- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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The two best assists of the sports weekend won’t show up in the box score. They didn’t help a team win a game. They did something much more important. They gave a little moment of happiness to a child who has been through the worst extremes of horror.
It started when Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul took a break from warming up for his game against the Washington Wizards and dribbled over to the baseline, where 8-year-old Isaiah Marquez-Greene was standing with his father, Jimmy Greene.
Isaiah was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when a gunman went on a shooting spree that rattled the nation on Dec. 14. Isaiah heard the shots. His sister, Ana, was in a classroom three doors down the hall. She was one of the 20 children killed that day, along with six adults. Ana became one of the most identifiable victims because of a video in which she sang while Isaiah played the piano. For many outsiders it was the first time they could attach a name, face and voice to one of the victims. A memorial Facebook page, Remembering Ana Marquez-Greene, gained 93,000 followers.
Isaiah had been invited by the Los Angeles Kings to participate in their season-opening Stanley Cup celebration earlier in the day. He had stood in a similar spot in Staples Center, flanked by his parents and former Kings greats Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon, holding the championship banner that was about to raised to the upper reaches of Staples Center.
Some seven hours later, with the Kings’ ice covered by the Clippers’ court, Isaiah’s sports fantasy weekend continued. Kings players Anze Kopitar and Willie Mitchell had come by the hotel room and brought the Stanley Cup with them. He had a Kings t-shirt and an all-access Kings staff credential hanging from his neck. He had an autographed hockey stick from Anze Kopitar. He got an autographed Paul jersey and a set of red, NBA-logoed wristbands and headband from Clippers equipment manager Pete Serrano. And now Paul had a request.
“Do you know how to play defense?” Paul asked.
Isaiah shook his head. Paul tried again, but he couldn’t lure Isaiah on the court to guard him. So he came up with a different idea.
“Okay, give me a pass and I’ll make the basket, get you an assist,” Paul said.
He gave the ball to Isaiah, who heaved a pass back to him. Paul gathered himself on the “LAC” logo on the court, took an extra moment to concentrate, then elevated and took a jumper that dropped through the net.
Paul wasn’t finished.
“Do you know who Grant Hill is?” he asked Isaiah.
Another head shake.
“Grant Hill is one of the greatest players ever to play basketball,” Paul said. “I’m going to have you pass to him to see if he can make a basket.”
Isaiah fed Hill, who took his familiar, wide-legged jump shot and made it.
Hill ran over, looked down at Isaiah’s feet and noticed his Fila shoes, the same brand Hill wore during his glory days with the Detroit Pistons.
“It’s the Fila connection!” Hill said as he slapped five with Isaiah.
Three hours later, Isaiah was standing in front of Hill’s locker, holding the game ball that had been signed by the Clipper team. That he was still standing at all at the end of this long, emotional sports Saturday that began at 7 a.m. with a rehearsal for the Kings' pregame ceremony was an impressive feat on its own. His father kept waiting for that inevitable cranky crash kids go through and it didn’t happen, not even after 12 hours, an NHL and NBA game had passed. Greene's wife had long since returned to the hotel room. Their son kept going. At one point, energized by a 16-ounce soda he inhaled during the Clipper game, he proclaimed: “I feel like running back and forth across the court 15 times.”
In other words, he felt like doing kid things. I don’t know how that’s possible for a child who has been through an experience that would a war veteran would consider traumatic. But if there’s a word that I’d use to describe Isaiah it’s undaunted.
When he met Fox Sports West sideline reporter Jaime Maggio, she told him the hardest part of her job is holding the heavy microphone and then handed it to him.
“It’s not that heavy,” he said.
None of our burdens are that great, none of our challenges that difficult compared to what Isaiah and his family have been through.
“We’re still trying to wrap our minds around it,” Greene said. “What’s going on, how we’re doing. It’s a moment-to-moment thing. There really hasn’t been healing. There’s still very much grieving and confusion and loss. In the midst of that, our faith is very strong and always has been. We know that [Ana] is with our Lord. And that gives us comfort.”
For one day they also had relief, thanks to a couple of sporting events and the people behind them. It started with the governor of the Kings and chief executive officer of their parent company AEG, Tim Leiweke, who wanted to find Sandy Hook families with a hockey connection and invite them as a way of honoring the victims. AEG spokesman Michael Roth came up with two families with kids who played in youth hockey leagues. One family declined to participate; the Marquez-Greene family decided to accept the invitation and make their first trip since the tragedy.
“For my wife and I, it’s tough,” Greene said. “We’d love for our daughter to be here to experience this all too. We think about her all the time. But that being said, it’s nice to get away for a weekend and have a distraction.”
That’s supposed to be the purpose of sports, isn’t it? Except lately they hadn’t done a very good job of it. The tales of the nonexistent girlfriend of Manti Te’o and the long-awaited tell-all by Lance Armstrong even managed to overwhelm the buildup to the NFL’s conference championship Sunday -- which itself was headlined by an investigation into an alleged sexual assault that involved San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Saturday brought better news. The NHL made its lockout-delayed season debut. Chris Paul returned for the Clippers after missing the previous three games with a knee injury. And an 8-year-old boy was there to take it all in, smiling repeatedly.
“I’m glad to see him here enjoying the games,” Greene said. “What kid gets to be in bed with the Stanley Cup? It’s really cool, the experiences they’ve let him be a part of.”
Gradually, his family is reconnecting with the world at large. It's coming in steps. Greene said he hasn’t watched television in a month. This was the first time the family has traveled since the tragedy.
He and his wife, Nelba, had to wrestle with a particularly devastating soul-searching because they had only returned to Connecticut in August, after spending the previous three years in Canada. They had chosen that neighborhood in part because during a visit to Sandy Hook in May they saw a schoolwide art project that celebrated the peaceful nature of the town. They made their decision based on safety, and wound up feeling they had placed their children in harm’s way.
But Greene made a discovery in the wake of the tragedy. After seeing the response of the community, the way former strangers pulled together, he realized that Sandy Hook had not been the wrong choice. It was the right choice. The community formed a group called Sandy Hook Promise which is dedicated to continued conversation, not silence, to honoring, not forgetting.
“It’s much more important to be open and available,” Greene said. “To have all the conversations around the pertinent issues: gun violence, access to mental health services and safety in public places.
“We really feel like Ana was incredibly loving, incredibly talented, intelligent girl. Going forward, we want to go forward in love. Not in divisiveness, me on my side of the political aisle, you on yours. We’ve really got to come together. Because this isn’t a political issue. It’s a human issue.”
Humans. That’s what they all were distilled to on Saturday. Not hockey players, not basketball players, just people showing care and concern for an 8-year-old boy.
“I heard he hadn’t smiled since the incident occurred,” Chris Paul said. “Having a son of my own and having a daughter…I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine. I was just happy that he could be here and have a good time.”
To help the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School visit MySandyhookfamilyfund.com
9dJustin Rao and David Rothschild, Special to TrueHoop