The one and only time I saw Michael Jordan play in person was in June of 1996. Seattle still had the Sonics at that time and they and the Chicago Bulls were in the NBA Finals. The arena was packed. I sat in the high upper decks and players looked like specks. But even from a far off distance, one could tell that Jordan had a skill level that was hard to match. His iconic fadeaway jump-shot was in full form that night. With each leap, he seemed suspended in the air for a split-second longer—out of the reach of everyone else, maintaining a clear view of the basket at all times. It was impressive.
Fast forward six months. I was again at a Sonics basketball game but the circumstances were much different. I was no longer sitting in the upper decks. I was sitting in the wheelchair section. At that time, I was only about two-months post injury—still digesting what a wheelchair-bound life would and could look like.
Still an inpatient at the University of Washington Medical Center, some family friends arranged to break me out of the hospital for the night and take me to a game. I had no idea what to expect. It was one of my first outings outside the hospital walls, let alone to a crowded stadium. It was exciting and scary all at once. And where the evening ended up going, I never could have imagined or anticipated.
When the game was in the final minutes, I was escorted from my sitting area down the elevator and through a long hallway to the side of the court. After the final buzzer rang, the Sonics players walked past me as they went to their locker room. As I looked to the sky to see their faces, I felt my wheelchair begin to move. I was getting pushed in the direction of the players and soon saw that I too was going through the doorway to the Sonics locker room. “How is this happening?” I thought to myself. Behold the power of who you know.
My little league baseball coach’s son worked for the Sonics. And a dear friend of mine’s dad was a sportswriter for the Seattle Times. Combining their connections, doors literally opened and an incredible experience ensued.
My favorite player in the Sonics lineup was Sam Perkins. Known as “Big Smooth”, he would notoriously find a way to get to the outside and drain 3-pointers. On the night I went to the game, Sam was exceptionally hot. He tied the NBA record by going 8 for 8 from 3-point range. It was awesome. And the crowd went nuts as the field goals continued to compound.
Meeting the Sonics team in their locker room was beyond belief, but for me, having a conversation with Sam Perkins was the ultimate prize. Tripping over my words, I commended his performance and went through the play-by-play of how he gets open, gives that brief “Big Smooth” look, and then tosses the ball up knowing it is going to go in. I reached out my hand to shake his. His monstrous hand completely engulfed mine. It was so surreal.
The few minutes I had with Mr. Perkins were an absolute delight. The conversation was short and sweet and perfect. And it actually lead to something mind blowing a few months later.
While in the hospital, friends and family were ever the optimists and always there to encourage and inquire about my progress. But they also felt the need and want to do more. Some of my mom’s friends banded together and came up with the idea to hold an auction in the spirit of fundraising. Their goal was to create a nest egg of sorts for me to use whenever I needed it. Their plan was simple—families and friends within their own networks had connections to items of value. Vacation property? Auction item. Abundant wine collection? Auction item. Excess airline miles? Auction item. And the list went on and on. But there was one item in particular that became the most coveted of them all: a Chicago Bulls jersey, #23, autographed by Michael Jordan. So how does one get a Bulls jersey autographed by Michael Jordan? Great question. Sam Perkins.
Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan went to college together. They played on the North Carolina basketball team and remained friends ever since. So going back through the same channel that got me into the Sonics locker room, a jersey got to Sam to have Michael sign the next time the Sonics played the Bulls.
At the auction, the jersey was naturally one of the main event items. There was a ton of hype. One, because of the story of how the jersey got signed. And two, because it was Michael Jordan—arguably one of the most successful players in the history of basketball.
There were many people bidding on the jersey. The asking price kept going up and up. With each raise, the excitement within the room ticked even higher. Then when the winning bidder finally edged out the last of the competitors, the most jaw-dropping thing occurred... the winning bidder gifted the jersey back to me. It was absolutely unreal and over-the-top generous. My family broke down in tears. Then the whole audience broken down in tears. It was such a special moment in time and one that will never be forgotten.
Ever since that day, even twenty-three years later, seeing that #23 jersey took me back to that moment. Unfortunately, last month the jersey was stolen. Now as I look at the blank wall where the jersey once hung, it is easy to visualize it still in place. But here is the thing, what is really gone? A large piece of fabric, some ink from a sharpie, and a metal and plexiglass frame. That is it. To me, the jersey was just a symbol. Did it have monetary value? Absolutely, but it pales in comparison to the value that was not stolen. Here is what was not stolen and never can be stolen: the effort that brought that jersey to fruition, the overwhelming love that brought the auction together, and the immense generosity expressed by so many on the night of the event. This is the stuff that is priceless and the stuff that still remains.
I often say that within the first few weeks of my injury I mentally went to a dark place. My mind was polluted with the notion that it was not worth living if I could not walk. In that time of darkness, I desperately needed a different mindset. It was the encouragement and optimism from friends and family members that helped me choose to change. They saw potential in me before I saw potential in myself. Those same people were the people present at the auction.
Every once in a while I get asked what came of the money raised by the auction. "What was the money used for?" they ask. Well, the first purchase was a wheelchair accessible Volkswagen Vanagon that I still drive today. And where did the rest of the money go? It was paid forward. It ended up becoming the seed funding for a small business that later became BILLY Footwear.
Life is a funny thing. When bad things happen it can often be challenging to see out of the fog. When the Michael Jordan jersey was stolen, I was really bummed at first. I could not keep my mind from reflecting on memories and emotions from over two decades ago. In that state of you've-got-to-be-kidding-me?!, I caught myself chucking because I realized something I had never considered before. In the hospital, I was so dead set on making a full recovery—I struggled with the thought of being permanently wheelchair bound. It was through the support of friends and family that helped me see past my stubborn shortsightedness. And while working on me, they set in motion the ingredients for something much bigger to happen later in life:
Their generosity did not get my legs to walk. Instead, their generosity gave BILLY Footwear the legs to run. And for that, amongst countless other things, I am forever thankful.