Lou Holtz, buying snacks at an airport newsstand, can hardly believe his good luck. "Three ninety-nine?" he says, repeating the total to me, the stranger behind him in line. "It's never $3.99. It's always, like, $4.02." And I think, When a 68-year-old football coach can find delight in the rounded price of his sundries, it's clear that good news really is all around us. All we have to do is look.
So I fly to Dallas and ask Mavericks owner Mark Cuban how often his players perform private acts of kindness. "I see it every day of the year," he replies. This year the Mavs have decided, as a team, to sign autographs before every game, home or away. "We have only had one guy in my six years who wouldn't sign autographs when asked," says Cuban.
It's a dirty secret that the vast majority of professional athletes are decent people. Sure, it's appropriate to badmouth Terrell Owens. But let's not forget to goodmouth Steve Smith, the 14-year NBA veteran who announced his retirement this fall in the Michigan State study center he helped build with a $2.5 million donation.
In Dallas I board a flight to Los Angeles with two basketball Hall of Famers. It's a strange thrill to fly over the Grand Canyon with Bill Russell, one national treasure passing quietly over another. And it's more thrilling still to see Russell, America's greatest winner, spend the three-and-a-half-hour flight with three teens from the Ronald McDonald House of Dallas.
Russell feels a duty to give his time, not just his treasure. "That's best expressed by a poem I learned in high school," he said before boarding. "It's not what we give but what we share/For the gift without the giver is bare."
Russell's capacity for sharing is not quite boundless. "The man has 11 championship rings and only 10 fingers," Bob Lanier, the other Hall of Famer on the flight, tells Andy Noland, a 15-year-old with spina bifida who lives in hurricane-ravaged Beaumont, Texas. "Ask him to give me the ring he's not using, so at least I could have one."
Every day in and above North America, athletes share this kind of locker room give-and-take with kids who couldn't otherwise experience it. "I got to play Kyle Petty in NASCAR Xbox, and I beat him," Noland says. "I've had my picture taken with Mike Modano in the Dallas Stars' locker room. He had just stepped out of the shower. I thought they'd have to put one of those black stripes across the picture."
When we alight at Los Angeles International airport, Mark Cuban--by an incalculable coincidence--is spotted in a car at curbside. Introduced to 14-year-old muscular dystrophy patient Cody Miller of Port Neches, Texas, the owner invites him to sit courtside at a Mavericks game.
At the Staples Center that night, the Lakers are hosting Phoenix. Among the athletes who talk to the kids from Dallas are Magic Johnson, Shawn Marion and Luke Walton, whose father, Bill, wishes athletes were judged as distinct beings and not as a bloc. "I detest stereotypes," says Grateful Red. "I believe in the individual nature of the human spirit." NBA players aren't all tattooed. ( Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the Kings, in fact, had his tats removed.) They're not all profligate spenders. (Car-less Matt Bonner of the Raptors rides the subway and eats at Subway.)
Is the same true of the NFL? I called Bob Kessler, who in June donated a kidney to his 14-year-old son, Tyler (SI, Jan. 31), who beat cancer. The pair travels to NFL games most Sundays, sharing steaks afterward and receiving manifold kindnesses from celebrity strangers. This year, Bob notes, Ty met with Dan Marino at the Hall of Famer's request. He toured the Madden cruiser with its namesake. (They talked about flatulence.) Rams receiver Torry Holt gave Tyler the shirt off his back. And Lions president Matt Millen hosted the Kesslers for two days in Detroit, where "every single player and coach shook our hands, signed autographs and said you inspire us," says Bob.