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Wednesday October 20, 2010 2:13 PM

Mutual Admiration Society

Rockets, Rachel Zientek provide inspiration to each other

West Medlin

Houston - There is no one way to find inspiration. Sometimes it comes from observing the greatness of others. For example, watching Hakeem Olajuwon dismantle David Robinson in the 1994-95 playoffs must have been inspiring for even the most casual Rockets fan. Dream had no equal. And that inspiration could be characterized as an appreciation for the difference in mastery of craft between fan and player.

We are not like him. The more that we as fans understand how extraordinary Hakeem Olajuwon was at the game of basketball, the more inspiring his performances become. Appreciating his greatness inspires us to be better at whatever we do. He’s a legend and we are his storytellers. However, there is a divide going on here. For the most part, I am ordinary. But there is nothing ordinary about Hakeem Olajuwon. While I can appreciate Hakeem, I cannot relate to him.

However, inspiration is not limited to the acts of superstars or the famous. It comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. At other times inspiration can be drawn from how ordinary people react when confronted with extraordinary situations. They are not superstars. They are not famous. But their stories reveal the capacity in everyone to be great. These people are relatable. Their stories tell us that you don’t need superhuman strength or a larger-than-life persona to overcome challenges that at first may seem unconquerable.

Rachel Zientek’s story is one such tale. Rachel, a 16-year-old high school student, boarded a plane destined to Alaska on June 1st with the intention of babysitting the children of some family friends and experiencing the great outdoors. However, midflight, her plane crashed. By the time it was over, Rachel received burns on 20 percent of her body and suffered a severely fractured back. She spent 30 days in the Intensive Care Unit in Seattle and another 20 days in a floor unit before she was allowed to leave. A summer intended to be spent exploring the wild was instead reduced to a hospital bed followed by multiple surgeries and intense rehabilitation. She worked with the doctors, fought to recuperate, and stuck with it. Finally, on July 22nd she came home to Houston.

The Rockets welcomed Rachel to Toyota Center October 9th and sought to provide a little inspiration of their own by inviting her to sit courtside for a game, meet the team during warm-ups, and check out the locker room. Rachel arrived to the court to watch the Rockets warm up, accompanied by her brother, as her mother pushed her wheelchair. Both of her legs and her right arm were fully bandaged. It was visibly evident that her recovery was far from complete. As she sat with her family, however, watching the Rockets shoot layups and jumpers, her face told a different story. She glowed with enthusiasm as she and her family pointed out and identified the different players she had watched on television, practicing in front of her just feet away.

She said she had never been this close to the court and never appreciated the players’ size until sitting across from them face-to-face. One-by-one the players came by, said hello, took pictures, and signed autographs. Rachel said the highlight was meeting her favorite player, Shane Battier. After greeting her with a hug, he chatted with Rachel for a while before presenting her with a signed pair of his shoes. Aaron Brooks who had come by earlier, returned refusing to be outdone after he saw what Battier had brought; he too gave her a pair of his kicks.

After warm-ups, Rachel and her family went to the locker room and training facility where they got to meet Kevin Martin and other players hanging out before the game. The Rockets also gave her some courtside seats where she got to watch the Rockets wallop the Indiana Pacers in their most impressive performance of the preseason.

Photos were taken. Shoes, hats and posters were signed. And as her mom characterized the event, it was “once in a lifetime.” Certainly, a nice break from the rehab and the physical therapist she works with three times a week. The experience clearly had meaning to Rachel who grew up a Rockets fan and played basketball in high school before her injury. “Just to be down here and have everybody come with me is awesome,” she said.

Rachel and her mom admit that she has a long way before making a full recovery but cautiously hope she can resume playing basketball by her senior year. If the Rockets made her recovery and hopeful return to the court any easier in any way, than they did their job. “She loves basketball. When she played she would do homework just to get to basketball. So this is fun,” her mom said.

Even the most difficult challenges can become a little more doable when you’re inspired. Rachel would know.


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