By Jimmy Do | okcthunder.com
THUNDER MAKING CONNECTIONS AT VA HOSPITAL
On the eve of Veterans Day and the U.S. Marine Corps' 241st birthday, Thunder players Alex Abrines, Enes Kanter, Cameron Payne, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Singler paid a surprise visit to honor the service men and women at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Room after room, the teammates spent time with the veterans to celebrate the momentous afternoon.
Her hands flung into the air as she bellowed "WOWWWW!!!" with the familiar intonation of 18,203 screaming fans at a Thunder game. Like most days, Army veteran and Thunder fan Ardell Dandridge did not expect to see anybody other than the in-and-out dutiful check-ins of the VA medical staff members. So when Enes Kanter and Cameron Payne ducked under the doorway into her room, the mere sight of the Thunder teammates resulted in Dandridge to waken the kind of excitement of seeing long-lost loved ones.
A couple of hearty fist bumps later, before Kanter and Payne could initiate the conversation, it was Dandridge who delivered the pep talk to the players reeling off words of encouragement ("Job well done," "We're proud of you," "Keep your heads up," "Stay focused," "WIN!") with military precision and the authority of a head coach in the heat of a close contest. Impressed by her infectious spirit and energy, the duo couldn't help but break into an appreciative laugh and smile along with everyone in the room.
"It was heaven for us," said Payne grinning ear-to-ear.
For Dandridge, spending time with Kanter and Payne allowed her to trade positive vibes.
"It truly is an honor for us all to celebrate each other's successes in life," said Dandridge. "We only get to dance one time. So let's make the best of it."
The tour continued as Kanter and Payne surprised Vietnam War veteran Roy Spears with a gift bag as well. The trio engaged in a lively chat about his grandkids and the team.
"It means a lot that somebody cares. I do appreciate them," said Spears. "It makes me feel good, feel wanted. It really does."
"It was awesome! The Thunder fans just gives us so much energy," said Kanter. "They're so excited. We're happy, they're happy—that's what it's all about."
Spears' stories from Vietnam reminded Payne of a 7th-grade school project about his grandfather who also fought in Vietnam as their conversation dived into the details and artifacts of that era. Reminiscing, Payne talked about all of the photographs he collected and the conversations he had with his grandfather for the project.
"It was a great discussion we had. Great talk," said Payne. "When I heard Vietnam, it triggered my mind and I had to tell about it."
"It was a big scrapbook and we learned a lot about our grandfather that we would never ask him about before," Payne continued.
Kyle Singler on meeting the veterans: "The most impactful thing for me was to connect with people who have served our country and get to know them, hear their story, give them support and let them know how much we appreciate what they have done."
For Richard Maxey, Chief of Voluntary Services of the VA Medical Center, seeing players like Alex Abrines paying tribute by spending time with the vets made a profound impact.
"We have a lot of patients here that unfortunately don't have family members that choose to visit them or family members close to visit them. Seeing the players come in really shows they understand the sacrifices made—even the international players. This year, Enes Kanter came back for his second year. That says a lot right there."
Payne and Kanter dropped in to see Ed Benton, 101st Airborne veteran, for a chat about the early success of the team and his career in the Army.
"It means a lot to know that somebody cares and will take the time to appreciate what we did for no other reason than that we love our country," said Benton.
Maxey: "Just the reactions of the patients. They way they light up. You'll see people react in ways they haven't reacted since they've been here. The expressions on their faces. The ability to talk about things other than their medical care; you can talk about sports, talk about the game last night. That's really most meaningful to me. It really contributes to the medical care process. It's truly impactful."
Full Video: Thunder Players Spread Cheer at VA Hospital