Campus & community, Events at Berkeley

‘The ball is in your hands,’ keynote speaker tells Berkeley graduates

"You are now playing the game of life," said Cynt Marshall, a UC Berkeley alum and CEO of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.

The keynote speaker at commencement was Cynt Marshall, a UC Berkeley graduate who went on to become CEO of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, the first Black woman to be CEO in NBA history.

Following are keynote speaker Cynt Marshall’s prepared remarks for UC Berkeley’s commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11:

Class of 2024, this is your day!

I am honored to be back in my home state, at the best place on the planet, my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. Today, we are celebrating 7,000 students. Most of them did not have a senior prom or high school graduation ceremony. So today is extra special. 

I’m proud to be here on this historic campus, where 60 years ago the Free Speech Movement began. And while there are many national and international issues to boldly speak up about, I want to lift my voice today for these resilient scholars who have been equipped with the skills to lead, contribute to, change and take over the world. Scholars, are you ready to take over?

I remember my college graduation day. I was sitting at the ceremony thinking about a call I had to make. I’m sure some of you are a tad distracted, like I was. You see, during my first week at Cal, my boyfriend, who was one year ahead of me, called to tell me he had transferred schools. He said, “Surprise! I’ve transferred to SF State University so I can be near you.” I responded, “Surprise! I’ll call you when I graduate.” Remember, it was my FIRST week of college. I told him I didn’t have time for some smooth-talking cutie who wanted to play when I needed to study. This girl from the Easter Hill public housing projects in Richmond, California, was serious about her college opportunity.

People had big dreams for me, and I needed to focus and handle my business. Tell somebody, “She handled her business!” So, I graduated at 2 p.m. and called him at 3 p.m. Since he hadn’t talked to me in almost four years, the brother tried to act like he didn’t know me. I invited him to my graduation party, and he said he couldn’t come. He even had the nerve to tell me he was engaged. However, something happened, and he came to the party. Last week, we celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary. I often tell my husband he came that close to missing his blessing. So, if you have a call to make, just give me 15
minutes and I’ll be out of your way.

Chancellor Christ, thank you for your service, devotion, commitment and leadership. Thank you for modeling our guiding values and principles of diversity, excellence, innovation, public mission, accountability and transparency. You will be sorely missed.

Board of Regents, board of visitors, Kirk Tramble, faculty and administration, congratulations on your many accomplishments, including once again and for the past nine years, being named the No. 1 public school in the country.

Sydney and Sarah, thank you for your extraordinary leadership of the student body and this amazing graduating class. Parents and loved ones, thank you for laying the foundation for our graduates to reach this important milestone in their lives. They sit here today because of your unconditional love, your faith in their journey, your limitless credit card and your tolerance for unending text messages and midnight calls. You have invested a lot in your young person. Today, you are getting the return on your investment.

Class of 2024, please stand and express some gratitude to your moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles and the members of your village.

Cynt Marshall gives the keynote speech at UC Berkeley's 2024 commencement ceremony
“Now certainly you didn’t think you were going to leave today without getting a sports-related message from me,” Marshall said to graduates.

Brittany Hosea-Small for UC Berkeley

Graduates, a few years ago, you became a part of something very special. I did, too, when my feet landed on this campus. I remember standing underneath Sather Gate and looking up at the Campanile. Everything was so big. I remember walking into 1 PSL; a lecture hall with a thousand people; most of them did not look like me.

I remember having to quickly find a quiet study place because the classwork was suddenly a little harder than high school. Enter Moffett and Doe libraries into my life. I remember how special it was meeting the girl from Long Beach, Yvonne Vallier, who became and still is my best friend, and she is with us today.

I also remember the young man who drove me home after class one day, asked me if he was pulling into “the projects” and then decided he didn’t want to have anything to do with me because of where I lived. Now, my momma always told me “It’s not where you live, it’s how you live,” but I guess he didn’t want a friend from the projects. Somehow that changed when he saw me two years later in this very stadium, performing on the Cal dance team. One day, he even tried to chase me down as I was walking into the DG House at 2710 Channing Way. I was so proud of my new house, and I was still very proud of my old house.

Fortunately, most people didn’t care about my zip code. I was embraced by amazing people who were dedicated to preparing me for the next phase of life. You have also been embraced by amazing people who taught and cared for you during very turbulent times.

Class of 2024, please give a thunderous round of applause to the people who nurtured you during a critical period of growth in your life, your incredible faculty, administrators and staff.

Now, while these wonderful people are still available to you, they have left the next chapter of life up to you. In my world, I think of the next chapter as a new season, and my message to you is: “The ball is in your hands.”

Now certainly you didn’t think you were going to leave today without getting a sports-related message from me, the CEO of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, where a former California Golden Bear, Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, is the head coach. And of course, there’s baseball’s World Series champion and Cal alum, Marcus Semien.

OK, I need everyone, including our graduate honorees, to look at someone and tell them:
“Neighbor … the ball … is in … your hands.” I grew up in a Pentecostal church and we had lots of neighbors, so find someone else, smile and tell them: “Neighbor … the ball … is in … your hands.”

Do we have any basketball, baseball or football players with us today? How about soccer,
volleyball, softball, golf, rugby, La Crosse, water polo or tennis players in the audience? At some point, most of you have handled a ball that is unique to a sport, training or leisure activity. You’ve become familiar with that ball and what to do with it.

Scholars, the ball I am talking about today is different. The playing field is global and multi-dimensional. And the game is more significant than the Cal/Stanford Big game. You are now playing the game of life and your ball is a collection of choices that you get to hold each day. 

Allow me to give you six things to consider as you embrace this new ball and prepare to play on this new court. Consider this your final lesson at the University of California at Berkeley.

1. Teammates: Constantly ask yourself: Who else is on the court with you? Who are you doing life with now? Always keep good company. Run with good people who are doing good things and who will help you keep your court safe.

2. Your position: Be mindful of your position on the court. You have a distinct role to play in advancing the ball for society. Give of your time, talent and treasure. Perhaps you will be the one who changes a life forever by teaching someone how to read. Or maybe you’ll be the one with the public mission mindset who mobilizes people to address an international crisis. 

Or just maybe, you will be the one with the means to make other people’s dreams come true. I didn’t know on my college graduation day that I would adopt four children, save them from abuse, abandonment or neglect and give them stability and a forever family. Winston Churchill, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, once said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Use your position on the court to make a difference in the lives of others.

3. Tip-off: Once you flip your tassel, the game has begun, and the ball has been tipped your way. UC Berkeley has equipped you to pick up the ball and make good decisions. Sometimes, you will have many decisions to make and competing priorities. Let me give you a simple illustration of how I often make decisions and set my priorities.

Life is filled with crystal balls and rubber balls. This is a crystal ball. If I drop it, it will shatter and I’ll never get it back. This is a rubber ball. I have a few of them. This rubber ball bounces; it doesn’t break. Sometimes, it bounces away and never returns because either some wonderful person picks it up and handles it or it rolls away quietly because it was something that really didn’t need to be done in the first place. Sometimes, it bounces back at the right time, and I handle it. 

Know your crystal balls from your rubber balls. Some things are important, and some things are not. Some things are urgent, and some things can wait.

4. Ball handling: Handle the ball with character. Don’t cheat. Always tell the truth. Your integrity is not for sale. Do the right thing. There is a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. You have been taught how to do both.

5. Rebounding: Sometimes, you will make a bad decision. Sometimes, you will take the shot and miss it. Sometimes, the light you see at the end of the tunnel is a train. In the game of life, bad things do happen to good people. But there will always be someone around to help you rebound with grace. Some of you broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend over the past four or five years. Some of you ran out of money and had to call somebody for that “Hook a sister/brother up” moment. Some of you needed some extra help with that last final exam.

Basketball legend Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Don’t be afraid to miss the shot, just rebound with grace.

The sixth and final part of this lesson is about player conduct. Play this game of life like a grown-up. Look at someone and tell them, “It’s time to be GROWN.” I am not referring to the grown-up status where you get the privilege of paying your bills on time, nor am I talking about the kind of grown where you do whatever you want to do and come and go as you please.

When I say it’s time to be GROWN, my version of GROWN, G-R-O-W-N, means this: 

G — Be Grateful: Take time to thank the people in your village who have been and continue to be outstanding and supportive trainers. Never forget the coaching staff of educators who embraced you a few years ago and are proud to send you into the world. Always display an attitude of gratitude. Keep “thank you” in your daily vocabulary. 

R — Be Ready: The game of life has some new rules. You need to be in good physical, mental and spiritual health to win. I am a stage 3 colon cancer survivor. I learned the hard way the value of paying attention to all three — physical, mental and spiritual health — what I call “PMS.” Keep your mind, body and soul in good shape.

O — Be Open: You are part of a master plan that is bigger than you and not about you; it’s about us. There is a plan that has your part perfectly scripted. Be open to all opportunities and possibilities. Open your mind to thoughts and beliefs that differ from your own. Most of you have no idea what profound impact you are about to make on the world. Be open to a future that is unknown; a future that you will impact.

W — Be Willing: Stay alert to injustices in society. You are equipped and able to stand up to hate and evil. Be willing to do your part to create a more just, equal, inclusive and equitable world. Be willing to pay what I call “the FEE for admission” to work, live and play in our society. That fee, F-E-E, is Fairness, Engagement and Equality. Practice it and pursue it.

N — Be Nice: My favorite quote is, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Be caring. Be kind. Never underestimate the power of nice. You will conquer the world with kindness.

So you’re at center court and it’s time for tip-off. The game is about to begin.

1. Always keep good teammates.
2. Give of your time, talent and treasure.
3. Know your crystal balls from your rubber balls.
4. Do the right thing.
5. Rebound with grace; and
6. Conduct yourself like a GROWN-up — grateful, ready, open, willing and nice.

May God bless your hands as you pick up the ball.

May God bless your feet as you take to the court.

May you always cherish and tell others about your days at Cal. 

In the words of my friend and Cal alum, Ahmad Anderson, remember this: You know it. You tell the story. You tell the whole darn world this is Bear Territory.

My fellow Golden Bears, Class of 2024 … you handled your business. Congratulations! The ball is in your hands!

Read and watch more about the class of 2024: