In the spirit of the holidays, St. PJs and the Spurs
San Antonio Spurs guards Gary Neal and Cory Joseph took different paths to the NBA but share a common memory, among their first Christmas memories.
Asked to recall one of their earliest Christmas moments both went back to a time of family, friends, and of course, a foam ball and wall-hanging hoop.
“When I was six years old I got my first Nerf hoop for Christmas, the one with the orange ball,” Neal said. “You couldn’t tell me then that I wasn’t the best player in the world.”
In the grand scheme of things those first basketball hoops probably played very little roles in the basketball origins of Neal and Joseph. After all, not every kid that gets a Nerf hoop for Christmas grows up to be a combo guard for the San Antonio Spurs.
But much of their success can be attributed to their respective families, who gave them that wonderful Christmas memory, and their support systems. And that, more than anything, is what Christmas–and the holidays in general–are a celebration of.
“As a kid, Christmas to me was everything,” Spurs rookie point guard Cory Joseph said. “To every kid Christmas is big. Not only for the presents, but the whole atmosphere of the day.”
For most children that atmosphere is one of love and supports. A time when imaginations and dreams can run wild and even a tiny gesture like a foam ball can represent an affirmation of support to chase those dreams.
Growing up, for Gary Neal, Christmas was family, good food, and watching basketball games on television. For Joseph, it was snow white winters with family in Canada.
Unfortunately not every child shares such fond childhood experiences. For the children at St. Peter-St. Joseph’s Children’s Home (St. PJ’s), Christmas is but one of many days of abuse and neglect.
St. PJ’s takes care of many disadvantaged children in San Antonio, providing temporary housing, services, and healing for those that have been removed from their homes for a variety of reasons by Child Protective Services.
“A lot of these kids have suffered neglect, they haven’t had any stability or attention, it’s overwhelming,” St. PJ’s director of development Connie Thomas said. “Almost all of our kids are developmentally behind. We’ve had some kids that have never even been to school.”
St. PJ’s is a temporary solution for these children. They estimate it costs $137 per day to care for one child and often fall short of that without donations of money or toiletries, school supplies, and other necessities. But while there, living together in dorms, they develop their first sense of family.
“They learn to rely on each other, it’s like a team in those dorms,” Thomas said. “They become almost like a family to each other.”
Last night their team was introduced to another, as teammates Joseph, Neal, and Spurs big man Tiago Splitter exchanged their jerseys for black and silver Santa hats and joined the children of St. PJ’s at the Fourth Annual Basso Christmas Carnival.
For some of the children the festivities, founded by H-E-B group vice president Cory Basso, were the first Christmas memory they could call their own. There were games, a dinner, presents, and of course, the opportunity to meet Spurs players.
“I know it’s corny, but this is a big deal. These kids haven’t had much of a Christmas before,” Thomas said. “We’ve had times where we’ve given kids stuff to decorate a tree, and they’ve never decorated a tree before.”
“I’ve had children sit there and stare at the gifts, not believing it’s for them,” she added. “I’ve seen kids cry because they couldn’t believe it was really theirs to have.”
While many of the children have never heard or have long since lost belief in Santa Claus, they still believe and stand in wonderment of their San Antonio Spurs. That is how a small gymnasium packed with children could, for a night, produce an ovation as loud as any heard at the AT&T Center.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to put a smile on a kid’s face, especially around the holidays,” Neal said. “Especially for these kids who may not be with their families for whatever reasons, I’m happy to just be able to make them smile with an autograph, or interacting with them.
“A lot of these kids look up to us, they see us on TV and things like that, so to actually be able to make them feel good during the holidays by meeting them, talking to them, I love it.”
For rookie Cory Joseph, it was his first opportunity to really interact with the San Antonio community. Reflecting on his first Christmas spent away from his family (in high school) and then on how many of these children never spent a proper Christmas with a family, was enough to leave a lasting impression of his first real assist.
“Hopefully these kids can cherish this moment, I know I cherish this moment,” Joseph said. “It was exciting to see how happy they were to see us, I’ll remember these kids, signing autographs and all the smiles I saw.”
For the children of St. PJ’s it was perhaps a first fantastic Christmas memory. For Neal and Joseph, it was one to rival the magical day of a collapsable NERF basket and an orange foam ball.