A Rockets Christmas Story
Rockets spread holiday cheer at Ronald McDonald House
A jaded, cynical adult becomes utterly disenchanted with all things Christmas-related due to the rampant commercialism and materialism now associated with the holiday season. Let’s call this person Ebenezer. Or just Jason. But then something miraculous happens: That same cold-hearted person instantly melts upon spending just a short amount of time around those less fortunate and – voila! – suddenly the Christmas spirit is alive and well once more.
By now we’ve heard so many variations of that story that we’ve almost become immune to its power. Call it a Christmas cliché. But like all clichés, it’s also steeped in the truth. I had to find out the hard way - which also happens to be the best way, just in case you were wondering.
Thursday evening the Houston Rockets and Southwest Airlines teamed up for their annual visit to the Ronald McDonald House here in Houston. If you don’t know the Ronald McDonald House is home to families with children undergoing treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses. The event actually served as a Grand Re-Opening of sorts, since it was the first large-scale social gathering held at the House since Hurricane Ike. Much of the RMH facility required reconstruction after being ravaged by the storm, so this was not just a celebration of Christmas, but also of the building returning to full functionality.
I had no idea what to expect from this evening’s activities so, upon entering, I found a quiet place to watch and observe. I’m not sure if I moved once over the hour that followed. What I do know is that I never stopped smiling. Not even once.
Clutch kicked things off – with an assist from the Rocket Power Dancers – as only he can. It’s amazing how much kids love that bear. He got them all involved and left them in stitches from start to finish.
With the audience suitably warmed up and buzzing, the players then took center stage. Ron Artest, Carl Landry, Luther Head and Joey Dorsey were introduced one-by-one, starting line-up style, then proceeded to take turns playing Santa Claus; handing out giant bags filled with gifts for each and every child in the room.
There are no words in the English language – at least none which I possess – to properly describe the way a child’s face lights up when receiving presents from their larger-than-life heroes. It seems like something akin to awe, wonder and pure, unadulterated joy, but I’m really just guessing here. What I do know with absolute certainty, however, is that there’s simply no way there was anything in those gift bags which could ever hold a candle to the smiles and laughter which had overtaken the room.
“It’s good to see the expression on the kids’ faces when they see the gifts we give them,” said Luther Head who was taking part in the event for the third straight year. “That’s what makes it so great and that’s why we keep come out here. It’s just so special.”
It’s also an emotional roller coaster. There’s nothing quite like the thrill which comes from seeing so much happiness. Yet, in an instant, that buzz can vanish when the realization hits that, for some of these kids, this will be the last Christmas they’ll ever see. That exact thought is clearly present on some of the parents’ faces. And so it goes: Elation. Despair. Elation. Despair. The players sense it, too.
“We’re handing out gifts and you hear people talking about how some kids couldn’t make it because they’re going through surgery, or some can’t be here because they’re too sick – it’s really sad,” says Head. “So I just try to really make things special for the ones that are here, and pray for the ones who aren’t and hope that they’ll be safe and get better as soon as possible.”
The gift-giving part of the evening is almost over. It’s time for everyone to gather around one giant table to make the finest, most outlandishly-topped sugar cookies the world has ever seen. Chocolate chips, Skittles, M&M’s, Twizzlers – if it’s loaded with some sort of high-fructose corn syrup, it was probably on the table.
But just before making the transition, I was finally pulled out of my solitary trance by a 16-year old girl in a wheelchair named Marissa Pino. We strike up a conversation and she tells me how much she’d been looking forward to this day because she’s such a big basketball fan; especially since she’s from New Mexico where NBA stars aren’t exactly lurking around every corner. She’s been here for two months now and is scheduled to stay for nine more. This is her third bout with her particular form of bone cancer; it keeps coming back, so the doctors are taking a different, more intense, approach this time. She discusses her chemotherapy and radiation treatment as matter-of-factly as if she were breaking down tonight’s game between the Rockets and Kings.
I’m at a loss. I mean, what do you say to that? “Good luck?” And at that very moment, just as the lump begins to form in my throat, I realize I’ve become a part of my very own Christmas cliché.
Marissa wheels over to the cookie-making table where the laughter has already reached a crescendo. Carl has brought the house down by trying to stuff a quadruple-decker cookie in his mouth all at once while everyone around the table cheers him on. Meanwhile, Ron is trading confectionary tips with the little girl by his side. Joey can’t stop laughing. It’s hard to tell who’s enjoying this more: The players, or the kids.
For the Rockets, this is all part of what they call their “Season of Giving.” It probably sounds like a well-crafted P.R. gimmick, but try telling that to everyone involved with this amazing evening. For what it’s worth, I can honestly say I’ve never been prouder to be a part of this organization.
The night ends with handshakes, hugs, pictures and the players serving pizza to all (Yes, dinner came after dessert. Hey, it’s Christmas - Who cares?). As everyone begins to file out or head upstairs to prepare for bed, the dozens of on-the-ball Rockets staffers who organized this event scurry around the house cleaning everything up.
But there’s one more thing I have to do before leaving. I wander over to Marissa, who’s back at the cookie table, chatting with her sister. I wish her Merry Christmas and to stay strong in the months ahead. But who am I kidding? This teenager has probably expended more courage over the last two years than I’ve shown in my entire life. As if to belabor the point, she tells me I can call and check up on her if I really care. I will. I promise I will.
As I make my way out of the building, at least a half-dozen people come over to say thank you. But they don’t get it. I keep trying to explain:
No, no, no.