BEAVERTON, Ore. — Player Number 4 loves the Trail Blazers and once even covered the walls of his cottage room at the St. Mary’s Home For Boys with their posters and paraphernalia.
Like any young boy in these parts of the Northwest, he tries to mimic LaMarcus Aldridge’s spin moves and Nicolas Batum’s shooting stroke. On the bad days, basketball is his release.
When Player No. 9 first came to St. Mary’s, he had no distinguishable basketball skills. He wasn’t doing well in school and he wasn’t invested in life. Somehow, the counselors encouraged him to join the basketball team. Last year, he was named captain. Then on Wednesday, he got bragging rights over Blazer center J.J. Hickson.
The Blazers — players as well as several members of the front office including team president and CEO Chris McGowan — visited St. Mary’s in Beaverton on Wednesday and presented the facility with a $50,000 check.
In the same gymnasium used for teaching the at-risk boys ages 10-18 how to interact with peers in a group setting, players from the team ran a full-court scrimmage with the boys. One noticeable absence was Aldridge, who will miss tonight’s game against the Nuggets with a left ankle strain.
”Well, it was a little bit nerve wracking at first but after we got in there, it was fun,” said No. 9, a blonde-haired boy who looks younger than his 15 years. “I was actually really excited.”
Due to HIPAA regulations, St. Mary’s does not release names of the boys nor specifics as to how they came to be there. St. Mary’s must keep strict rules; when Blaze the Trail Cat cheerfully hugged the shoulders of the boys who asked for his picture, the mascot was quickly reminded that there’s no touching.
According to St. Mary’s literature, the facility houses some of “the most damaged, disturbed and troubled young men” in the state. Many of the boys come here because there’s no other option for them.
Coach Terry Stotts had no idea in knowing that No. 4 — an olive-skinned teen with his black hair cropped short — has what his counselor describes as “low days.” That description did not fit on Wednesday, especially since he beamed every moment on the court.
Dressed in his new red and white No. 4 St. Mary’s jersey, his black Nike socks pulled high, the young man couldn’t stop smiling after he hit a corner 3-pointer. Stotts, who officiated the scrimmage, grinned through the whistle hanging from his lips and gave No. 4 an ‘atta-boy’ backside slap as he rushed back on defense.
”You come to a place like St. Mary’s and you know some of the backgrounds of the kids, it certainly does put things in perspective,” Stotts said. “I’m glad for our players that they understand and appreciate not only what they have but some of the struggles that other people have.”
Throughout the day, teachers and therapists tried their best to stay mum on what was billed as a “surprise” appearance by the Blazers.
However, several of the boys grew suspicious — why were they to get dressed for a 2 p.m. game when their season doesn’t start until January? And what’s up with all those news cameras?
But nothing quite gave it away more than the large banner welcoming the Blazers that was being taped to the wall.
The team arrived to the gymnasium earlier than expected, and several players noticed the sign before a St. Mary’s employee could close the door. Later in the locker room, their coach confirmed it: St. Mary’s versus Blazers.
The team has shared a long relationship with St. Mary’s, dating back to Maurice Lucas. As a player in the 1970s, Lucas would visit and make private donations. Lucas even donated more than $25,000 worth of janitorial equipment to the home.
The Blazers continued the bond with Lucas as an assistant under former head coach Nate McMillan and in previous years, the team has participated in similar scrimmages with the boys.
”It means the world to the kids. Can you imagine, they scored on a Blazer?” said Lynda Walker, St. Mary’s director of development. “It’s so sweet of the coach to have the Blazers hold off a bit.”
Didn’t seem so from the start. Hickson, towering over No. 14, won the opening tip and tapped it to Meyers Leonard, cherry picking in the backcourt. A thunderous dunk followed, as other St. Mary’s boys, who filled the gym, voiced their approval.
”My favorite play of the game,” No. 4 said, “Meyers Leonard dunking it.”
After a while, the Blazers playfully eased up — jacking up long threes and attempting so many lobs that would shame an All-Star game.
St. Mary’s, however, never slacked. Players raced back on defense, jumped into passing lanes for steals and shared the ball to find the open man.
When No. 9 raised up and made a jump shot over Hickson, Wesley Matthews did his best DeShawn Stevenson impression by waving a hand in front of his big smile and someone from the Blazer sideline taunted Hickson: “In your face!”
”Being a part of something like this, it’s way bigger than us, bigger than basketball. Basketball is just what brings us together,” Matthews said. “It’s special.”
After the scrimmage, the Blazers presented a $50,000 check to the school on behalf of the franchise’s Make It Better Foundation. According to team officials, the donation was made possible by contributions from the Ray Hickey Foundation and Hedinger Family Foundation.
Both the boys and the Blazers posed in front of the supersized check for the cameras. But for one boy, the experience on the court with his favorite team far exceeded any dollar amount.
”It’s just one of those dreams,” No. 4 said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to play with the Blazers.”