When the Portland Trail Blazers arrived in Memphis in the early morning hours of March 10, they did so as a battered team. Tired and rattled from having lost two tough games to the Mavericks and Rockets to start a difficult five-game road trip, one could forgive the players for wanting to spend their off day confided to their rooms.
Maybe they'd replay the events of the last few games in their heads to come to some understanding of what had gone wrong. Or perhaps they'd spend time thinking about the bounces of the ball or the referee's calls, neither of which seemed to break their way. They could get in a few extra hours of much needed rest, receive treatment for various maladies, catch up on a television show or two and generally while away the hours before turning their attention to preparing for the upcoming game against the Grizzlies.
But instead of spending the day commiserating, the team got up first thing and headed to the National Civil Rights Museum to reflect on the struggles of those who fought and sacrificed for a more just United States. After learning about the struggles of the past, the team then traveled just a few miles down the road to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to visit with kids fighting for their future.
Named for the patron saint of hopeless causes, St. Jude Children's Hospital cares for kids afflicted with deadly diseases, primarily leukemia, sickle cell and brain tumors. The model is a unique one, in that no family pays for any of the services provided by the doctors and staff, be it treatment, transportation, lodging or any of the other expenses associated with extended hospitalization. Founded in 1962 by entertainer Danny Thomas, the mission of St. Jude Children's Hospotal is a large one: to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment.
The team was greeted upon arrival by Rick Shadyac, the CEO of Alsac/St. Jude, who they presented a donation on behalf of the team. It costs $1.9 million a day to run St. Jude's, and with only 25 percent of that coming from insurance payments, donations are absolutely vital to allow for continued treatment and research.
The team then split into two groups to tour the facility and learned about some of the truly amazing strides the doctors and researchers at St. Jude's have made in over 40 years in the treatment of some of the worst afflictions known to man.
But the highlight of the trip was undoubtably getting to spend time with some of the patients, many of whom were confined to wheelchairs or were carted around in little red wagons.
"Those kids are truly angels and they have a different spirit to them," said Trail Blazers guard Earl Watson. "You can just feel that energy. The interaction we had is always undefinable, the impact it has on your soul and spirit and mindset."
The team signed autographs and posed for pictures with children being treated for a host illnesses, as well as their families. Many had lost their hair from chemotherapy, others wore braces on their arms or legs. And others donned prosthetics for when treatments or cures didn't come quick enough. But the sad faces one would expect to encounter on a campus where children are literally facing life or death situations were nowhere to be found. Rather, there was an overwhelming sense of courage and hope.
"It just humbles you as a person," said Blazers guard Wesley Matthews. "Not even as professional athletes or basketball players. It just humbles you as a person to see the fight and to know what someone else is going through and to see them still have joy, see them still be happy, to see their parents be positive, to see the staff be uplifted and excited about what's going on there. As a human being, that just makes you feel good."
After losing two games in a row, let alone the way they lost those games, it's reasonable to think some of the players might have been feeling just a bit sorry for themselves. But the trip to St. Jude's was a reminder that the game, while an important part of their lives, is still just a game.
"It was humbling, to be honest with you, to see those kids still smiling," said Damian Lillard. "Even though they're going through what they're going through, they still find a way to be happy. We worry. We just lost a big game, and that lightened me up a lot. It was like, we lost a big game, we've got another one tomorrow, but these kids are fighting for their lives every day. That's tough on you, mentally, emotionally, for your family, having to see your family in pain because what you're going through. It was a great experience for me."
"It's always important to be able to have something to bring you outside of this life," said Matthews. "Going to St. Jude just puts everything back in perspective for you. Any time you get a chance to make somebody's day, whether they know you or not -- I guarantee those kids didn't know who we were -- but it was a different face for them, something special for them. In turn, it's something special for us."
Head coach Terry Stotts scheduled the trip to St. Jude Children's Hospital well before they knew how the start of the road trip. Nevertheless, the timing, considering the way the trip started, seemed to come at the right time for everyone.
"It was more about them, but I think it was beneficial for us because we got to see how blessed we are and how fortunate we are, to not only not have to go through that, but to be NBA players," said Lillard. "You get so caught up in being competitive -- we're trying to win, win, win -- that we forget that we're actually here. A lot of people wish they were here, let alone not being in a hospital and going through cancer and sicknesses. We're lucky."
In basketball terms, the Trail Blazers wouldn't be so lucky immediately following the visit, dropping games to the Grizzlies and Spurs while losing both their starting power forward and sixth man to injury in the process. But perhaps they were better prepared to deal with those difficult times, relatively insignificant as they might be, after spending an afternoon at St. Jude's.
"I think it's important to have perspective," said Stotts. "And that doesn't take away anything from feeling bad about a loss and wanting to perform well, but I think perspective is important from time to time."