NEW YORK, NY – NBA All-Star weekend highlights many things, most of them being statistical and athletic accomplishments by superstar athletes. But for many, this time is also used to highlight the needs of the communities in which they play, and the platform that NBA players in particular have to help out. As this year’s host, New York City was the beneficiary of more than just an influx of tourism and fans who piled into town for the festivities – the city was also given a giant boost by the larger than life stars who deployed across the five boroughs to make a difference during their stay.
This was seen throughout the week, but culminated on Friday in particular as the NBA presented its NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, an effort filled with basketball clinics, court dedications, food packing projects, and a general presence which sought to be as noticeable as the illustrious city skyline.
In Manhattan, almost 1000 volunteers packed into a gym-sized area filled with pallets of potatoes, onions, and other goods that were ready to be bagged and boxed for distribution across the city. Led by City Harvest, the world’s first food rescue organization, volunteers worked alongside current and former players, WNBA players, and former NBA Commissioner David Stern to sort and pack food for New Yorkers in need. According to the NBA, it was estimated that approximately 150,000 pounds of food would be packaged at the event.
“It’s so important for us to come out and really support the community,” said Jerome Williams, a former player whose last game came with the New York Knicks in 2005. “I’ve already sent about 500 boxes by myself with the dog pound,” he happily boasted, pointing to the volunteers by his side who pushed packages down a conveyor belt. “Retired players do a good job of really trying to reach out and do a lot of things we couldn’t do as much when we were playing,” Williams said.
This was echoed by 12-year player and former All-Star turned Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson. “One of the greatest things about being a former NBA player is the value and the commitment that this league has made to communities all over the world,” said Johnson.
Current players such as Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague were ushered from table to table, where they greeted helpers and tried to wrap their large hands around the copious amounts of piled high produce.
Upstairs, Tim Duncan took handoffs of applesauce, cereal, and milk cartons from a sea of child helpers who barely reached his waist level. Together they filled knapsacks with the snack foods, with Duncan moving alongside a small herd as he shifted stations.
A fixture among the volunteers, Isaiah Austin would have barely stuck out if it wasn’t for his 7’ frame and broad shoulders. Quietly, the former first-round prospect bagged produce, chatted with fans and signed autographs for a majority of the day. After entering the draft in 2014, Austin’s story became public after he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome and was no longer able to play competitive basketball due to the risk of injury. He now serves as an ambassador for NBA Cares, and there was no look of misfortune on his face on this day, as he worked hard to keep the food on his table moving steadily.
“It’s always been my dream to be able to inspire and help others, so that’s what I have the opportunity to do now because of God,” Austin explained. “I really have nothing to complain about. I’m healthy, and I’m moving forward in a positive direction.”
Austin started the Isaiah Austin Foundation in 2014 to raise support for the awareness and research of Marfan syndrome as well as other related disorders, and those affected by them. “I miss basketball every day of my life,” he admitted, “but I know that God has a different purpose for me.”
Former NBA star and current NBA Cares Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo was also present, arriving straight from an NBA Fit clinic earlier in the morning and with a full slate of community service events on his agenda for the weekend.
“We are not just playing the game of basketball and trying to be [famous],” Mutombo said. “We’re also giving back to our community where our game is being played. We believe that giving back is the social responsibility of every human being on this planet.”
Recalling his time spent earlier at George J. Ryan middle school, where he swatted shots and lifted kids hoop-high to assist their dunks, Mutombo conveyed the joy he feels on days like this.
“It was great, to see all those wonderful young people looking at me,” he said. “It brought joy and tears to my eyes.”
For the City Harvest employees and volunteers, it was a slightly above average day at work, but nothing they couldn’t handle. The event functioned for the most part as a well-oiled machine, besides for some slight interruptions from time to time when throngs of fans and media stopped to cluster around some NBA stars.
“Having NBA players as a role model doing that work really allows the kids that are here and the other volunteers that are here to realize, ‘Hey they’re really making an effort…I want to help too,’” said Jennifer McLean, Vice President of Community Impact for City Harvest. McLean said that they would soon be filling four tractor trailers with the results of the day’s work.
Working diligently at one station, holding open empty bags and stuffing them full of potatoes was former Commissioner Stern, who was credited by many at the event for the current level of success that the NBA and NBA Cares have reached.
“It makes me feel about as good as anything I’ve done at the NBA, Stern said, “because our players have come to realize through this initiative how important they are in the lives of other people and how they can inspire others to do important things. “I’m very proud of NBA Cares and all that it has come to represent and we don’t want any credit for that” said Stern. “We want everyone to copy it, so that every sport and every athlete is thought of in that way and carries on the tradition of doing good.”