, he as an administrative assistant and she as an intern. O’Neil had been raised a devout Catholic and attended both Catholic high school and college while Lisa was a Mormon and a student at Brigham Young University on summer break. She had internship opportunities from two other NBA teams, both of which were better than the offer from New Jersey, and O’Neil said there is no reason she should’ve gone with the Nets other than to find her future husband. Before they were married, O’Neil made a commitment that their children would be raised in the LDS Church and that he would be supportive and go with them to church. He was true to his word for more than two decades despite the demands of a successful career that has earned him a place in the Sports Business Journal's Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame.

O’Neil tells stories of people who over the last 21 years have touched his life. They include a classmate at Harvard Business School who turned out to be Matt Eyring, son of President Henry B. Eyring, and how after giving him tickets to an NBA Finals game, Matt invited him to “a little bit of a different arena” — general conference. There are the diligent home teachers he has had over the years, and his joke of calling each of them “the second best home teacher” he ever had that came “crashing down” at his baptism when they were all in attendance.

But his conversion story really begins to pick up in the last year or so, when he began to have what he refers to as “hand of God moments,” a reference to President Henry B. Eyring’s teachings on looking for the hand of God in life.

It begins as many conversion stories do: with a missionary, but not in the conventional sense. While O’Neil’s nephew, Jeremy Reynolds, was serving his mission in Sendai, Japan, his mission president asked if he had any relatives who were not members of the LDS Church.

“Those members of your family who are not members of the church just became your biggest investigators,” Reynolds remembers his mission president saying when he replied that he had several family members who were not LDS. “Obviously I want you to focus on the people here in Japan and the people you’ll meet, but what matters is your family and you need to focus on them. So when you write home every week, have those people in mind and pray to try to find something that might benefit them in their lives.”

Reynolds says his family had prayed that his uncle would join the church his whole life. He began to write his letters with O’Neil in mind and O’Neil read those letters every week.

“That, I would tell Lisa later, had a complete transformational impact and influence on me,” O’Neil said. “I would read these notes that he would send back and I would be brought to tears every week.”

When Reynolds returned home from his mission, the O’Neils flew to Utah to welcome him home. While in Utah, they attended the BYU-Cincinnati game on Oct. 16, and while riding on the elevator, O’Neil recognized former Philadelphia Eagles player Chad Lewis. After O’Neil introduced himself, Lewis immediately asked if he knew Vai Sikahema, a former BYU and Philadelphia Eagles football player who is now a well-known morning news anchor in Philadelphia. O’Neil said he knew of him but didn’t know him personally. Lewis told him the two needed to be friends.

The O’Neils got back to Philadelphia and Scott had breakfast with Sikahema the next day. The two became fast friends and immediately hit it off, so much so that Sikahema quickly recruited O’Neil’s help with something. Leaders of the LDS Church were flying out to Philadelphia to see prospective sites for the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple Cultural Celebration, but church leaders in Philadelphia, including Sikahema, had been unable to find anywhere that was available. When told about the dilemma, O’Neil immediately went to work, and it was his help that eventually secured the Liacouras Center at Temple University for the celebration.

Doing his “little part” in the temple preparations played a significant part in O’Neil’s conversion.

“The temple coming to Philadelphia was special for so many reasons,” O’Neil said. “I mean, it brought us closer as a family, it brought the ward together, the stake together, kind of the region together, and to play our little part, I think definitely kind of moved it. I’m not sure I can articulate how, but it definitely had an incredible, strong feeling or sense that it’s a special place where special things happen.”

Since then, O’Neil says that some of his family’s “best spiritual experiences have been around the Sikahemas.”

“Over the last year, little things and involvement with certain people, like he had never met Vai and then they just met and he’s suddenly involved with the temple and it was really interesting,” Lisa O’Neil said.

Sikahema recalls one spiritual experience the two shared.

“The first time we met he said, ‘Vai, you know what’s going to get me into the church? It’s going to be my daughter Alexa, because she takes great joy in torturing me by telling me, “Daddy, I’m getting married in the temple and you won’t be there.”’ … Then she gets out of the car at seminary and leaves him there in the car mulling over what she just said,” Sikahema recalled.

“When we took them through the temple tour, we were in the sealing room and I said to Scott, ‘My wife and I will be here with you on the day that Alexa gets married and you’re here with her and with Lisa,’” Sikahema said. “And he just draped his body on mine and we just cried.”

The Philadelphia Temple plays an interesting part in this for Lisa O’Neil as well, as she had never gone through the temple for her own endowment before but knowing that they would soon have a temple close by, she decided to go through the temple while visiting her family in Utah. Unbeknownst to Lisa, while his wife and daughters were in Utah, Scott O’Neil called and set up a dinner with his home teacher, a member of their stake presidency named Clark Maxwell, who he calls "an incredibly Christlike person."

“We went to dinner and I said, ‘Hey, I want to do this the right way,’” O’Neil recalls saying. “How does this actually work? How is this going to go down? Will you help me through it?”

“As stubborn as I am, even I, at some point had to listen to the promptings,” O’Neil said. “I just kept getting nudged and finally heeded the call.”

The two began meeting with the missionaries every night while O’Neil’s family was out of town and when they returned home, he told Lisa and his daughters that he had decided to be baptized.

O’Neil was baptized on Aug. 13, and the family was in the celestial room for the dedication of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple on Sept. 18. The couple says all of this has made for the best summer of their lives.

As for his future as a member of the LDS Church, O’Neil says that next to being with his family forever, he is most excited for the opportunity to serve.

“I want to serve in a very responsible and humble and directed and inspired way,” O’Neil said, holding his wife’s hand. “It’s not lost on me that I might have more attention than others, and if I can use that to encourage someone to raise their hand or encourage someone to talk to a missionary who might not otherwise have, I’d like to see if there’s a chance that I might have some influence there. I’m very well aware that I have a lot to learn about the church and its teachings and I certainly have a long way to go in terms of my own development and knowledge, which I’m working on.

“But I also know that sometimes you’re given an opportunity and a platform to be able to use that for good. I hope that I’m able to do that.”

Email: mjones@deseretdigital.com