By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader
When Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. recently honored retired NBA super star Isiah Thomas, he and scores of people were stunned to hear the iconic ballplayer’s heart-wrenching childhood and how tough times never broke his spirit.
Jackson and scores of people who attended the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s Sports banquet at the Hyatt Regency Place applauded Thomas’ story about his abject poverty and how it never broke his spirit.
Jackson spoke highly of Thomas’ mother and two other single mothers, Wanda Pratt, the mother of NBA superstar Kevin Durant with the Oklahoma City Thunder team, and Shirley Garnett, the mother of NBA all-star Kevin Garnett, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Though Thomas lacked the material things most of his peers enjoyed, the economic hard times didn’t stifle his dreams rather it stimulated him to break through social barriers and he pushed harder until he reached the apex of his potential.
But the road to success was full of sinkholes. Life was not easy for Thomas. Every morning he would get up at 4:30 a.m., catch a 5 a.m. bus to the end of the line to get to St. Joseph’s High School in Des Plaines, Illinois.
“I would take another bus to the end of the line, jump on the train to the end of the line, get off at Des Plaines, take another bus to the end of that line and get off the bus and walk a mile-and-a-half to school just to be there by 8 a.m.”
And if Thomas didn’t make it to class by 8 a.m., he would get a tardy slip and after three late notices, students were suspended. “I went to school every single school day because every single day my mother died. She walked to work. I remember it was cold and windy, and we did not have boots… I had holes in the bottom of my shoes. Snow was soaking through. My feet were cold, frozen.
Some of Thomas’ childhood memories are unforgettable. “I’m walking…. I’ll never forget this. I looked down and my mom had red plastic green bags on her shoes with some rubber bands tied on them, and she never missed a day of work,” he recalled as the audience stood and applauded.
Rev. Jackson said he wanted Thomas to tell his personal story because “when we see great athletes on the playing field, we see results” but not what they may actually have gone through before achieving fame.
While Rev. Jackson ticked off some of PUSH’s missions, goals and his social justice agenda including his fight to reduce gun violence in Chicago and appealed for financial help for PUSH, Thomas stood and reflected on many years ago. “I am one of those kids that received donors.
“A lot of people in a room like this 30 years ago wrote a check, and they never saw me. I never met them. They never knew what I would grow up to be but because of their help, because of that check, because of that donation, I can stand here before you today.
“I know he (Rev. Jackson) asks a lot and he’s been asking for years, but every door that was kicked down,” it was done by Rev. Jackson.
“We would not have a room like this today where white and black folks are sitting. I got nieces and nephews who can be educated and go to any college in this United States of America that they choose if it were not for this constant asking; so I don’t want to hear” people complaining saying “that…damn Reverend asking (for money) all the time.’ “He should ask all the time,” said Thomas.
Thanking Rev. Jackson for never being ashamed to ask for financial help for his historic 50-year-old civil rights organization, Thomas looked at Jackson and said, “Thank you,” then donated a $5,000 check.
LaChina Robinson, an ESPN analyst, was the Masters of Ceremonies for the sports banquet. She and others stood and applauded Thomas some with tears in their eyes.
Rushia Brown, president of the Women’s Professional Basketball Alumni, was awarded the Unity Globe Humanitarian award. “I am very excited. It was a surprised and an honor for all of the work I have done,” she said.
Rev. Jackson also honored Jineea Butler, Linda Alvarado, owner of the Colorado Rockies, Wendy Lewis and Shelly Smith, who received the Playing Field Courage Award. Smith could not make the convention. Her award was accepted by Ms. Robinson.
Rev. Jackson also honored Swin Cash of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) with the Rainbow PUSH Community Service Award. Cash, who could not attend, accepted her ward via video. Jackson also awarded the Trailblazer’s award to Theresa Webster another WNBA honoree who also could not attend, but accepted via a video.