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Will Hurricane Harvey prompt NBA players to replicate 2005 Relief Game?

Charity game lifted the spirits of Hurricane Katrina survivors

Then-Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups and I were nearly in tears from what we saw in a mammoth space inside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston in September 2005.

There were hundreds of cots occupied primarily by mothers resting with young children and the elderly. They were displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, stressed and trying to figure out what to do next. Whatever possessions they had left sat next to their makeshift beds. The lines for medical help were long. Portable toilets were up front.

With former NBA player Kenny Smith leading the charge, NBA players, including Billups, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, were there to witness the pain, bring financial aid and offer a smile through a charity basketball game.

“It’s hurtful man, hurtful,” Billups told me at the time for a story in The Denver Post. “The only positive is at least these kids got to smile for a couple minutes.”

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the United States, causing destruction along the Gulf Coast from Central Florida to Texas and most notably in New Orleans. The August 2005 storm contributed to the deaths of more than 1,200 people and more than $100 billion in property damage. Many people affected by Hurricane Katrina relocated temporarily and then permanently to Houston.

Now Houston is suffering the nightmare that haunted New Orleans 12 years ago. Hurricane Harvey has dumped torrential rain on the city, with ABC News meteorologists forecasting historic rainfall totals of up to 50 inches by Wednesday. Houston has had more than 1,000 calls for rescue, and people were forced to their rooftops.

NBA All-Stars such as James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have tweeted well-wishes and prayers to the people of Houston and elsewhere in Texas. Paul and Cousins also tweeted information on how to give to those in need through Youcaring.com and the Red Cross. Paul donated $50,000. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander pledged $4 million to the relief effort on Monday and reportedly increased that donation to $10 million on Tuesday.

Chrysa Chin, executive vice president of strategy and development for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said Monday that the union is “exploring options” to help hurricane victims.

“We’re concerned and want to help,” Chin said.

Perhaps this time they can do it in New Orleans, where locals can certainly relate to the pain. Maybe Cousins and fellow New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis — along with Paul, who is president of the NBPA and a former Hornets star — could host a charity game at the Smoothie King Center in The Big Easy. Or maybe Paul and Harden, both Houston Rockets stars, could host it in Houston when possible. If a charity game and weekend is anything like it was in Houston during the 2005 NBA Players Hurricane Relief Game, it could be one of the most fulfilling moments of their NBA careers. It certainly was one of the most memorable moments for me in 18 seasons of covering the NBA.

Turner Sports NBA analyst and ex-Rockets guard Smith spearheaded putting together the star-studded rosters, the venue and television rights in 30 hours. Participating players each gave a minimum of $10,000. More than $1 million in funds, food and goods were collected before the Toyota Center doors opened in Houston. A crowd of 11,416 included Hurricane Katrina survivors, who were given free tickets in the upper deck, while the lower deck seats were sold for charity. The game included Billups, James, Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, who coached. There was even a brief performance by Kanye West.

“There’s never been a basketball game of more importance,” Smith said at the time.

Anthony cut short a vacation in the Bahamas to play and wore a T-shirt that read, “PRAY.”

“I’m doing this for the cause,” Anthony said.

Before the charity game, emotional NBA players visited several local shelters housing survivors. Then-Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play, donated shoes to the Fishers of Men Christian Church. Former NBA player and New Orleans native Robert Pack was also there. His aunt Debbie Mason was still missing at the time.

Perhaps James best described the emotions the NBA players had that day.

“If you’re not humble, everything we saw today made you put things in perspective,” James said.

It isn’t necessary for the players to do this. But whether it’s a financial donation or an autograph signing or picture taking, that could lessen the pain for a moment.

I’m sure the Hurricane Katrina survivors who went to the charity game or met the players still appreciate the help and smiles they received from the hoop stars 12 years ago. From what I witnessed, those NBA stars gave them great memories during one of the worst times of their lives.

Said then-12-year-old Diamond Hudson of New Orleans: “I wanted to faint when LeBron James kissed me on the forehead. I love every one of these basketball players.”

“It means a lot,” said Ronald Gabriel of Algiers, Louisiana, who landed several NBA player autographs at the time. “It means that they care, mindfully, thoughtfully. It matters.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.