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Dallas Mavericks' Seats for Soldiers night is profound experience for wounded veterans, fans

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) takes photos with wounded service members from Brooke Army Medical Center who watched the Dallas Mavericks take on the Denver Nuggets on Monday, December 4, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The soldiers were flown from San Antonio to enjoy dinner at Nick & Sam's and a Mavs game.

ASHLEY LANDIS/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS (TNS)

By BRAD TOWNSEND | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 5, 2017

Israel Del Toro's eyes glistened as he walked to his courtside seat for Monday night's Mavericks-Denver Nuggets game at American Airlines Center.

Del Toro, 42, wasn't emotional because President George W. Bush and the Mavericks dancers were there to greet him and more than 100 fellow wounded soldiers from San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center for the Mavericks' 13th annual Seats for Soldiers game.

Nor was Del Toro moved because Monday marked the 12th anniversary of the day that 80-percent of his body burned after the Humvee he was riding in during a deployment in Afghanistan detonated an IED, though, boy, the timing of this particular Seats for Soldiers night sure was uncanny.

No, Del Toro mostly was emotional, and appreciative, because he knew better than anyone what this night meant to his fellow wounded soldiers, most of whom are just embarking on the journey Del Toro has experienced. Del Toro's first Seats for Soldiers game was in 2006 and he returns annually.

"You always hear people say, 'We'll support you; we'll have your back,' " Del Toro said. "But with this event, how they really give you the VIP treatment, it makes you feel like, 'Wow, they really care for us.' It really impacts you. It helps you see that people do care."

The Mavericks beat the Nuggets, 122-105, improving their record in Seats for Soldiers games to 11-2.

After the game, Mavericks players and coaches, continuing what has become an annual tradition, stayed on the court to visit with the soldiers. Noting the extra energy with the presence of the soldiers and George and Laura Bush, coach Rick Carlisle said: "I think our guys felt an obligation to be at their competitive best."

Some guys heckle us on how we play," guard Devin Harris said with a smile about the soldiers. "And some of them are just happy to be here. The best part is the lap we get to take after the game and the time we get to spend and the enjoyment we bring."

The Seats for Soldiers concept was originated by longtime Mavericks season-ticket holder Neal Hawks starting with the 2004-2005 season. Season-ticket-holders donate their courtside seats, valued at more than $350,000, to wounded soldiers from BAMC, as well as soldiers from the Dallas area. The time since 2004 that there wasn't a Seats for Soldiers game was the NBA lockout season of 2011-12.

Through the years, American Airlines Center has hosted regular-season thrillers and drama-filled playoff games, including the 2006 and 2011 NBA Finals, but Carlisle said nothing the franchise does is more important than Seats for Soldiers.

"It's not necessarily a win or lose thing," he said. "It's just how you represent competitively. Because these folks have competed in the most dangerous forum that there is, with the stakes being the absolute highest and with the sacrifices being the absolute greatest.

"That's something we all must recognize."

Mavericks President and general manager Donnie Nelson called it "my favorite night of the year." Owner Mark Cuban said, it's the night "that always gives me goosebumps."

"When the fans start standing and clapping and you see the joy on the face of the soldiers, it's incredible," Cuban said. "It's always a long standing ovation that makes us appreciate how fortunate we are that they care enough to serve our country."

After the Seats for Soldiers game two years ago, Cuban and Harris remained on the court, attempting to do 22 one-armed push-ups apiece -- in recognition of the fact that, at the time, an average of 22 United States military veterans per day committed suicide.

"It was sobering to be part of it and recognizing how much more we have to do," Cuban said.

For this 13th Seats for Soldiers day, the VIP treatment began early Monday afternoon, when an American Airlines-provided charter plane, staffed with volunteer American Airlines pilots and flight attendance, picked up the BAMC soldiers at San Antonio Airport.

The Mavericks' dance team and its male counterparts, the ManiAACs, flew to San Antonio in the charter plane and welcomed the soldiers with a dance routine near the boarding gate.

After landing at DFW Airport, the soldiers were bussed to Nick & Sam's on Preston Road, where chef Samir Dhurandhar created a four-course extravaganza that included sushi platters, shrimp cocktail, prime fillet, Nick & Sam's "Damn Good" fries and a seven-layer Mavericks cake.

In other words, an upgrade from mess hall and hospital food.

"This is so much more than what I was expecting," said Andrea Keithler, 28, as she settled into her AAC courtside seat. "I'm just so amazed. Everyone has been so generous and wonderful."

Vermont native Keithler enlisted in the Air Force a year and a half ago. In June, she broke her femur. She didn't know it beforehand, but she had a bone tumor, which was revealed after the bone fracture went through the tumor.

She had to have surgery to remove bones and ligaments from her leg. She came to Dallas on crutches, but was all smiles as she prepared to watch the Mavericks and Nuggets.

"Here I am now. My husband (Brian) is so jealous," she said. Then she pointed up toward the AAC's highest seating level. "Usually I sit way up there."

When Air Force Master Sergeant Israel Del Toro came to his first Seats for Soldiers game in 2006, he had just been released from BAMC following one of his numerous reconstructive surgeries.

"I was barely able to move," he said. His Air Force friends, and those who cared for him at BAMC, knew he was a basketball fan and might enjoy the trip to Dallas. One of the first people to greet him was Nelson.

"When I came here, these guys were so great," he said. "I had met celebrities and athletes. They all say, 'Hey, I'll stay in touch with you.' You never saw them again. But they weren't like Donnie. Donnie called me all the time, 'Hey, how are you doing, brother?'

Del Toro and Nelson have remained close. In August 2006, Nelson attended Del Toro's wedding in Chicago.

Del Toro has made other trips to Dallas than for Seats for Soldiers games and always connects with Nelson. To Nelson, Del Toro always has just been "D.T," a person with whom he shared deep conversations and contributed to Nelson's own spiritual growth.

For a while, Nelson had no idea that over the years Del Toro had become something of a national celebrity. He's broken records in the Paralympics. He's on the United States parachuting and skydiving team. He's been to the White House.

And in July, Del Toro was honored at the ESPY with the Pat Tillman Award for his dedication to service and sports.

"To be a small part of that process, where you really understand what he is going through, I'm just blessed, blessed, blessed to be part of his life," Nelson said.

Now it was Nelson's eyes that glistened.

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