OKC Thunder forges community ties that reach past basketball court

BY JENNI CARLSON jcarlson@opubco.com Published: June 5, 2011

The team chose Westmoore's proposal and sent Collison and Morris Peterson to Special Care in October.

“And they were adamant that they actually wanted them in the classroom working like the boys did,” Newby said. “That was really important to them, that they weren't coming out for just a photo op.”

Collison and Peterson spent time in every classroom, from the infants to the pre-Ks to the school-age kids.

They played. They colored. They danced.

But when they went into one of the school-age classrooms, there was a special treat waiting for Collison.

A birthday cake.

“You guys know it's my birthday?” he said.

Zack Hardiman got to present the cake because frankly, there is no bigger fan of Nick Collison. He talked breathlessly about his favorite player coming to the school for days before and weeks after the visit.

“Zack was just beside himself,” Newby said. “He was so darn excited.”

Pictures were taken. Memories were made.

The day was perfect.

“That was really all we thought was going to happen,” Newby said.

What no one at Special Care knew was that a heartstring had been plucked that day.

Something special

A few months after Collison visited, the Thunder called the school about Zack; Collison wanted to take him shopping for Christmas.

He also wanted to do something for Special Care. In January, Collison made a $40,000 personal donation to the school.

“I am thrilled to be able to help out an organization like Special Care,” Collison said at the time. “The amount of care and attention they are able to provide has an enormous impact on the kids who are part of the program.”

The Thunder also auctioned memorabilia to benefit Special Care during the Heat game in January. It raised $14,000 in fan donations, then matched that total.

Thunder-related donations of nearly $70,000 have been significant for Special Care.

“There isn't a portion of our program that wasn't touched,” Newby said. “We have a lot of families that have lost jobs through this time, so the donation allows us to give some scholarships to our kids.”

Classroom supplies were replenished. Music therapy was added. Autism lab was supplemented.

Everyone at Special Care feels the impact, but no one feels it more than Zack Hardiman.

His developmental difficulties were only compounded when his parents died. First, his dad had a heart attack, then within three months, his mom was killed in a car accident.

Zack now lives with his adult sister's family.

Without fanfare, Collison has reached out to Zack. Not only did he take his little buddy Christmas shopping — “I got an Xbox,” Zack said — but he also bought him tickets to a Thunder game for his birthday, then took him into the locker room after the game.

Those will forever be memories for Zack.

But the thing that might change his life is this: Collison is paying his tuition this year at Special Care.

“Incredible generosity,” Newby said.

Best man, indeed.