As Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George walked through a pair of glass doors at Dave & Buster’s in Hollywood on Wednesday, Daniel Hernandez’s face broke into a grin above the charcoal-grey shirt and dark tie he wore.
About an hour earlier, Daniel, 10, his younger brother, Diego, 6, and his mother, Andrea Paez, sat patiently in a private room in the arcade waiting for the guest of honor to arrive. The trio, along with nine other families, ate a buffet dinner in anticipation of a night filled with Christmas fun and excitement.
They all shared in the joy, because at some point, they had all shared in a moment of fear and uncertainty.
George, 29, and his foundation were hosting his third annual Christmas celebration in honor of families of people who suffered a stroke. The issue affects George personally, as his mother, Paulette, experienced a stroke when he was 6 years old. Now, back in the area where he was raised, George said he wants to use his platform to bring awareness to the issue while celebrating families who overcame a similar situation.
“I’m grateful to be able to do this and to share this moment with everyone,” George told The Times. “It’s something that’s growing and something that we’re trying to push. At the end of the day, it’s about being around other families and hearing their stories.”
Soon after dinner, George burst through the door with Santa Claus on his right and a bag of toys over his shoulder. Most of the children jumped out of their seats and sat on the floor, hoping to be in the front as George gave a speech. Afterward, he gifted each family with shoes, jerseys and tickets to an upcoming Clippers game. Then he walked around and talked to the children.
Diego struggled to put his jersey on over his blue-and-yellow flannel shirt. Daniel had some trouble, too, until he took off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt. George told him the shoes he gave him would “make you jump higher than Rudolph,” referring to one of Santa’s reindeer. Daniel’s smile grew even bigger.
“You’re amazing,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
Someone in the United States dies from a stroke every four minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Stroke is the No. 2 cause of death in Los Angeles County, according to the American Stroke Assn.
George, who was raised in Palmdale, watched from the basketball hoop in the front lawn as paramedics rushed into his family’s home after his mother suffered a stroke. She was 37.
At one point, medics pronounced her dead.
Doctors were able to save her, but she was confined to a bed for nearly two years. George would sleep in a chair next to her in the hospital. When she returned home and doctors placed a recovery bed in the family’s home, he would plop down pillows and blankets and sleep next to her.
George said he does these events for her. She sat next to his father in the back of the room and watched her son from afar. Later, when he had a moment to talk to her, he hugged her and lovingly wiped a little bit of salad dressing off her lip.
“In a way, I want to bring the world to her,” George said. “I want her to feel that she’s accepted, she’s loved, and she’s normal again.”
Paez, 36, understands George’s perspective because she’s lived through it. In 2007, Paez was driving to a college class when she felt sick and realized she had to take herself to the hospital. She was so desperate she parked her car on the curb. She suffered a stroke moments later.
When she woke up, the left side of her face had shifted. She spent more than a year in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. At multiple points, she thought of committing suicide, she said. Doctors said she would never have children.
She calls Daniel and Diego “her two blessings.”
“I’m just so grateful to be alive,” Paez said through tears.
George, who was traded to the Clippers from the Oklahoma City Thunder in July, reached out to the American Heart Assn. and American Stroke Assn. in September to set up the event. They reached out to local hospitals to find potential families. One person suffered a stroke as recently as four weeks ago.
UCLA houses one of the world’s leading stroke centers. Los Angeles will also host an international stroke conference in February. Aside from basketball reasons, George said being back in Los Angeles presents him more opportunities and resources to champion this cause.
“I’m grateful to be back home and to be able to do things like this,” George said. “It hits so much more that it’s actual people that are from the same area that I’m from. There’s just an endless supply of anything I can think of doing now that I’m here. I have the resources to bring anything that I think of to life.”
After he distributed the gifts, George played arcade games with some of the kids. He shot underhand basketball hoops with Diego, and then they raced with virtual cars. George came in first, Diego came in fifth.
Paez said she talks to her children openly about her stroke. They eat healthy because of it. She tells them of the pain she went through. Daniel understands that, and he’s grateful George does, too. And he dressed his best to show his respect.
“He’s really nice,” Daniel said. “I think it’s cool that he did this for us. I’m glad my mom is alive to see it, too.”