When Dirk Nowitzki was new to the NBA, there was a mandatory annual team trip; Around Christmastime, players would descend on a local children’s hospital, delivering gifts and spreading joy.
About a dozen years ago, though, the team ended the tradition, and Nowitzki wanted to know why. He went to Mavs vice president of marketing and communications Lesley Berry. They talked about it and settled on a plan: They would continue the visits on their own. Nowitzki’s key condition was that television cameras not be invited to make sure the children, some of whom are terminally ill, feel comfortable.
Those all around the NBA world have been spreading the holiday cheer all season long.
• Secret Santa Dirk Nowitzki
• Sharing the swagger with Kevin Love
• The Anthonys’ kindness gives boy hope
• Giving season at hand for the Beard
• Marcus Smart’s promise to the kids
• Shaq moved a mountain to deliver gift
And that’s how it has been happening ever since. Nowitzki calls it his favorite day of the year. It starts when Berry reaches out to staffers from the hospital, usually Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, to determine 15-20 patients for Nowitzki to visit. Those staffers, in consultation with nurses, provide Berry a list of gift ideas. Nowitzki pays for the presents out of his own pocket. Berry and other Mavs staffers dedicate a full day to the shopping and wrapping.
The gifts this year ranged from Elmo and Mickey Mouse dolls for a 7-month-old girl to an Xbox with games for a 13-year-old boy. The most popular presents were Beats by Dre headphones and iPads with iTunes gift cards, with four of each being delivered by Dirk this year.
“Not only do I come in and talk to them, but I also bring a gift that’s amazing,” Nowitzki said. “To see those kids, it’s pretty special.”
Nowitzki, sporting his blue Santa hat, doesn’t just drop off the gifts and go on his merry way. His hospital visit this year, immediately following a team appearance at a retirement home, lasted about four hours.
“Kids go absolutely crazy for him,” Berry said. “We’ve seen parents cry. We’ve seen everything. They’re just in shock, because he doesn’t just come in and say, ‘Merry Christmas! Here’s a gift.’ He goes in there and he’s spending tons of time.”
The Christmas hospital visit “was always special to me, to see that, but now even more” since he’s become a father of three, Nowitzki said. After this year’s event, Nowitzki returned home to a sleepless night with his infant son, Morris. “I’m just thinking to myself, ‘Just go to sleep, man,'” Nowitzki recalled. “Then you’re thinking, what you just saw in the hospital, you’re a very lucky, lucky man. You should never forget that, that’s for sure.”
“He’s a big kid. He’s amazing when he gets in there,” said Berry, who laughs when she mentions one little girl who refers to Nowitzki as “Uncle Dirk” after getting a gift from him years ago. Many times through the years, children he has visited have recovered and come to see Nowitzki at Mavericks games. “He played Connect Four with one of the kids this time. He goes in and unwraps the toys with them. He sets them up. If it’s an iPad, he gets it all set up. He gets all the Disney dolls out of the packaging. He just sits down and plays with the kids and talks to them and talks to the parents.”
“I don’t really know what to tell you. I grew up that way,” Nowitzki said. “My parents were loving and caring. I followed in their footsteps.”