Sept. 22, 2010
SEATTLE - Isaiah Thomas may not have more impactful assists all year.
He certainly won't have ones more poignant.
Washington's star point guard sat across a chess board, looked through its oversized pieces and playfully traded a fist bump with little Kaluan McGee on Monday night inside the second-floor playroom for patients at Seattle Children's Hospital. The renowned center is a few long 3-pointers up Sand Point Way from Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Then Thomas, a junior, grabbed senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning and freshman guard Antoine Hosley. They headed upstairs to the intensive-care unit with two hospital volunteers.
The players walked into a room and saw a shirtless, scrawny teenager, whose name is being withheld to protect the patient's privacy rights. He was rolled partially onto his right side. A tube ran into his trachea to facilitate breathing. He was obviously in discomfort as he drifted in and mostly out of consciousness. His father stood at the foot of his bed. His girlfriend stood to his left.
"He could be here a week. He could be here a year. We just don't know," the teen's father said, before turning and motioning to his son lying with the hospital bed propped up.
Hosley chatted quietly with the teen's girlfriend, asking how she was holding up and how her boyfriend was doing. IVs, monitors and beeping machines formed a chilling tableau around him.
"That's what happens when you get caught up with the wrong people," the father said. "Drugs are a (bad thing)."
The three Huskies nodded silently. Finally, Bryan-Amaning said softly, "We hear that."
Thomas shook his head from side to side and briefly turned away from the scene at the bed.
"Humbles you," Thomas said a few minutes later, as the players walked down the ICU hall. "Makes you appreciate your own life."
"You ain't lyin'," Bryan-Amaning and Hosley responded in unison.
Before the players left the room, the teen's father looked at them and said, "This is cool that they do this. This is awesome."
The players then took out one of the plain, white ball caps they had brought in, took turns with a black Sharpie and signed it for the teen. They inscribed wishes for a full recovery.
"This shows what kind of guys you are," the dad told them.
The nation - certainly Seattle - thinks it knows these Huskies from watching them on television and in front of sold-out crowds at Hec Ed. We know they are the defending Pac-10 tournament champions. We know they are on a quest to go even further than last season's march to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
We know of Thomas' bravado, even of his hip Twitter account that has more than 8,600 followers. We know how much of a pest Venoy Overton is on defense, how Bryan-Amaning has emerged as an inside force, how Justin Holiday is entering his senior season as one of the most-feared defenders on the West Coast.
Few know this other side of these Dawgs.
Thomas even gave up Twitter for about 90 minutes while he was inside Seattle Children's, abiding by a teammate's stern warning of "Don't tweet in here!" as the players first entered the patient area to begin the visit.
Coach Lorenzo Romar usually goes each preseason on this visit but wasn't able to be there Monday. There weren't any assistant coaches or even a member of the basketball staff there, either.
No media. No fanfare. Just 14 mostly tall college guys, Washington's entire roster. Injured Tyreese Breshers was there, even though he was recently forced to give up the sport.
They were painting with, playing video games with, talking with tiny people. New, 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye had to lean forward and duck his head to get through each doorway. The native of Senegal folded his body to sit on a kid's chair at a painting easel. Wearing a comically small Home Depot-orange smock, he tried to convince a shy, little Jaquelinne De la Cruz to paint with him. First he tried in English, then in Spanish.
"Como te llamo?" N'Diaye kept softly asking little Jaquelinne, trying to get her name so she might be more inclined to play. But nada -- the girl kept retreating to her mother instead.
Across the playroom, Darnell Gant played the theme from the cartoon "Inspector Gadget" on the piano. Big Vincent McGee bent down close to his son Kaluan and said freshman Terrence Ross "plays basketball on TV. You want to beat him in chess?"
A head nod and few moves later, Kaluan moved his knight and gleefully collected Ross' pawn.
"Now what's up?" the little boy said. Ross laughed.
Then there was a spritely, 11-year-old girl. She was so excited when Scott Suggs and Brendon Sherrer, wearing gowns and gloves to prevent spreading or catching germs, came into her room to paint with her that she jumped up and down on her hospital bed. Her short, blonde hair in a bob-style cut bounced with each one of her joyous jumps. I'm sure she broke some hospital rules, if not her IV line.
These kids were so happy, so full of joy to be with the Huskies that for these 90 minutes, anyway, it seemed to trump whatever had them there in the first place.
One boy's happiness wasn't as apparent. He was in his room in the cancer ward, propped up in his bed after hearing the Huskies were on their way. But by the time the three players got to his room, he was conked out.
"We should sign a cap," Bryan-Amaning said.
He, Thomas, and Hosley personalized it with the boy's name. They left the present by his bed.
The cheerful hospital volunteer who was escorting the players said she lives in Snohomish and that she was neighbors with the Brockman family "when Jonathan was growing up there."
The players loved that one.
"I didn't even know his name was Jonathan!" Thomas said, cackling over the dirt he now had on his old teammate.
Washington's incomparable, rugged former star, better known as "Jon" Brockman, is now playing for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.
As Thomas, Bryan-Amaning and Hosley rejoined their teammates in the playroom, as Suggs and Sherrer finished painting the panels of their sketched basketball purple and gold in the giddy girl's room, it struck me how this visit differed from similar ones I'd been on with professional teams.
In general, those pros - baseball and football players -- did all the right things and were engaged with the children.
But those visits didn't seem as real as this one. The pros seemed to be checking the block by comparison. The Huskies were doing it because someone asked them to, of course, but they seemed genuinely impacted.
And connected. Suggs related to the 11-year-old over Scooby Doo cartoons, then complimented her choice of painting a basketball on her T-shirt.
"I like your style," Suggs told the girl.
She beamed like she'd just been told she was going home.
Then it hit me: Not too long ago, these Huskies were as old as these kids. The teenager wracked by demons and destruction in the ICU is only a couple years younger than Thomas, Bryan-Amaning and Hosley.
These Huskies have big expectations. They won't proclaim it, but the deepest of runs - to the Final Four - is in their dreams.
As I write about their season to come, I'll often be reminded of this behind-the-scenes Monday night in September, of learning another side to these Huskies.
As they set out to make their own memories this season, 14 college basketball players just gave a few battling kids a night to remember.
Call it Washington's first big win of the season.
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Contact Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org