It might not be as attention-getting as Kobe vs. Shaq or the Pistons-Pacers rematch, but Rashard Lewis and other Sonics are brightening others' holidays.
On a trolley trimmed in red ribbons and decked with holly, Rashard Lewis sat in the front row beside two little girls and entertained them with jokes, stories and his multi-gadget cellphone during a 45-minute ride to the toy store.
He hadn’t always been the coolest kid in class while growing up in Alief, Texas, but on this afternoon, just a few days before Christmas, the Sonics forward shed his shy and reserved disposition and got downright silly.
This was his gift to them. Not only had he promised to give the 80 or so children staying at the Ronald McDonald House a present for the holidays, but he also gave them a glimpse of his personality that few others get to see.
At times, he chased a bunch of boys up and down the aisles, peeking around the corners and spraying cans of goo all over each other. He laughed with parents who looked as if they wanted to cry with joy.
And he held a 4-year old girl in his arms as she showed him the doll that she picked out.
“I didn’t think I’d have as much fun as I’m having,” he said. “It’s kind of different to be messing with these kids and watching them pick out their toys. It’s not like how it used to be back when I was younger.”
For a few hours, the children seemed to forget why they were living temporarily at the Ronald McDonald House, an apartment complex near Children’s Hospital for patients afflicted with various medical conditions and their families.
“The buying the toy thing, you can tell, that’s not the biggest thing for them,” said Beth Valentin, who watched her two little boys run past with goo stringing from their hair. “It’s meeting Rashard. They just wanted to hang out with him and maybe even play a little basketball with him.
“He’s a real idol. He’s a very humble man and a real great role model for the kids.”
Her oldest son, Paxson Matthews, was born with Neurofibromatosis type 2, which is a rare inherited disorder characterized by the development of benign tumors on the auditory nerves.
He is scheduled to undergo his second surgery on Thursday, in which doctors will insert an auditory implant into his brain that will improve his hearing.
“Because it was the holidays, we said we were going down as a family,” said Valentin, a mother of four who lives in Talkeetna, Alaska, about 115 miles north of Anchorage. “Things like this, it makes it awesome for him. We’re not having a Christmas tree or whatever, but they are going to remember this for the rest of their lives.
“Like I was telling a few of the other mothers, we’re not going through a good time right now, but these moments make it better. You pray for times like this and people like Rashard who are just so nice.”
With no CD to promote or court date on the horizon, Lewis seems out of touch with his NBA brethren on a day when the league’s two biggest games are as much about greed, lust and violence than basketball.
In Los Angeles, a nationally televised network audience will tune into a game between the Lakers and the Miami Heat in large part to see what will happen when former teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal face off.
And in Indianapolis, the Pacers and Jermaine O’Neal, who received a reduction in his suspension from an arbitrator, are reunited with the Detroit Pistons, their combatants last month in the ugliest brawl in NBA history.
Pistons coach Larry Brown admonished the NBA for showcasing the game on Christmas Day. The league hopes for a 10.0 television rating for the Lakers-Heat game and an all-time best cable showing for the Pacers-Pistons game.
“You sometimes wonder where this game is going and exactly what are we promoting here,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. “Are we promoting basketball or is it entertainment? Or maybe both. I don’t know.
“But you ask yourself, ‘Can you win and do it the right way? With good people? Playing good basketball?’ I think you can. I think we have a lot of those guys here. Not just Rashard, but a lot of guys here who are involved in the community and not just collecting a paycheck and doing a job.”
This week, Luke Ridnour served dinner to clients of the Union Gospel Mission located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district. McMillan did the same with his daughter at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club.
The Sonics visited Children’s Hospital on Monday, Antonio Daniels dressed in Santa Claus gear and doled out gifts at Redmond Town Center, and Ray Allen sponsored an event that raised money for the Salvation Army and Seattle Public Schools.
McMillan said he talks to the Sonics as much about life skills as he does about basketball. He chastises them when they don’t dress warmly in the winter months, counsels them on family situations and urges them to perform charity work.
The Sonics coach is unsure if any of the good deeds will improve the team’s 19-5 record, but “when you’re done playing this game, you’ll wish you had done things like that.”
When he entered the league as a teenager, Lewis promised to give as much as he could to his new home. A year ago, he donated $125,000 to the McDonald House and has continued to support the center.
“When I first came into the league, I wasn’t in the right position to do a lot of foundation stuff,” Lewis said. “At the same time, I was trying to focus almost entirely on basketball because I wasn’t playing a lot, and I felt like it wasn’t right for me to go out and have my mind focused on other things.
“Now that I’m a little bit established, I can open that door and do different things.”
After an hour of shopping, Lewis smiled while standing near the cashier stands. He looked at the two little girls he rode with on the trolley. They carried bags filled with toys.
“It probably would get me a lot more attention if I were to do something stupid like get in trouble or something, but that’s not me,” he said. “With me, I just want to be a likable person. I don’t like people to say that he’s a good basketball player, but not a good person.
“If somebody has a problem with me, I’d like to square it away. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I know that somebody is upset with me, because I’m the type of person that gets along with everybody, regardless of if you’re black, white or have some type of handicap.
“I’m just a friend to everybody.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org