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Hooping it up for a cause

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Some of the top names in the NBA gathered at Nassau Coliseum last Tuesday to play in the 9th annual New York All-Star Basketball Classic.

But this was not just an all-star game. What brought the likes of Lamar Odom, Elton Brand, Stephon Marbury, Anthony Mason and Mark Jackson out was the cause rather than a game. The game benefited Wheelchair Charities, Inc., which has donated over $800,000 to Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island. The money has been used to purchase computers, specialized buses, vans and wheelchairs over the years.

"We're one accident, one day away from it happening to us," said Jackson, a St. Albans native with the Toronto Raptors, who's best friend David Snowden is wheelchair-bound. "I think it's very important for all of us to give back. What we have done is made life easier for them. It's just a tremendous blessing to be able to do that. Some of these people can't get out of the hospital if it wasn't for this game. It has provided them with the access of going to the movies, or a park or just moving or communicating. We made life a little bit easier for them."

In addition to Wheelchair Charities, the NBA stars had a little extra to play for in this year's classic. It was played in memory of former St. John's star Malik Sealy, a member of the charity's board of directors who was killed in a car accident in May.

In a pre-game ceremony, Jackson announced the retirement of Sealy's No. 2 jersey from the classic. He also told the crowd an award in Sealy's name will be given out to players who exemplify Sealy's dedication to charity work.

"It's for character, playing a part, what he meant for this game and guys who constantly, year in and year out, come in here and play and give back," Jackson said. "We're rewarding that and we're thanking them because of the commitment he gave to this game and to charities in general."

Springfield Gardens native Anthony Mason of the Miami Heat, former New York Knicks star John Starks, Detroit Pistons forward Jerome Williams and Tim Thomas from Milwaukee each received the inaugural award.

"It means a lot," Mason said of the award. "I've been coming out here, spending time for the less fortunate, but how much less fortunate can you get than his family, to lose a guy so young, a guy who stood for so much. For me to receive the first award in his honor means a lot."

The NBA players were broken up into two teams. The white team read like a who's-who of former New York City high school stars. Joining Jackson and Mason were Odom, Marbury, Queensbirge native Ron Artest and former SJU star Shawnelle Scott. Starks and Brand also played for the team, coached by former St. John's head man Brian Mahoney.

On the other side was the blue team, featuring Williams, Thomas, former St. John's star Felipe Lopez, Quentin Richardson, Darius Miles, Rick Brunson, Jahadi White and Christ the King alum Craig "Speedy" Claxton. The team was coached by LeFrak City native and former Molloy star Kenny Smith.

"It's not just a game, it's an important game for the New York people and for people in wheelchairs most of all," said Artest. "As long as the players keep coming out, we'll keep getting a better turnout every year. It means helping people in wheelchairs have a better lifestyle. That's what you're suppose to do, anything to help."

As for the action on the court, it was high-flying entertaining ball, with little to no defense played. One of the highlights of the game was a five minute one-one-one competition between the veteran Marbury of the Nets and the newcomer Claxton, a former Hofstra standout who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft this year. Each displayed a variety of moves that excited the crowd, with Marbury holding the edge.

"That's just a little something for the crowd, just liven it up a bit and have some fun," said Claxton, who also played in the Wheelchair Charities High School Classic five years ago.

Jackson's first exposure to the game was 17 years ago as a senior at Bishop Loughlin High School. He said his visit to Goldwater Hospital had a profound impact.

"I was afraid, scared, didn't know what to expect, but upon meeting them, it changed my life," the former St. John's standout said. "It wasn't important to win the MVP of the game, it was more important to win the best essay so I wrote a poem and won that.

"You go in there and you think people are going to be crying and upset and think that life dealt them a bad hand, and here you have people full of life, energy, enthusiasm," he added. "I went through a period when I was booed in New York. I visited the hospital and the patients wanted to now how I was doing. That puts it all in perspective."

Odom, also a star at Christ the King, didn't get a chance to play in the Wheelchair Classic in high school, but the Jamaica native visited Goldwater Hospital anyway.

"That was an experience of a lifetime," said the Los Angeles Clippers forward. "It's why I'm here right now. You see people as old as you, but just a little bit less fortunate. There's some really strong people in there, some really special people and I was just lucky to meet them. It's a blessing to be here and I'm just trying to take advantage of it."

While the White team may have won the game, 166-162, Wheelchair Charities was the big winner on the night. The 2000 Classic sold nearly 8,000 tickets and raised $110,000.

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