Brent Asay

Hoops for Troops and a turkey dinner: Jazz players embrace opportunities to serve in the community

by Aaron Falk

Grayson Allen’s last shot rattled around and eventually missed its mark. This left an opening for his opponent—and the little boy didn’t waste it. The kid launched a ball at his target and watched it drop into place to beat the Utah Jazz rookie in a game of basketball Connect Four.

“It’s some extra free-throw practice,” a smiling Allen said afterward, “so I won’t miss one in a game.”

A short distance away, Jazz forward Royce O’Neale was locked in a high-speed car race with Jazz Bear and senior airman January Goklish.

But for Allen and O’Neale, Thursday night was more than a chance to cut loose and have some fun playing games at Dave & Buster’s in Salt Lake City. The two Jazz players were there to say thank you to the dozens of Utah military veterans and their families who had gathered at the downtown business as part of the NBA’s “Hoops for Troops” initiative.

“It means a lot to us,” O’Neale said. “They support us each and every day. For us, doing little stuff like this—it might not take a lot from us but it means a lot to them.”

“They sacrifice so much so I can live my life,” Allen added. “So I can play basketball.”

The families from Continue Mission—a nonprofit that aids veterans with service-connected physical, mental and emotional injuries—enjoyed the chance to get together Thursday.

“Once people are out of the military, sometimes we tend to isolate, and it gets hard,” one Army captain said. “Events like this are really important. It does bring us all together. We all have different difficulties but, coming together, we’re family. We really do need things like this. We’re really thankful that the Jazz did this for us.”

Goklish, who served in Guam, Saudi Arabia, and Italy as a member of the U.S. Air Force, was all smiles after beating O’Neale and Bear in a racing video game.

“It’s a great morale booster. It feels really good to connect with people from my past,” the veteran said of the event.

Allen and O’Neale weren’t the only Jazzmen to get out into the community this week. Point guard Ricky Rubio, who has personally decided to take on one charitable cause each month, made a stop at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Rubio and guard Naz Mitrou-Long were also on hand in South Salt Lake City to help forward Georges Niang give warm clothes and a Thanksgiving meal to families in need.

“After coming to Utah and seeing how they accepted me, it makes me happy to give back to a community that gives me so much,” Niang said. “It’s important to me that people have a good meal during the holiday to share—with love and compassion—with the people they care about.”

Niang partnered with Utah Community Action’s Head Start program to provide food and winter clothes to 200 families.

“This is so amazing because a lot of families don’t have the means to have a Thanksgiving dinner,” said Joni Clark, the group’s chief development officer.

UCA’s Head Start program has about 2,000 students in all, Clark said. The average income for a household of four is $18,000.

“If I can give some of my happiness to someone less fortunate, that’s really important to me,” Niang said.

Ahmed al-Ashiari remembers watching Karl Malone and John Stockton play while he was growing up in Iraq.

“I loved watching the greatest teams,” he said.

This week, al-Ashiari posed for photos with Niang and left, smiling, with clothes and food.

“He’s a really nice guy,” al-Ashiari said. “It’s really nice to see some good players and talk with them and see them help the community.”