NEW YORK -- As Quincy Pondexter looked around the dinner table last week during the Chicago Bulls' road trip to New York City, the veteran swingman couldn't help but appreciate his unusual surroundings. For what is believed to be the first time in NBA history, the Bulls organized a moms trip -- in which 11 of 14 players on the roster had their mothers with them from the time they got on the charter to Newark International Airport on Tuesday afternoon to the time they returned early Thursday morning to Chicago.
As Pondexter started talking to some of the moms in attendance during a dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, he found himself learning even more about his teammates as well.
"You see so much of a player in their mom," Pondexter said. "It's pretty cool. It was really, really cool and neat to be able to experience that. I got to know a lot more about my teammates just by being at dinner with their moms. It's a hell of a trip and I hope we do it every year."
The dinner, and subsequent victory over the New York Knicks in a double-overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden the following night, were just a couple of highlights of many shared by players and mothers alike.
While many of the moms were meeting their son's teammates and one another for the first time, Robin Lopez's mother, Deborah Ledford, and Pondexter's mom, Doris, shared the trip's events with a sense of pride and happiness rooted in two decades of memories. Both moms spent years driving their sons, along with Robin's twin brother, Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez, all over California as the trio played together on youth teams.
"We looked at each other when we were sitting at lunch reminiscing, saying, 'Debbie, this has been 20 years that the boys have been playing,' " Doris said. "Would you imagine that from the AAU basketball gyms to the NBA gyms, this is -- miracles come true."
For all the glitz and glamour that the NBA schedule can provide at times, Lopez seemed to enjoy the link back to his past as well.
"It feels like it's just back in high school," Lopez said. "It feels like no time's passed. It's definitely something that's very special. I realize the unique situation. Not a lot of people get to experience that so it's something that we're really relishing."
Hours before tipoff in one of the meccas of basketball, the younger Pondexter also marveled at just how far they've all come.
"It's kind of crazy having Ro's mom, Deborah [here], who I've known since -- probably 10, 11, 12 years old. All the AAU trips that we've gone on, van rides that we had to go on to play these games, it's surreal that we're playing at Madison Square Garden where our moms are going to be in the crowd."
Ledford has been running in NBA circles with both her sons for years now, but like the rest of the mothers, she raved about the camaraderie the group has developed in short order.
"It's been great for mother bonding, but it's also been great for mother-son bonding," she said. "Because we're actually going on the same plane with them, staying in the same hotel with them, eating the same meal. ... The nice thing is at different occasions you've been sitting by different moms and getting to know them, and also getting to know their sons better. [The Bulls] have just made everything special."
Blessing Nwaba wasn't sure she was going to make it to New York City. A couple of days before the trip, her son, David, still hadn't had his contract fully guaranteed for the rest of the season by the Bulls. The energetic young guard opened a lot of eyes throughout the league with his early-season play. But, as many mothers do, Blessing was concerned that the final details hadn't been signed off on yet, even if it was just a formality for an organization that has really enjoyed Nwaba's presence on and off the floor.
"I was panicking on Sunday," Blessing said. "I said, 'Oh my God, they invited me for this, I hope I don't get a negative answer.' I was so scared. I was just praying everything would work out because I know God had a reason for putting him on the Bulls."
Not only did the Nwabas get the answer they wanted before the trip in that the Bulls were indeed guaranteeing the rest of David's deal, Blessing received a special message from coach Fred Hoiberg as she boarded the plane with her son.
"Nice to meet you," Hoiberg said to Blessing, as part of a video posted to the Bulls' social media account that has been viewed more than 37,000 times. "We love him. Thanks for coming."
It's bring your Mom to work day 💯 pic.twitter.com/YZ51LUv4zR— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 10, 2018
The exchange was one of many exciting moments on the trip for the proud mom.
On the way to the team dinner, Blessing, who grew up in Nigeria, saw snow for the first time and couldn't contain her joy in the moment.
"I took some pictures," Blessing said. "I felt it, I touched it. I was very excited."
It was David who happily took the pictures for his mom.
"Every little thing to her, you could just see the joy in her reactions," David said. "She never really gets to travel, so for her to experience this is great. ... Every little thing was a big deal to her. I couldn't take away her excitement. I'm just glad she enjoyed every second of it."
As Blessing watched her son's game against the Knicks the following night, she proudly showed off the three bracelets that Hoiberg gave each mother during the team dinner. The middle one had each player's autograph engraved into a gold plate. As any proud mother would, she was singing her son's praises at every turn.
"When he went to [college in] San Luis Obispo, I told the coach, 'Wow, you are so lucky to have my son,' " she said. "He is a very nice guy, very, very good. I've never had a problem with him as a young boy."
The work ethic that Blessing helped instill in her son has made him one of the most popular players on the team. David admits getting his contract fully guaranteed was "kind of a relief" and is grateful that his mom, who works as a registered nurse in the Los Angeles area, always has been his biggest cheerleader.
"Definitely my biggest supporter, just always having my back during the toughest times," David said of his mom. "Just having the positive words, always having the right things to say when times get tough. That's just [the role] my mom's played for me in always giving me that confidence I needed to keep pushing forward."
A year to the day in which his life was turned upside down, Quincy Pondexter celebrated the occasion by giving his mom a kiss as he and his teammates jogged to the floor lined on either side of a Madison Square Garden hallway by a human tunnel of proud moms in Bulls jerseys.
The year before, in the same city, Pondexter collapsed in a Duane Reade pharmacy, fearing for his life. It later would be discovered that he was dealing with MRSA, a type of staph infection, and would stay for several weeks in a hospital on his road to recovery. As Doris recalled how the last year unfolded, she took a moment to collect herself before describing the happiness that came with seeing her son enjoying himself back on an NBA floor.
"Prayers have been answered," Doris said. "Today I am thrilled. ... I am just to the moon because it could have turned any kind of way. It was so close to disaster with his knee at this time last year. And for him to be able to -- I see him down on the bench and be able to play and do what he does right now, I'm so thankful. I'm so blessed."
Does it get any cuter than the players running through a cheering Mom tunnel?! 💗💯 pic.twitter.com/gm1CXztK9Z— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) January 11, 2018
Quincy understood the magnitude of what the day represented and was grateful to be able to share the moment during such a special trip. He is confident that once the rest of the league sees the success the Bulls had with the trip, other teams are "going to steal our idea."
"You couldn't script a better story than this," Pondexter said. "This is really remarkable and I'm so glad to be part of such a first-class organization."
After the Bulls finished off one of their most impressive wins of the year, Hoiberg joked that he's going to petition Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman to have the moms travel on all the team's road trips.
"It's been great, it really has," Hoiberg said. "I think the mothers have really enjoyed themselves on this trip. I think it's something they'll remember the rest of their lives. We had a great dinner with them last night. Just all the sacrifices that these moms make over when these guys are growing up to get them to be able to realize this dream, getting to places, and the financial responsibility to get them exposure for these guys to realize their dreams. It's been fun."
Doris Pondexter couldn't agree more. As the mothers sat and cheered in section 105, Doris beamed at not only her son down below, but the fun times she had with the rest of the mothers. The facials, manicures and pedicures were nice, so was the dinner and the sightseeing around New York, but what she'll remember most of all is the genuine sense of happiness from the group of moms who have dedicated their lives to helping their sons get to this level.
"Each and every one of them can tell you how thrilled and how happy this has made us," Doris said. "It is a validation to us from the Chicago Bulls to say, 'Thank you, mothers,' and we feel it."