HOUSTON -- Carlos Rogers hasn't changed one bit. He's still cracking wise on, while leaning his willowy 6-foot-11 frame over, anyone who crosses his path, just as he did for nine seasons with five different NBA teams. Only at the moment he's doing it in the sweltering Astrodome parking lot, trying to convince evacuees, security officials, volunteers and anyone else within earshot to check out the gospel service and concert being held in the monstrous white tent a few feet away.
"I'm not asking you to do anything, just stick your head in!" he shouts, thrusting another lime-green event flyer at a passerby. "You got to meet someone? Who you got a meeting with more important than God?
"And it's air-conditioned!" he adds.
Rogers was not part of the three dozen or so NBA players who took part in Sunday's goodwill event organized by TNT analyst and former Houston Rockets guard Kenny Smith to benefit the 200,000-some victims of Hurricane Katrina who now call Houston -- or a cot therein -- home. The players and a healthy horde of reporters and cameras gathered at 9 a.m. Sunday at a storage facility on the outskirts of town and then broke into several groups to visit evacuees being housed at two major convention centers and various smaller shelters around the city. A few hours later, a West squad trounced an East team 114-95 in an afternoon exhibition at the Toyota Center to raise further funds for the relief effort that devastated the entire Gulf Coast.
An impressive array of stars paid their own way to buoy the spirits of evacuees and volunteers alike. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Amare Stoudemire, Dwyane Wade and Ron Artest were among those who both visited the relief sites and played in the exhibition. All 30 players involved personally contributed $10,000 or more as well.
Rogers, though, was not impressed. He has been here since Monday, when he saw Oprah Winfrey's TV special depicting her visit to this city-within-a-city hastily constructed and operated by Houston civic organizations and the American Red Cross. He caught the next flight from Detroit and has spent nearly 12 hours a day helping construct a recreation area that includes everything from board games to full-court basketball courts in the Astrodome parking lot. When a donation of washers and dryers came without detergent, Rogers, who also has a house in Houston, bought an SUV-load of laundry soap and drove it over. Then he flew in a childhood friend, Rev. Maurice Jackson, and a choir to hold Sunday's six-hour service and concert. He missed his 16-year-old son's birthday to be here.
"I love all those guys," Rogers said of the visiting NBA players, "but sincerity don't come with a camera. When you see people with nothing, you just extend your arms as far as you can. It bothers me when the celebrities and the NBA guys come in for a cameo. Money is the easiest thing for us to give. It's time that's most valuable to these people. I want to stay until everybody's got a place to go. I saw a sign inside that said, 'You've only lost everything if you've lost hope.' Maybe I'm that one person to shoot a little hope into you. That's what I'm trying to do, anyway."
The current NBA players, in their own way, achieved the same.
"I haven't seen the people here this excited since it started," said one volunteer who declined to give his name as he watched as a woman, her eyes welling with tears, whisper "Thank you for being here" as she hugged Bryant.
"It lets us know we're not alone," said Renard Carter, 47, who wore a Winnie the Pooh bucket hat as he carried a white T-shirt full of a half-dozen autographs. Carter is still searching for his 75-year-old mother, Audrey, who was living in a New Orleans nursing home.
"Let her know I'm here," he said.
Carter is actually among the last evacuees (estimates vary from 10,000 to 20,000 remaining) living at the Reliant Park complex, as evacuees have joined family elsewhere or moved to shelters or local apartments offering free rent for the first 18 months.
There is a push to have everyone transferred elsewhere by next weekend so the stadiums and exhibit halls can resume their normal schedules. Signs and public-service announcements inside, though, still reflect attempts to create order out of a mass of humanity uprooted and lumped together under one roof. Signs are posted on columns designating the surrounding cots as reserved for the elderly or families with and without children. The areas for lost children and single women are barricaded in light of the horror stories that are emerging from evacuees thrown together inside the Louisiana Superdome without supervision as the storm raged.
"If you are fluent in sign language," a voice over the PA says, "please report to the Red Cross information desk immediately."
A little while later, the same voice: "Two people interested in going to Baton Rouge, a van with room for two people is leaving now, please proceed ..."
And still later: "A moment of total silence in memory of the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Towers ..."
The NBA contingent visited the exhibit hall in broad daylight, which Rogers says does not compare to going inside the Astrodome -- or "The Hole," as he calls it, because the entrance and exit is a single ramp leading down to field level. At the start of the week, Rogers said the entire stadium floor was packed with cots, side by side, the lights dimmed as tens of thousands of people in one large space tried to sleep without reliving the nightmares of the previous week.
"You have to be here at night," Rogers said. "That's when it gets real."
"They were hands-on when it was thick," he said. "They were delivering toilet paper, baby formula. They did it all."
The NBA, though, certainly made its presence felt in the way Smith hoped, generating more than $1 million in supplies and contributions before the exhibition even began. Dividends included seeing Kobe smiling, mingling with the public and bouncing around the court again, a rarity over the last year with the gloom of his rape trial in Colorado and the Lakers' struggles. LeBron and Stoudemire's effortless dunks allowed the evacuees in attendance to forget, for a moment, the long road that still lies ahead. T-Mac and Gilbert Arenas provided a last-minute duel of ridiculously deep 3s, T-Mac winning the contest with an effortless nothing-but-netter one stride past midcourt. Who knows, perhaps it left the displaced Cajuns with the notion that anything is possible.
Me? I'll take the image of Van Exel, Cassell and Rogers -- all three dinged for being selfish or self-absorbed at various points in their careers -- in the trenches and out of the spotlight, providing an assist and a rebound that involved no ball, scoreboard or paycheck.
Sometimes, after all, the best highlight reels are the ones that no one ever sees.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life in Two Worlds."