|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
|Ricky Davis, left, and Jason Hart engage in holiday reading with some of Santa's favorites.|
LOS ANGELES -- Somewhere on the scale between coincidence and destiny there's an explanation for how the basketball players, the seamstress and the former auditor wound up in one room, a place filled with festivity and presents.
It can't really be free will when those who have the unlimited options granted by money and spare time occupy the same space as people who are there specifically because they have nowhere else to turn. There was a common ground formed by circumstances and civic service, by cause and calling, that brought them all to the Salvation Army Center on 76th and South Central Avenue in Los Angeles on Sunday, when the Clippers gave food, books and gifts to underprivileged families.
"They didn't ask for this situation," Clippers point guard Jason Hart said. "And it's our responsibility, making decent money, to help out and give back."
You could say they all had to be there, just as you could say Mortimer Jones was born to be there.
His parents were in charge of the Salvation Army in Guyana at the time of his birth, and they soon transferred to Jamaica, where he grew up (and acquired the slight accent he carries to this day). He tried to veer off on a different course. He studied business in college and then went to work for an auditing firm. All that did was lead him to handling finances for the Salvation Army. And when the facility in South Los Angeles opened six years ago, he was asked to serve as its executive director.
Now he oversees a paid staff of 37 people and an even larger network of volunteers at the building that provides, among other things, child care, food, overnight accommodations, after-school youth programs, tutoring, dance and martial arts classes, basketball, volleyball and indoor soccer leagues and a skate park. Whether he meant to or not, he wound up doing the same thing as his parents.
"If somebody would have asked me, I would have said, 'Not a chance,'" Jones said. "But it worked out this way. Mainly because of my parents' influence, seeing what they did and the lives they changed. Of course, as a young man growing up, you say, 'It's not for me.' Later in life, you realize what's important. So here I am."
And here were the Clippers, the result of a business meeting he had with a woman who put him in touch with the team's community relations director, Denise Booth. Their first joint event was a Christmas dinner four years ago. They have had other events, including a Thanksgiving dinner that fed more than 600 people last month, but Jones likes the smaller scale of the Adopt-a-Family Christmas party.
The parents fill out applications, which are reviewed by the Clippers and the Salvation Army to determine which families have the greatest need. Sometimes it's obvious by the gift requests, such as clothes. This year, 31 families were selected. They entered the room, perused a table filled with books, went down the buffet line and heaped chicken, sandwiches and fruit on their plates, and sat down at tables decorated with candy and teddy bears.
Gradually the Clippers attending entered and made their way to the front of the room: Hart and Mardy Collins, Steve Novak, Marcus Camby, Al Thornton and Baron Davis. They called the children up to front of the room and Camby, Novak and Hart took turns reading from the book "Santa Claustrophobia." Davis held up a copy of the book so the kids could see the pictures.
Then it was time for the gift giveaways. Davis called the family names and the players passed out presents labeled with the children's names. Luana Foster's three sons landed a remote-controlled plane, wrestling action figures and a computer game. Marianna Mujica's two boys received bicycles.
For Mujica, it was a rare bright moment in what has been a tough year. She works as a seamstress at a sewing company, and like seemingly everywhere else these days, business is down. Her stove and refrigerator stopped working. Then her car broke down. It still isn't fixed.
"I ride the bus," she said. "But I don't go out much. I ask my mom for a ride sometimes. I don't go out with them much."
At least there's a new transportation option.
"They can ride the bikes now," she said with a smile.
Davis asked all of the parents to come to the front of the room. It was their turn to get presents: gift cards from Ralphs grocery stores and Target to make the shopping a little easier. Davis had one more gift to announce ... but he waited to build the suspense. Finally, the good news: Their rent would be paid for the month of January.
A cheer went up from the parents. It was louder than any noise the children made all day. A few tears were shed as well.
"I'm very happy," Mujica said.
Davis, wearing a Santa hat with "Clippers" written in script on the front, wore a smile that was just as wide.
"It feels great to be able to come back and bring holiday cheer to families that appreciate it as well as deserve it," Davis said. "You see a lot of these parents, they're crying and they're really appreciative. That's because they work hard. We want to do things for the people who work hard and who are sending their kids to school."
Davis grew up not too far from this site. These are the streets where he first dribbled a basketball. Now his skills with that ball returned him to where it all began.
Maybe if the Golden State Warriors had thrown larger numbers at him when he was talking contract extension he would be in Oakland on this day. But this is where the journey led.
"It just gave me an opportunity to go back and to try to have a positive impact, to connect with the kids and the community," Davis said. "One of my sole purposes was to come back here, bring some ties, bring some peace to the inner city, get these kids well educated and off to a better start in life."
The parents filled out IRS W-9 forms so the rent money could be processed -- government paperwork never felt so good -- and the kids marched out clutching their new toys. Who knows where they will go from here, whether the destination is predetermined or not. For a couple of hours, at least, they were in the best possible place.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.