Zack Hardiman is a youngster of few words.
Because of a developmental disability, his speech is slower and his sentences are shorter. But the 12-year-old doesn't need many words to describe his relationship with Nick Collison.
“Nick's my best man,” Zack said.
The Thunder power forward and the Edmond seventh grader are buddies.
The unlikely friendship started last fall when Collison did a community outreach event at Special Care, a special-needs school on the north side of Oklahoma City. That's where he met Zack. A heartstring was tugged. A connection was made.
Beyond the court
To understand just how deep an impact a professional sports team can have on its community, you need only know about the boy who needed a break.
During a season in which the Thunder won the Northwest Division and went to the Western Conference Finals, the team's fingerprints were everywhere in Oklahoma City. You could see them in the banners hanging from downtown skyscrapers or the flags waving outside car windows or the royal blue T-shirts popping up everywhere or the eyes drooping from yet another late-night playoff game.
Everyone was Thunderstruck.
But for thousands of Oklahomans like Zack Hardiman, the Thunder's reach goes beyond the court.
It extends to the students who took home one of the 15,647 books from the Thunder Rolling Book Bus. To the kids who received one of the 2,500 toys collected over the past two years during the team's toy drives. To the more than 18,000 children and adults who annually use the renovated Police Athletic League outdoor basketball court, a project done by the Thunder Community Foundation.
A large photo of the court's dedication hangs on the wall in Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty's office.
“I love that picture,” he said.
What he loves most isn't that he is standing with Thunder guard Eric Maynor. It's that they are surrounded by kids who are smiling ear to ear.
“All of these are inner city kids that if it wasn't for some of these programs would not have the opportunity to play sports or have a place to go,” Citty said. “You have these stars who have such a big influence on the youth within the community, plus you have the financial resources. It's the whole package.”
Citty is an Oklahoma City lifer. Born and raised here and a three-decade veteran of the police department, he has seen the best and the worst of his hometown.
He considers the Thunder among the former.
The team refurbished that basketball court, teamed with the police department for other charities, even honored two officers who were injured this past year, Chad Peery and Katie Lawson.
“The heart that they have,” Citty said, “it's just so good for the community.”
Pam Newby echoes those sentiments.
The executive director of Special Care was thrilled last fall when she learned her school would be getting a visit from a pair of players. The Thunder had invited high school basketball teams to submit proposals about community service that they were doing in hopes that it could partner with them. The boys' basketball team at Westmoore had volunteered at Special Care on several occasions, so it sent in an application to the Thunder.
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.
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.