On Friday afternoon, players from the Miami Heat split into two squads and headed in different directions. Not for any sort of drill or practice, but to extend their reach to the community.
For five years, it’s been a holiday custom for the players to pay visits to children who will spend the most wonderful time of the year away from home.
One half of the Heat arrived at Baptist Children’s Hospital with Santa hats on and bags full of good cheer — video games, basketballs, pizza gift cards — things to make the florescent lighting and intravenous needles in small arms momentarily disappear.
“It’s so exciting,” said Isabella Valdes with her mother Beatriz seated beside her bed. “When they came in, I almost exploded.”
A brand new pink and purple bicycle sat in the corner of Valdes’ tiny room. Her bedside full of presents to enjoy when she can stand up and leave the confines of the hospital’s walls.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen were among those who wandered the rooms of Baptist, delivering gifts and taking photos with the children and their families.
“When I walk into these rooms, I know what these parents are feeling and what they’re dealing with,” Allen said after visiting one of the children.
Allen has spent countless nights in the hospital with his son Walker, a Type 1 diabetic. He can remember a knock on the door of Walker’s room. Much like the cold calls the Heat members were making on Friday, former-NBA player Rick Fox was making holiday hospital visits of his own. He was surprised to see Allen answer the door.
“We’d been in the hospital for almost two days, and we played that night,” Allen said. “He’s just like, ‘What are you doing in here?’”
Allen explained to Fox that the recent bout had almost put his young son into shock. Once dubbed juvenile diabetes, Type 1 diabetes accounts for five percent of people with diabetes.
“[My son] just kind of looked like his life was gone,” he said. “I had to end up leaving the hospital to go play the game.”
Fox was sitting courtside that night, and for the second time in the same day, he was surprised to see Allen.
“He said, ‘You’d never know what you had to go through as a father,’” Allen said. “At the end of the day, it’s about making sure your kids are OK.”
The buzz around the children’s ward was electric as the players made their rounds, graciously sharing the holiday spirit with those who needed it.
“It’s something that can’t be exchanged for anything. No money can create that ... it’s just genuine,” James said of the smiling kids. “When they see the team that they love, players that they love, the smile is automatic.”
James stopped to pound fists with Osmani Flores, who is a third of his size. With a walker parked at the intersection of two hallways and wearing a Miami Heat headband, Flores was too excited to speak as James tossed a basketball around him.
When asked whether James was his favorite player, he shyly nodded, still smiling ear-to-ear and holding tightly onto his gifts and his walker at the same time.
Rebecca Pouchet’s son, Alvaro Celli, was studying algebra and physics textbooks stacked a mile high against the wall of his room. He hadn’t been expecting any visitors but a surprise entrance by Dexter Pittman and Norris Cole was a welcomed break from school work.
James and Allen spent an extra minute with the grinning Alvaro to pose for a picture on Rebecca’s iPhone.
“To be able to come in here, it shows us that we occupy ourselves with so many different things throughout our day,” Allen said. “The holiday is an opportunity to be able to understand what life is all about