Sports’ greatest Santa: The amazing story of Dirk Nowitzki and kids fighting for their lives
He arrives at Children’s Medical Center Dallas wearing a silly felt hat, like Santa’s, except this one is blue and sports a Mavericks logo.
He slips into the hospital, as he’s done for a decade now, with a jolly disposition and enough Christmas presents to fill a large rolling bin.
He will introduce himself as a kind-of relative to many of the 19 all-too-young patients he will visit, individually, during the next four hours -- a famous, yet endearingly unpretentious one every kid wishes they could have.
His fiercely competitive alter ego, Dirk Nowitzki, has for 19 NBA seasons thrilled fans with his basketball feats, but that pales in importance to the smiles, giggles and wonderment Uncle Dirk will induce on this day.
“How many years did it take you to grow that, that, that tall?” 7-year-old patient Legecy Allen asks. “You can barely fit through that door!”
“I know,” says grinning Uncle Dirk. “I think I was like 7-feet when I was 18, so it took me about 18 years. Now I’m almost 40.”
He’s actually just 38, not that it matters to these kids. Nor do they care that because of a strained Achilles, he has played in only five of the Mavericks’ 28 games this season.
During these precious hours in Children’s, the Mavericks’ 7-21 record and his personal struggles also are unimportant to Nowitzki. Here, for the kids’ sake, he must be Uncle Dirk.
“These definitely are some tough times,” he says. “But this definitely takes your mind off of basketball for a while.”
Nowitzki fans generally know about his philanthropy and particular soft spot for kids, but the public never has had a window into Uncle Dirk’s hospital visits because he wouldn’t allow it, no offense intended.
No press releases. No photo ops. Not a solitary tweet.
After lengthy deliberation, he’s consented to The News shadowing him during this visit, but with a request: That the story be about the “courageous” kids, their “amazing” families and the “incredible” doctors and nurses.
On this day, Uncle Dirk will visit kids with brain tumors; kids awaiting bone-marrow transplants to fight leukemia and sickle cell anemia; an infant heart transplant patient; and a 6-month-old, 8-month-old and 2-year-old who have never lived a day outside a hospital.
“It’s rough sometimes,” he says. “It’s frustrating at times. You’re speechless at times.
“But this is always my favorite appearance of the year. It means a lot to the kids and the parents and, obviously, to me.”
Thresa Belcher, Children’s hospital’s director of child life and social work, has coordinated Uncle Dirk’s past five Christmas visits.
She says he usually visits 18 to 20 patients, though others are often added last-minute. Children’s typically chooses patients who have been hospitalized the longest. Patients’ parents are asked for gift ideas.
Uncle Dirk, naturally, foots the bill.
“He has the ability to connect with kids on every level, whether they are a toddler or school-age kid or teenager,” Belcher says. “It’s quite amazing.
“We also see that he doesn’t care how long he’s here. We all know he may be here four hours. He may be here five hours. Whatever it takes to see every kid and give them the time they deserve.”
During the elevator ride to see the first patient, Belcher informs Uncle Dirk that one of the oncology patients he visited last year is out of the hospital and doing well.
“Every time she sees your photo on a billboard or on TV, she says, ‘Mommy! Look! Uncle Dirk!.’ ”
Belcher often has to juggle the order of visits when patients are receiving treatment or asleep.
Evan, 9, is first on this year’s list for good reason. He’s about to have surgery. In fact, it’s been delayed 10 minutes after word came of Uncle Dirk’s arrival.
Outside Evan’s room, surgical transport team members, waiting with a gurney, smile while Uncle Dirk slips on latex gloves.
Before entering each room, Uncle Dirk wants to know the child’s name and things he or she likes to do.
“Where’s my man Evan?” Uncle Dirk says, entering the room. Evan is sitting up in bed, waiting, wide-eyed.
Evan is given two wrapped packages. Evan soon learns that Uncle Dirk not only likes to see the gifts being unwrapped, but contents removed from boxes and tried.
Beaming Evan thanks Uncle Dirk while donning his new silver Beats headphones.
“I’ll tell you what, Dirk,” Evan’s mother says. “He hasn’t had a smile all day, so thank you for making him smile. We were a little bummed because we thought we might miss you.”
For his next visit, with John, a Spruce High School 10th grader, Uncle Dirk not only must put on a new set of gloves, but a gown and mask. Not that it makes any difference to John, his speechless family members or Uncle Dirk.
“You’re taller in person. Man, you’re a giant!” John exclaims.
“I get that a lot,” Uncle Dirk says.
After a conversation about school and sports, John, wearing his new Beats, poses for photos with Uncle Dirk. After a few shots, John’s family members, including his roughly 5-foot-5 father, are asked to join in.
“Come on over, little daddy!” says Uncle Dirk, to John’s cackling delight.
In most years, the only person who accompanies Uncle Dirk into patients’ rooms is Danny Bollinger, the Mavericks’ longtime photographer and a close Nowitzki friend.
Bollinger primarily comes to take keepsake photos for patients and their families. Through the years, affable Bollinger and Uncle Dirk have become as synchronized a tandem as Nowitzki and former Mavs pick-and-roll sidekick Jason Terry.
Initially awestruck in Uncle Dirk’s presence, kids soon seem to forget they are tethered to intravenous catheters, oxygen tubes and vital-sign monitors.
Such is the case for Lizzy Hock, 4.
All she knew was someone tall was coming, which still didn’t prepare her for the sight of Uncle Dirk ducking under the doorway and into her room.
“Sorry, we’re just a little star-struck,” Lizzy’s mom, Angela, says.
“Don’t be, don’t be,” Uncle Dirk says.
Fortunately, Uncle Dirk has been told Lizzy is a big Frozen fan, as is his 3-year-old daughter Malaika. Uncle Dirk helps Lizzy unwrap a 39-inch Elsa doll, personally snips all the annoying plastic ties and lays Elsa across Lizzy’s blanket-covered legs.
“I like him. Lot,” Lizzy says to her mom of Uncle Dirk.
Angela explains that Lizzy, who has Down syndrome, was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 30 and has been hospitalized three months.
“Thank you,” Angela tells Uncle Dirk, handing him a package of chocolates she gives to each of Lizzy’s holiday visitors to celebrate Christ’s birth. “This is a huge blessing for us. We are very grateful.”
Dirk Nowitzki the basketball player owns almost every Mavericks record. He is sixth on the NBA’s career scoring list, with 29,552 points. He led Dallas to the 2011 NBA title.
Those accomplishments are not why he has legendary status in these hallways, where seemingly everyone has a favorite Uncle Dirk story.
For a decade, staff members have been verboten by Nowitzki to publicly discuss his visits, but as Uncle Dirk makes this year’s rounds, several stories are shared in whispered tones.
“We see all the stars and athletes that come in here. He’s by far the best,” says Glenn Timmons, a Children’s security guard of 31 years who has accompanied Uncle Dirk on all of his visits.
Last year, minutes prior to Uncle Dirk’s arrival, a young car-accident victim awoke from anesthesia to news that his leg had been amputated. He had been placed on Uncle Dirk’s visit list prior to the amputation.
“Does he still want to see me?” Uncle Dirk asked.
“Well, he kind of does,” he was told.
“That’s fine. I’ll go in.”
The young man vomited several times during the visit. Uncle Dirk never recoiled. Each time, he simply put on a fresh gown.
About three years ago, the birthday of a pigtailed patient named Kenedi happened to coincide with Uncle Dirk’s visit. Uncle Dirk went to the bin and fetched another present, a purse that can be decorated with crayons.
After helping Kenedi color the purse, Uncle Dirk asked if she wanted anything else. Kenedi grabbed both sides of Uncle Dirk’s face and kissed him on the lips.
The next day, Kenedi's family was notified that a heart had been found for her long-awaited transplant. The news was shared with Uncle Dirk that night, as the Mavericks lined up for the national anthem before a home game.
“Her dad was convinced it was because Dirk visited her,” says Keri Kaiser, Children’s Medical Center’s senior vice president of marketing and communications.
In 2012, a couple of weeks into her tenure at Children’s, Kaiser peeked around the doorway as Uncle Dirk played one-on-one with patient Will Kolassa, using a miniature ball and tiny hoop.
The two-minute video shot by Will’s mom went viral on YouTube. It’s been watched 187,949 times, the closest thing there has been to publicity of an Uncle Dirk Christmas visit.
“This is the best day of the year for all of us,” Kaiser says. “To me, this is a privilege, to watch him do this every year, seeing how much joy he brings.
“I don’t want to offend any of the other athletes in the city, but no one else does this. There is no publicity. There’s no talking about it. And he is dedicated to it.”
As late-afternoon stretches into evening, Uncle Dirk shows no signs of tiring or waning Christmas cheer.
He never asks anyone what time it is, nor does he pull out his cell phone to check.
The gift pile gradually dwindles in the rolling bin. Xboxes, iPad Minis, iPod Nanos, Beats, dolls, iTunes cards and other items are happily received, but Uncle Dirk most seems to crave the personal connections.
He spots a guitar in the corner of 15-year-old Skyline student Ashley’s room, so he plays and even briefly sings to her. He also jams with Jesse, a 20-year-old from Mount Vernon in East Texas.
“No one’s going to believe me back home when I tell them I played guitar with Dirk Nowitzki,” says Jesse, the only patient who brings up the subject of basketball with Uncle Dirk.
“Y’all got to pick it up,” Jesse says. “Are you back on the court?”
“Not yet,” Uncle Dirk says.
“That’s why they ain’t doing anything,” Jesse says.
Between his in-room visits, Uncle Dirk plays Guitar Hero in a Children’s game room as patients, siblings and parents flock in.
Highlighting his visit to the room of Jesus, 13, are a discussion about firehouses and a spirited best-of-three Connect Four match, won by Uncle Dirk.
Jesus is by far the day’s most enthusiastic gift recipient.
“Mom!” he squeals. “Xbox! Thank you! Muchas gracias!”
Outside Jesus’ room, nurses and staff members, their eyes glistening, clap.
In the room of Legecy Allen, 7, Uncle Dirk is informed by Legecy that this is her 105th day in the hospital, not counting the four days she got to go home.
The mood quickly lightens, though, when Uncle Dirk poses for photos with Legecy and her mother, Roseland.
“Are those going to fit in the picture?” Legecy asks, pointing to Uncle Dirk’s size 15 feet. “It’s like you’re wearing those big clown shoes.”
As Uncle Dirk leaves, Roseland still seems stunned by the visit.
“It’s amazing, awesome, unexpected and personal. In our room? That’s very nice. It makes Legecy feel special.”
The evening’s final visit is with Keaton Turnbow, a 15-year-old high school football player from Tulsa.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” Keaton says, though it’s not clear whether he’s referring to Uncle Dirk’s presence or the stunt drone present he’s unwrapping.
This is Keaton's second recent stay at Children’s. The first occurred after he suffered a brain aneurysm rupture in his sleep.
After returning home, he suffered another episode and had to be flown back to Dallas.
Keaton’s father, Justin, gently lifts his son’s shirt and points to a softball-sized lump in his abdomen.
The lump, Justin says, is part of Keaton’s skull. Doctors performed a craniotomy to free the bleeding. Storing the removed portion of Keaton’s skull in his body reduces the risk of rejection when it is reattached.
“Hopefully, in a month, maybe two, whatever it takes, they’ll take it out of his belly and put it back on his head and it’ll be like it never left,” an emotional Justin Turnbow tells Uncle Dirk.
“Thank you so much. One, I pray you’re never in this spot. Two, there’s not a lot of hope when we’re here. Parents are just trying to make it through the day; the kids are doing the best they can to fight to get out of here.
“You taking the time out of your schedule means more than I can tell you.”
The elevator ride down is quiet. By the time it reaches the first floor, it’s no longer carrying cheerful Uncle Dirk.
When the door opens, solemn, visibly drained Dirk Nowitzki steps out. He’ll no doubt go home and give longer-than-usual hugs to his wife, Jessica, and their young children -- including Morris, born Nov. 11th.
Yet he also knows he is leaving behind a hospital full of children who will spend Christmas in their rooms.
“Having three healthy kids, I’m thankful and blessed,” he says. “I know that a lot of families are not as blessed and not as fortunate at times. You just try to help wherever you can.”
With his playing career winding down and with a busy family life, Nowitzki admits, “I used to think 24 hours a day of basketball. Now it’s also other things.
“I guess you just move on and grow in life.”
Along the way, he has forged a towering, permanent legacy.
As Dirk Nowitzki.
And Uncle Dirk.