NBA stars meet in Houston for hurricane relief

Posted: Monday, September 12, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) — Chris LaRoche doesn't have any clothes, toys or a place to go home to, but on Sunday the 12-year-old's dream came true when he played basketball against LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Ron Artest and a host of other NBA stars.

LaRoche and about 1,100 other Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in Houston's George R. Brown Convention Center got a morning visit from about a dozen NBA players in town for an evening charity game.

''I can't believe it,'' LaRoche said, a huge grin on his face. ''I was guarding LeBron. It was so crazy.''

James and the other players spent about 90 minutes playing with kids, signing autographs and greeting fans.

''Hopefully we can put some smiles on their faces and maybe for just that little moment they cannot think about what happened,'' James said.

TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith organized the game, played at the Toyota Center before a packed crowd that included at least 5,000 evacuees who were given free tickets to the game. Smith said each of the almost 30 players participating in the event donated a minimum of $10,000 in money or supplies to the relief effort.

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu thanked the players and the city of Houston for its support before Jerry Stackhouse treated the crowd to a spirited rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

''This is an American tragedy that brought us to our knees,'' Landrieu said. ''And the American people have reached down and lifted us up. We will rebuild.''

Kobe Bryant, who spent the day visiting victims, said he was inspired by their positive attitudes.

''I had in my mind that it was just going to be a really sad sight,'' Bryant said. ''But when you walk in you see that everybody was just real spirited. There was a lot of energy in there — a lot of resolve and determination to bounce back.''

Charles Barkley, who helped with the TNT broadcast, said he was proud of the outpouring of support the NBA showed Sunday.

''Everybody has got to do a little part,'' he said. ''We're all in this world together and I appreciate them doing something positive with their time.''

Allen Iverson arrived about 10 minutes before the game, causing quite a stir. He didn't play but got perhaps the biggest ovation of the day when introduced. He posed for pictures, signed autographs and encouraged the East team from their bench.

Fans were given another treat in the fourth quarter when rapper Kanye West, who publicly criticized President Bush during a telethon last week, arrived at the game.

Stephon Marbury dashed across the court to hand West a microphone and he rapped over a verse of his hit ''Gold Digger'' while the game was delayed and players danced to the music.

The West won the game 114-95.

Other players participating in or attending the game included Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Damon Jones, Steve Francis, Carmelo Anthony, Jermaine O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire.

Earlier in the day at the convention center, the players milled through rows of air mattresses as children spotted them and excitedly ran to get autographs, clutching any scrap of paper they could find.

''They're huge,'' Dayvon Bell, 11, said after getting an autograph and a very high five from the 6-foot-11 Garnett. ''It's so cool.''

Bell and his mother, Tema Knox, were at the convention center with 19 other relatives who escaped New Orleans. She doesn't know the status of her home and said this has been the most stressful time of her life.

''Anything that will make my kids happy even for a minute I'm all for,'' Knox said. ''It means so much for these players to make time for the kids.''

Garnett also showed love to one of the smallest victims, signing the shirt of a sleeping infant girl with a fat purple marker.

''It's about showing a sign of unity,'' Carlos Boozer said. ''Us as black folks are joining together with a strong bond to help these young people.''

While evacuees enjoyed seeing the players downstairs, the real fun began when the group moved to a third-floor ballroom that had been converted into a makeshift gymnasium.

The room was filled with three basketball goals, two pingpong tables and a soccer goal, and had hundreds of kids darting around. The players immediately joined in, with Garnett tossing a football to some teenagers and Billups shooting hoops with scores of other younger kids.

''I just wanted to do something that could help the kids,'' Artest said. ''It's good to see people happy.''

Marbury was much more upbeat than earlier in the week, when he broke down into sobs while announcing a donation of $500,000 to $1 million to Katrina victims. He laughed while tickling toddlers and playing pingpong with preteens.

About 50 evacuee children filed onto the floor before the fourth quarter and formed a circle around the Harlem Globetrotters while they performed to thunderous applause.

...Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, a former contestant on The Apprentice, also attended the game.

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