McMillan, Blazers reach out and give back to St. Mary’s

By Brian T. Smith
Columbian staff writer

BEAVERTON, Ore. — For one day, wins and losses did not matter. Trade rumors and starting spots were meaningless. And a season filled with devastating injuries and hard setbacks was momentarily replaced with the purity of giving, and the unbridled joy derived from watching others who often struggle revel in and enjoy the simple virtues of life.

The Portland Trail Blazers gave back Wednesday, holding a brief morning practice session at the St. Mary’s Home for Boys before engaging in a highly entertaining full-court scrimmage against the school’s basketball team.

But in between laughter-filled baskets and a closing ceremony in which the Blazers presented holiday presents to the school’s children was when the real magic happened.

St. Mary’s is a residential treatment service for at-risk children between the ages of 10-17. Many of the 104 children who attend the school have been severely abused and deal with emotional and behavioral problems.

Lynda Walker, director of development community relations at St. Mary’s, said an initial appearance in 2007 by the Blazers had a therapeutic effect on several students.

“They had never opened up in therapy,” Walker said. “And after the visit, they were able to open up. And the counselors were saying, ‘What the heck? Why are you finally talking?’ And they said, ‘You guys keep telling me things are different here, and things really must be different for the Blazers to spend half the day here.”

Portland coach Nate McMillan and his team broke a two-year drought by returning Wednesday. And in doing so, they brought down the house.

Blazers guard Brandon Roy played Santa, presenting a hand-chosen video-game system that contained a Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3 and high-definition television, among other items.

“That’s from this team,” Roy said. “We were just talking about what kinds of gifts we wanted to give these kids. And we had a number of different ideas. And I said, ‘Well, I still like the TV and Playstation idea.’

“It means a lot to me. We have to continue to take care of each other as people. And these kids have been through a lot more than I can imagine. And I have small kids at home, and I can only think about some of the things they’ve been through. It was just something I wanted to do special for them.”

Roy’s carefully selected present hit the spot, drawing raves and an exuberant “Oh my gosh!” statement from a particularly pleased St. Mary’s student.

Meanwhile, a passionate, reflective McMillan was visibly moved by the event.

McMillan first reached out to Walker in 2007, asking what he could do to help out. Since then, he has stayed active. McMillan has annually brought about 30 St. Mary’s boys with no place to go on Christmas day to a game at the Rose Garden, and will continue the tradition this season.

And it was an unprovoked move by McMillan that was the genesis of Wednesday’s proceedings. He stepped up Oct. 17 during the Blazers’ inaugural Hoops and Heart fundraiser at the Rose Garden, placing the winning bid on the right to coach a 20-person basketball clinic that he would host. At the time, many who attended the charity event thought McMillan would pocket his winning bid, and attempt to get out of having to do something in his free time that he does all the time as a job: coach.

But McMillan had a better idea. He immediately donated the clinic to St. Mary’s. And he followed through with his promise Wednesday, despite wearing a thick cast on his right foot after undergoing surgery last week to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Walker referred to McMillan as an “angel.”

McMillan said he was simply giving back. He stated that the two hours spent Wednesday at St. Mary’s were “real.” And he said that the opportunity for the Blazers to make a positive impact on the lives of children who have been through intensely difficult situations was not something he nor his team took lightly.

“I thought our guys enjoyed this as much, if not more, than the kids,” McMillan said. “And that’s a good thing. To see our guys come out today and really just forget about everything. And you could see it on their faces.
They enjoyed being here with the kids. And we believe in these kids, just as they believe in us.”

Belief was everywhere Wednesday.

The St. Mary’s basketball team was composed of six students who had tried out specifically for the right to practice against the Blazers. Coach Sandy Spickler said players had been chosen as much for their outstanding personalities as their on-the-court talent.

Both traits shined through during the scrimmage, which saw Portland guard Andre Miller attempt to start the wave as a “Let’s go Blazers!” chant swept through the student section.

And the deep connection between the Blazers and St. Mary’s was highlighted during a moment when Portland forward Juwan Howard removed his jersey and traded uniforms with Josh Pearce, 14.

“It was wild,” Pearce said.

Pearce was a Blazer. Howard was playing for St. Mary’s. And when Pearce ran on the court as a substitution for Roy, the students and Rip City were united.

“Christmas is especially hard for our boys,” Walker said. “So, when they see that the Blazers care this much, it just makes them so happy.

“One of the boys said, ‘I’m going to be so happy going to sleep tonight.’ I mean, that’s worth it right there.’ ”

The Portland Trail Blazers were awarded a hardship exception by the NBA last Sunday, the team announced Wednesday.
Portland now has the option of signing a 16th player to a non-guaranteed contract until one of its four most-recent injured players returns.
The Blazers are down to nine healthy players on their 15-man roster. Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Jeff Pendergraph and Patty Mills are all inactive or injured.
Portland received the hardship exception after Oden missed last Saturday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. If the Blazers do sign a player, the person could stay on their roster until one of the team’s four most-recent injured athletes — likely Fernandez — returns to action.

Check the Blazers Banter blog at for practice notes, news, interviews, photos and videos.

Today’s Game
Suns vs. Blazers, 7:30 p.m. at Rose Garden
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (15-11)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Andre Miller 6-2 11.1
G Brandon Roy 6-6 21.3
F Martell Webster 6-7 8.4
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 16.5
C Joel Przybilla 7-1 4.1
Coach: Nate McMillan (5th season, 163-188)
Player to watch: Webster — He could have a big scoring night while playing against the up-tempo Suns.
Key reserves: Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless, Juwan Howard, Dante Cunningham
Suns (17-8)
G Steve Nash 6-3 18.3
G Jason Richardson 6-6 15.8
F Grant Hill 6-8 12.2
F Amare Stoudemire 6-10 19.6
C Channing Frye 6-11 11.9
Coach: Alvin Gentry (1st season, 17-8)
Player to watch: Nash — One of the premier point guards in the game is also the most fun to watch.
Key reserves: Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Robin Lopez, Louis Amundson

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