PHILADELPHIA, PA – The 76ers’ red, white, and blue look took on extra patriotic significance Friday at The Center.
In addition to beating the Indiana Pacers, 121-110, for its fourth straight win, the team held its annual Military Appreciation Night presented by Toyota, an always important, valued date on the organization’s yearly home schedule.
Throughout the evening, there were plenty of thoughtful, sentimental nods and tributes to service women and men, present and past.
From a near full-court sized American flag being unfurled during another rousing performance from double-amputee anthemist Ron Brooks, to a first-half standing ovation for all military personnel in attendance, Friday’s game represented a celebration of commitment and sacrifice in the name of country.
“I love this night,” said Sixers President Chris Heck, who comes from a military family himself. “We give back to both active military, as well as military families and retired military. We’re trying to do things that are relevant, and make a difference. It has a special meaning to me, and it’s meaningful for what our military has done to make this the greatest country on the planet.”
As part of Friday’s acknowledgements, several select individuals were honored. Jason Simms handled the pre-game Liberty Bell ringing ritual. The story of the Havertown native and Purple Heart medal recipient is powerful enough to steal your breath away, and put a lump in your throat.
During a marine corps tour in Iraq, Simms’ light-armored vehicle was driving down the highway in Fallujah, when it came under attack, and exploded. Despite his hands, head, and face being engulfed in flames, and getting shot in the right leg three times, Simms managed to escape. His driver, a “country boy” who moments earlier had been joking about taking the city-raised Simms bull riding, did not.
“I climbed to the top of the vehicle to have my friends catch me, my friends dragged me to the side of the road, I smothered my face in the sand to get the flames out, and my friends stepped and poured water on my hands,” said Simms, who lost one of his right fingers in the attack.
Shortly thereafter, he lost consciousness, only to wake up 10 days later at a hospital in Texas, surrounded by his mom and dad. It wasn’t too long before his memory returned.
“Very quickly, it all came back to me, and I realized what had happened,” said Simms, now a father of three. He and his wife named their first son Rider, in honor of Simms’ fallen friend, who had kidded him about bull riding.
“I’m honored to be here, and proud to be where I’m from,” said Simms, who currently works for the Navy, and helps with the Wounded Warriors Project.
Also taking in Friday’s game was 13-year old Kadence Mahlenbrock, currently a Cherry Hill resident. She was joined by her sister, Revilley, and mother, Melissa. Her father, David, was killed in the line of duty in the Iraq War, when she was just 10 months old.
Through the Walk in My Shoes project, Kadence has found herself a mentor in third-year Sixers’ point guard T.J. McConnell.
“He’s really nice,” said Kadence. “He’s always friendly, always says hi when we see him.”
“Kind of like a family thing,” Revilley chimed in.
“I was very interested in hearing about Kadence’s story, and everything she’s been through,” said McConnell, who jumped at the chance to help Mahlenbrocks, and, on Friday, gave Kadence a pair of game-worn shoes. “I can’t even imagine what she’s been through, so it was a no-brainer for me to be there for her, mentor her, and help her with anything she needs.”
This year marked the fourth in a row that the Sixers and Toyota partnered to present Military Appreciation Night.
“It’s really important,” said Bob McCormick, General Manager and Vice President of Toyota of Vineland who was on hand Friday to represent all tri-state Toyota dealerships. “We couldn’t be more proud to be associated with this, and really recognize the men and women who give so much for our country, and sacrifice every day. They really deserve all our support.”
Military Appreciation Night is part of the Sixers’ season-long “Stars & Stripes” campaign, for which they also partner with Toyota.