OKLAHOMA CITY — Lance Thomas is a NBA journeyman. In his four seasons in the league, he has been part of three franchises.
However, Monday evening Thomas experienced a first that almost left him speechless. He and the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder took part in the Thunder’s 7th-annual Target Holiday Shopping Spree.
"This is my first time being part of something like this," Thomas said. "This is something I really can't put into words. The kids faces and their expressions sums up what this is about."
As part of their Thunder Holiday Assist Program, the players, cheerleaders and staff members took over a Target in Oklahoma City and took 14 families on a shopping spree.
The families were chosen from the Sunbeam Family Services and the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program. Yvonne Pinter was one such grandmother in attendance, who got to shop in Target with Jessica, a Thunder Girl, while her two grandchildren shopped for toys with Russell Westbrook.
“The Thunder is awesome,” Pinter said. “They give so much back to the community. Target has been just fabulous… This is going to be a Christmas that they are going to remember forever.”
The Thunder have held the shopping spree every since they first arrived in Oklahoma. It has become one of the traditions the franchise wants to be known for.
And when players like Thomas first arrive, to the team, they quickly realize just how deeply the Thunder want to be involved in the community with events like this.
"This is amazing," Thomas said. "Just to be able to see what it mans to the kids. And especially the grandparents who are taking care of these children.. The group of kids I had were ecstatic. It really did something to me as far as seeing the enjoyment that they had. Not just because they were around but the fact they were actually able to get stuff they wanted for Christmas."
Star forward Kevin Durant has been to every shopping spree during his tenure with the Thunder. So the fact he was battling a cold Monday night and his team battling to just reach .500, it would have been easy for him to bow out.
But Durant knows the difficulties mothers and grandmothers have to go through raising young kids by themselves. So despite being sick, he was back in the toy section of Target playing catch with a young boy.
"I was raised by my mom and my grandma,” Durant said. “I know exactly what it’s like. I know how much these parents work so their kids can live a healthy life and how much these grandparents work for these kids to live comfortably as well. It’s pretty cool to see them smiling and enjoying every single moment of it.”
The same goes for first year Thunder forward Anthony Morrow. His relationship with his grandmother made the event especially relevant to him.
"It’s special,” Morrow said. “My grandmother raised me for a long part of my childhood. My mom had to work, so my grandma really raised me… I salute and take my hat off to a lot of the grandmothers out here doing this.”
Each family was able to spend up to a $1,000 on their shopping spree. But inevitably, many of the players dug into their own pockets to make sure the children got everything they wanted no matter how expensive.
That included rookie Mitch McGary, who hasn't been around long enough to build up a reservoir of money. But after 14-year old Larry Williams, who is being raised by his grandparents, checked out at the register with a large haul of gifts, McGary took Williams back into the store to purchase few more items.
“To me, that’s everything,” McGary said. “Giving back, it’s amazing. How people view us here in this community is amazing. To give back any little bit is unbelievable."
According to Jane Garner of the Department of Human Services, more than 81,000 grandparents have children living with them. Of those, 44,000 have primary responsibility of the kids.
Garner said their are several factors from a high military rate, to drugs abuse with parents. But a big reason is the numberof parents in prison.
"Oklahoma has a fairly high number of grandparents raising grandchildren," Garner said. "One of the biggest things is our incarceration rate. We are the highest state for incarcerating women and near the top for men."
Nationally, the numbers are even more daunting as 2.7 million grandparents are the primary caregivers. And that is a number that is tending upwards, which is why the Thunder see helping them as such a worthwhile endeavor.
"I think the grandparents appreciate as much if not more than the children," Thomas said. "To be able to see them just be happy. A lot of their situations aren't always fortunate. I made three new friends today and I'm never going to forget this day."