Names Behind the Games - Suzanne Werdann

Even to this day, Hornets Vice President of Community Relations Suzanne Werdann still carries a 1990 picture of Charlotte youngster Matthew Hobbs, a 5-year-old at the time. Terminally ill with a brain tumor, Hobbs was able to meet one of his idols, Hornets shooting guard Rex Chapman, through a get-together arranged by Werdann.

Hobbs, who passed away a year later, also fulfilled a dream by sitting down with sports icon Michael Jordan in the Charlotte Coliseum visitors locker room. As it turned out, the enthusiastic Hobbs provided Jordan with a laugh during their meeting.

Michael Jordan asked Matthew who his favorite player was, a smiling Werdann remembers, and Matthew said, Number 3, Rex Chapman! Memories such as the Hobbs-Jordan meeting are part of what Werdann relishes about her job. Now in her 16th year with the Hornets, the Maryland native oversees the organizations community and charitable efforts, including the current Hoops for Homes initiative in Louisiana. In conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, the Hornets are building 20 homes for displaced families in the New Orleans area.

In Oklahoma City, the organizations primary project is the Read to Achieve literacy program for children the Hornets sponsor a Bookmobile that allows kids to pick up free books. They also host annual summer basketball clinics for 4,000 to 5,000 children.

Werdann has created several unique charitable programs during her tenure, such as a New Orleans prom-dress giveaway in which teenage girls were able to pick up free gowns to wear to their school celebrations. With the help of a clothing company, the Hornets offered a selection of 1,400 dresses, including about 900 that were brand new.

Following the tsunami in Asia last year, Werdann developed a contest involving New Orleans-area elementary schools, after so many kids expressed a desire to help tsunami victims.

We took P.J. Browns sneakers and filled them with beads in conjunction with Mardi Gras, Werdann described of the fundraiser, which was called Shoe-nami and generated $25,000. The kids had to guess how many beads were in them, and whoever came the closest won the (sneaker) and represented their school during a halftime presentation at a home game.

Children provide Werdann with some of her most treasured moments, particularly kids who are seeking to fulfill one of their sports dreams. The most rewarding thing at the end of the day is to have a hand in putting a smile on a childs face who may be in an adverse situation, Werdann says. We had six players fly in from all over the country to visit shelters after Hurricane Katrina. To watch the kids be able to look up and see one of their heroes I dont know how many other jobs give you those types of opportunities. During all of the madness around them, it was a chance for the children to escape for a moment from the devastating reality of what was going on.

While many of the Hornets community events receive media coverage of some kind, players are also involved in a multitude of activities that by design are not publicized.

We get to see the human side of our players, Werdann says. Many of our players dont want any publicity, because they personally feel a desire to give back and truly help those in need.

These young men are very gracious. Our players understand that they are ambassadors not only for our organization, but also for the NBA. They know they are in a unique situation to give back.

In particular, two of the Hornets youngest players, 20-year-olds Chris Paul and J.R. Smith, have impressed Werdann with their desire to assist kids in the Oklahoma City area. Paul recently purchased 50 bikes for children, while Smith hosted a shopping spree for underserved kids at the Oklahoma City Wal-Mart on Reno Avenue.

They are two people whose families are a very important part of their lives, Werdann described of the Hornets starting backcourt. Its been wonderful to see them take on such a large role in helping children.

While the tale of young Matthew Hobbs meeting Air Jordan in 1990 is one of Werdanns favorite stories, she also fondly recalls a second encounter involving Jordan, this time with an elderly fan.

Through a North Carolina organization that helps grant the wishes of seniors with terminal illnesses, Werdann was able to arrange for a 70-year-old man to talk to Jordan before a game.

Werdann picks up the story.

This man was so excited about meeting Michael Jordan and couldnt stop talking about how he couldnt wait to meet him, she says, grinning. But when he was later introduced to Michael Jordan, he just froze and couldnt say a word, because he was so awestruck. So finally his wife said to Michael Jordan, We are so excited to be here, and we told all of our friends and family that we were coming to Charlotte to meet Michael Jackson, and here you are.

Werdann fondly remembers how gracefully Jordan handled the elderly womans mistake. Without flinching and with a big smile, Werdann relates, Michael Jordan put his own hand out and said, Its so nice to meet you both.
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