WEST, TX – On a brisk August afternoon 20 miles north of Waco, 12-year old Maci Kolar was busy working on her basketball game on a new court furnished by the Mavs Foundation, the private foundation arm of the Dallas Mavericks.
For Kolar and other kids like her, this court represents the culmination of a dream come true, and the culmination of some wounds being healed.
“I’m always here and I love this court,” Kolar said. “Me and my friends come here every day, and we have tournaments here all the time on weekends.”
“When I came by and saw it was destroyed, it was really frustrating and sad. But when all this came up, I was glad that the Mavericks came out here and did it.”
The old park and basketball court were the centerpiece of West, a rural town with some 2,600 residents. The park and basketball court were destroyed when the town’s fertilizer plant caught fire and then exploded on April 17, 2013, killing 12 first responders and three other citizens.
One of those first responders killed was firefighter Joey Pustejovsky. Shortly thereafter, Pustejovsky’s then four-year-old son, Parker, set out on a mission to rebuild the park and basketball court by selling hotdogs alongside his classmates.
Today, that park and basketball court has been rebuilt and is unofficially named Parker’s Park, thanks to the generous efforts of Parker, the Mavs and friends at the City of West, Coca Cola and Pro Players Foundation. The unveiling of the Mavs Foundation court was held in July 2016 and was followed by a basketball clinic for over 100 kids that was hosted by the Mavs Basketball Academy coaches.
“Everyone from (Parker’s) class came that day,’’ said Parker’s mother, Lindsey Vanek. “All of his classmates were there, they had on the Mavericks t-shirts, they had a celebration and that was really special, and he got to cut the nets.”
“Our kids, they’re very sports-oriented here in our town and they needed somewhere to go. It’s really good and it’s really nice, and I think it’s lifted the spirits of everybody in the town.”
The Mavs originally visited the folks in West and held a pep rally in the summer of 2013 – not long after the explosion – to try and help soothe some broken hearts. Joey Kolar said there was “a buzz about town’’ once word spread that the Mavs were coming back to help the citizens of West.
And during the basketball court’s ceremonial unveiling, Joey Kolar said: “We had between 1,000-1,500 people out here. You could just tell, especially the kids, having the joy of being out here and being able to shoot some hoops again. This was our only outdoor court that was used by the public and it was destroyed, so for (the Mavs) to come back and help us get it back, now driving by every single day that joy still continues because in the evenings whenever I get off work I’ll see 15-20 kids out here every day playing ball.”
“It’s like it was whenever I was growing up – you’ll have people back out here using it — so it’s incredible to see. It’s still surreal. I think everybody was just overwhelmed with the excitement to have the Mavericks come down and help us get this the way it is now, because it’s beautiful.”
West mayor Tommy Muska, who acknowledged that Parker’s hot-dog selling venture raised approximately $100,000, echoed Joey Kolar’s sentiments.
“I’m just so proud that we were the benefactors of the Mavericks generosity,” Muska said. “It was a generous, generous donation by the Mavs Foundation and their partners working together with the city and Parker’s Park and the long-term recovery to build a fantastic basketball court that is being used daily.”
“It’s a good feeling in your heart that the young people have a place to go, it’s safe and they’re able to utilize that facility that was made possible by the Mavericks.”
Joey Kolar credits Katie Edwards –the director of community relations and Mavs Foundation – for conscientiously spearheaded the effort to assist West with its healing process through the building of the town’s new basketball court.
“Katie Edwards with the Mavs Foundation, she was incredible to work with,” Joey Kolar said. “She and I communicated a lot via email, phone calls, text messages. Their entire organization was just awesome to work with. They simplified the process, and they really took charge of everything.”
When the Mavs heard about the explosion in West, they wanted to assist in some way with the recovery process.
“The Mavericks wanted to help any way we could from the beginning,” Edwards said. “Starting from lifting spirits with a pep rally and going down right after the explosion, but also when we heard about Parker and what he was doing for the community and how he was bringing everyone together to rebuild the park. The Mavs Foundation was ready to help build the basketball court for the kids and the community in West.”
“We joined with other supporters and partners in West so that they could have that huge double basketball court with the tennis court. That’s one of the largest projects that we’ve ever done. The Sport Court is just great because it’s safer and helps it last longer. It’s a great opportunity for them to keep it for a really long time.”
Parker’s grandfather, Joe Pustejovsky, said the anticipation of the Mavs building a basketball court in West reached a fever pitch and was the constant talk around various water coolers all across town.
“From the very first time that we heard that it was a possibility that it was going to happen, the community was just like, ‘When, when, when, when is this going to happen?,’ ‘’ Pustejovsky said. “Of course, after it happened there may be 50 kids on this court on the weekends playing basketball on all courts.”
“It’s just an awesome thing for the community. Everybody just loves it. Here we are in this small town, and to have someone step forward like that and present this facility to this community, it’s just overwhelming.”
The basketball court has four goals, and also nets are set up if patrons want to play tennis.
Parker, a shy-type who is now eight-years old, certainly has given the new basketball court his seal of approval.
“I like it, I love it,” he said.
Asked how many hotdogs did he sell to help make this happen, Parker said: “Probably about a million. I wanted to sell hotdogs.”
And it’s not just the folks in West who are enjoying the new basketball court.
“We’re a pretty rural community and there are some small schools within a 30-mile radius,” Pustejovsky said. “In April and May there were busses up here from 40-50 miles away that bring their kids out here to play on the court.”
“Sometimes it’ll be two different schools here on the same day. It’s not only the citizens of West and this tight-knit community. It reaches out past the boundaries of this community, and they know they’re welcomed.”
As West continues to heal from the fertilizer explosion, Pustejovsky recalls the day his youngest son – Joey Pustejovsky was just 29 years old at the time of his death – went to work. His intuition also told him something he doesn’t wish on any father.
“Whenever I heard the explosion I knew what happened and I knew exactly where he was because that’s what he did,” Pustejovsky said of his son. “He was most likely the first one on the scene trying to protect the citizens of West.”
Over 100 homes and several businesses were destroyed in the explosion. The town’s public high school, middle school and intermediate schools were also heavily damaged and had to be torn down and rebuilt.
Numerous brick homes have been rebuilt for several blocks in proximity to where the fertilizer plant once stood as West continues to pick itself up by its bootstraps and become a vibrant farming community again.
“All the houses were leveled, you couldn’t get back into this particular area for two weeks, and that’s just from the housing side of it,” Joey Kolar said. “As far as the lives that were lost, that hurt the most. When you have 15 total deaths just taken like that in such a small-knit community like what we have, it was a healing process.”
“And I think whenever we started this park rebuilding, that was one of the few times that we actually began to really heal with all this, just because we came together through all the pain and sorrow and we found joy in an event like this. So for the project to have continued to turn into what we have today, it was awesome.”
That helping hand the city of West received from the Mavs came at the right time.
“I think it was something that was an easy decision to make because of the devastation that they had there in the community. To have such tragedy and loss and yet be ready to come together and rebuild,” Edwards said. “The community there in West is a really small close-knit community and they really wanted to help each other and it made it something that we really wanted to be a part of.”
Parker’s Park, according to Vanek, almost never materialized considering Parker was near the fertilizer plant with a relative when the explosion occurred.
“My best estimate is that he was maybe 200 yards from that explosion at the time of the explosion,” Vanek said. “God had his hands wrapped around him that day because I honestly think just a change in the wind pattern or something, he wouldn’t be here today to talk about it.”
Less than 10 days after the explosion is when Parker told his grandfather that he wanted to rebuild the park.
“This was like a war zone and we were driving from the house and he just wanted to see what it looked like,” Pustejovsky said. “You couldn’t enter it, but he said that he had a project that he wanted to do, and my wife and I we asked him what that project was, and he said, ‘I want to rebuild the park.’ “
“My wife and I kind of toyed with the idea for a little while and I said, ‘You know he can’t do this himself, we’re going to have to make it happen. He had the idea, but we’re going to have to make sure that his idea doesn’t just fall by the wayside.’ ‘’
As the emotional scars from the 2013 explosion subsides, Joey Kolar, Maci Kolar, Muska, Pustejovsky, Vanek and Parker are thankful the Mavs were there to provide them with strength and comfort during a difficult journey in their life.
“I think it’s going to be one of those things that, as time passes, we’re going to be able to continue and get over our grieving,” Joey Kolar said. “The scars will always be there of course, but at the same time we’re a strong faith-based community and I think that’s what really got us through all of it.”
“But the Mavericks, they stayed steady and whenever we were ready, the Mavericks communicated back with the city, at which point we got in contact with them and started working with them. They did an incredible job of just keeping West in their hearts and in their minds and following up with us.”
And that follow-up by the Mavs was much appreciated by Muska.
“They did not have to come here, and they were instrumental right after the explosion, too,” Muska said. “They came down here and they met the kids and had a clinic and brought their big TV down here. It was so neat to see the kids when they did that day clinic to get their minds off of not having a home. I’m just so proud to be associated with a fine organization like the Mavericks.”