BY: David Nichols
If you need a helping hand, look toward the end of your arm.
As a resident of The Emerald City, my heart swelled with civic and human pride when I read accounts of the Seattle Sonics' visit to New Orleans in January 2008. Professional athletes are often thought of as egocentric, self-serving individuals, but the actions of the Sonics' coaches and players threaten to destroy such characterizations.
When the Seattle Sonics team came to the city of New Orleans to play the Hornets that January, the team was blown away by the devastation that was left from Hurricane Katrina. As the darkness descended on the corner of Canal and Claiborne, they witnessed the homeless who occupied the dozens of tents that littered the underpass of Interstate 10. They had just concluded another day of despair and some coaches were moved to tears. They were staying at the posh Ritz-Carlton, and the harsh contrast when considering the plight of Katrina victims made them feel uncomfortable and guilty.
The day before their game with the Hornets, the team bus was directed to head to the tent area. Players and coaches spent forty-five minutes handing out food to the homeless who had congregated under New Orleans' busiest freeway since Hurricane Katrina. An entire homeless community was there, and it was an amazing scene when the Sonics' team bus pulled over on Canal Street and a group of tall, muscular young men pulled food, water and supplies from the bottom of the bus.
As the homeless people lined up, a frail-looking woman walked over and asked where the line started. There was no line; this was no scheduled stop. After the team had served those in a substance-abuse rehabilitation center near downtown New Orleans, they wanted to do more. The NBA suggests that teams run basketball clinics for those Katrina victims, but the team really didn't think the New Orleans homeless needed to work on their ball-handling skills. They wanted to help directly and reach out to those in Tent City.
One coach remarked, "Our players are just good guys, but a lot of times you do something like this and it's almost like you have to make the players come. With our players, it was the complete opposite; it's a great thing. New Orleans still has major bleeding and exposed wounds from Katrina, and Tent City is one of them. The state has set aside $6 million for the New Orleans Hornets practice facility, but is uncertain what to do with the homelessness issue."
That day they served the homeless, players and coaches lined up outside the bus, each with a food item. Assistant coach Ralph Lewis had sandwiches. Player Delonte West had dinners in a Styrofoam container. Rookie Kevin Durant had rolls.
The homeless ranged from a woman with a broken left arm who gathered all her food with her right arm, to a teenager who pulled out a cell phone during his meal. When the heavy traffic died down, the players scooped up all the supplies and personally delivered them to those sitting in the tents. They were intent on handing out every bit of food and water the Sonics purchased.
Their objective was to try and lift those guys up through a tough time; they wanted to encourage them and urge them to keep fighting. The people in Tent City are pretty much beaten down, and when the players and coaches paid attention to them -- treated them as human beings -- it meant a whole lot to them. The majority of them were sports fans and appreciated the concern from the team. It seemed to encourage them.
With their mission accomplished, a coach said, "It's a good thing and at the same time it's nothing." But it was a little something that demonstrated that NBA stars can respond with compassion, and the people appreciated it. These Emerald City shining gems, in the person of the Seattle Sonics, had indeed brightened the lives and hopes of Katrina's Tent City victims, personifying the association's motto: "The NBA Cares."