The host city of the 2008 NBA All-Star Game held deep meaning for Antawn Jamison. The veteran power forward, then an All-Star for the second time for the Wizards, had made regular trips to New Orleans from Shreveport, La., where he lived until his family moved to Charlotte when he was 13. What’s more, his parents were vacationing there when Hurricane Katrina struck: For two days they holed up in a powerless hotel without a working cellphone, sleeping with the door open to alleviate the heat, before a good Samaritan offered them a ride to find shelter in Houston.
Two and a half years later, as Jamison’s parents joined him in New Orleans for the All-Star festivities, they regaled their son with somber tales of what they had seen and what was no longer there. The city soon gained in significance for Jamison. On the Friday of All-Star Weekend, he was one of 15 current and former NBA and WNBA players to help build a playground in the Central City neighborhood as part of a partnership between NBA Cares and KaBOOM!, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting children’s play.
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Under a steady rain Jamison and his colleagues assisted an army of volunteers, screwing together slides and assembling monkey bars. After five hours of work, a full playground stood where an empty lot had been. As he surveyed the children beaming at their neighborhood’s new attraction—a far cry from the distraught, devastated New Orleans images he recalled from just a few years earlier—Jamison was filled with hope. “We all knew just one weekend of NBA players and entertainers wasn’t going to make everything right,” he says, “but it could be a nice distraction.”
KaBOOM!’s core philosophy—that play is central to children’s development and mental health—struck a chord with Jamison. “We’re in a society where kids don’t really get the opportunity to be kids anymore,” he says, citing the prevalence of indoor activities like video games and many cities’ lack of quality recreational spaces. During his childhood in Shreveport, Jamison took refuge from gangs and other trouble at the playground on the end of his street. “I couldn’t imagine not having that outlet,” he says.
And so Jamison went about making sure his work with KaBOOM! was more than a one-off. That fall he funded his own playground construction project in Bossier City, just outside Shreveport, where most of his family still lives. In the summer of 2009 he built another playground in his second home city of Charlotte. (His father’s construction company relocated him there to assist in the Hurricane Hugo rebuild.) Then, in 2011, Jamison participated in KaBOOM!’s 15th-anniversary build in Washington, D.C., alongside Michelle Obama.
Now working as a Lakers TV broadcaster, Jamison, 39, continues to serve as a KaBOOM! spokesman. Even if he has yet to grow fond of lugging mulch (“Man, that does something different to your body,” he laments), he says their collaboration will continue until either he or the group is no more. “When I got off that bus [in New Orleans] and saw we were about to build a playground, I never expected that I would have this relationship,” he says. “Life has a funny way of connecting people and figuring things out.”