Thunder Players, Kids Celebrate Holiday Spirit With Shopping Spree

Well after the Thunder players and the families they were shopping with left Target on Tuesday, balloons from the team's Holiday Assist event still floated around on the backs of shopping carts to go home with other guests.

But that is just a drop in the bucket of the long-lasting effects the team shopping spree will have on families throughout the community.

Ten families, all part of Sunbeam Family Services' Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, each had $1,000 to spend at the northwest Oklahoma City store to make their holiday wishes come true. And they each had some help spending it.

While Thunder Girls shopped with the grandparents, Thunder players took the children on a shopping spree like they never imagined.

This is the fourth year the Thunder has put on this event, and it has become a favorite holiday tradition for staff and players alike.

"It's awesome. Putting a smile on their face is worth everything to me, really," said Byron Mullens as he helped 9-year-old Katy find a Selena Gomez CD.

Players donned Thunder blue Santa hats, but it was the kids who really put them in the holiday spirit.

Surrounded by holiday music, grateful families and a store full of fun, the kid at heart in each of them quickly emerged.

Cole Aldrich folded his 6-11 frame atop a tiny dirt bike and rode it to the front of the store so 11-year-old Skyler could take it home.

"We're trying to find clothes," Reggie Jackson said of one child he shopped with, 5-year-old Donovan, "but all he wants is toys – which I still understand, all I want is toys, too."

Daequan Cook, finding the Santa hat inadequate to put 9-year-old Tristan at ease, quickly found a pink feather boa, pink sunglasses and other sparkly accessories to get the little girl in a shopping mood. Except he wore them, not the young girl.

"She's still kind of shy right now," Cook said while looking through Tristan's music selections. "She's opening up a little bit as we go. We were just over there singing – y'all actually missed it, we were singing together a Rhianna song."

Eric Maynor tried to guide 7-year-old April and 5-year-old Abby around the store, and when they didn't find what they were looking for down one aisle, he declared those toys were "for babies" and suggested they try the next row.

"I remember when I used to be a kid, and when Christmastime comes, you want everything. And they are going around picking (out) everything," Maynor said, smiling.

And when Brooklyn, 9, wasn't sure if a set of Hello Kitty pajamas was the right size, Russell Westbrook took them out of their cardboard packaging and held them up to check the length.

"It's always good to come and show the Christmas spirit," said Kevin Durant. "My guy, he got a lot of cool things. It's just exciting to see his smile."

But all the fun only tells half the story.

Each of these families came to experience this special day in its own way, but none of their paths have been easy. A series of misfortunes, illnesses, accidents, losses and other hard times has taken all of these families somewhere they never expected to be – raising their grandchildren, and unable to provide the children with a present under the Christmas tree.

Five-year-old Kendall strolled around the store, happily wielding the price-scanner gun while Nick Collison followed and put everything she wanted in the cart. But she and her grandmother, Drusilla, recently had to live in their car for a while and sleep in parking lots, after Kendall was abandoned by her parents.

Drusilla was overjoyed at this experience, from the large things to the small things. She had never had her own hat before, and with $500 to spend on herself, her Thunder shopping helpers insisted she buy not only a hat, but a scarf to match.

When she received a gift of another $250 gift card to spend in the future, courtesy of Target, Drusilla melted into tears, prompting a number of Thunder staffers to give her a hug.

Duana is raising four grandchildren; her daughter died in 2008, and the children's father is not in the picture. A Thunder staffer who was helping her shop said the hardest part of the experience was getting Duana to spend something on herself, rather than using all the money for her grandkids. She took quite a bit of convincing, but finally selected at least a few things she could enjoy.

But all the hard times these families have faced faded away on Tuesday night, drowned out by the light of holiday joy this once-in-a-lifetime experience brought to their lives through the Thunder Holiday Assist, presented by COX Communications.

"I'm with (3-year-old) Nece," said Kendrick Perkins. "I think she is going to have a happy Christmas, all the way to the next Christmas. We're trying to make it enjoyable, and I'm just happy to be here."

Nece may have been most overjoyed by her basketful of Barbie toys, but overall the families, players and everyone involved in this special night experienced happiness on a number of levels.

That these families had an incredible abundance to spend on holiday treats and everyday needs is one thing. That they experienced the excitement and fun of a Thunder team event, shopping with Thunder players and Thunder Girls, is another.

That they were able to experience a night like this together, coming through all their hardships and still being a family – well, that was perhaps the most meaningful thing, the thing that most embodies the spirit of the season. And long after the clothes are outgrown and the toys are put away, it will likely be the most lasting impact of the evening.