Roger Morningstar huddled Kansas University’s men’s basketball team at the front right entrance of Wal-Mart on Thursday night with two quick final messages for the shopping-cart-wielding players.
“Use your imagination,” he said. “Have some fun.”
Morningstar was speaking to the players before they headed in different directions in search of gifts: presents for 17 families and 47 people as part of KU basketball’s annual Santa’s Helpers drive in conjunction with the Salvation Army.
Morningstar has been organizing the yearly event so long that he couldn’t pinpoint the first shopping spree, but it dates back at least 15 years, he said. Each player was handed a family’s Christmas wish list. They were allowed to spend $100 per person, paid for through charitable donations.
Brady Morningstar, Roger’s son and sophomore guard, came ready with a plan of attack for the two 9-year-old boys and an 8-year-old girl on his list.
“I’m trying to get the clothes out of the way first, so I can just go straight for the toys,” said Morningstar, as he sifted through a pile of Faded Glory shirts. “A couple remote controls and a My Little Pony for the little girl.”
Freshman guard Tyshawn Taylor was concerned about picking the proper attire for a 20-year-old mom.
“I want her to look nice, but I don’t know her size,” Taylor said. “We’ve got to find a hooded sweatshirt for a 20-year-old mother, which is tough because I’m not a 20-year-old mother, so I don’t know what they wear.”
Sophomore center Cole Aldrich had just begun his Wal-Mart shop-a-thon, the lone item in his cart an iPod shuffle for a 14-year-old girl. He walked through the children’s clothing aisle, looking for a KU sweatshirt.
“We’ll find something nice,” Aldrich said. “Wal-Mart’s a big place, you know. We can always find something kind of unique for them.”
Travis Releford already had a stockpile of items in his cart as he pushed it to the shoe section in the back of the store. Among the contents of the cart: “High School Musical” toys for a girl and an NFL football for a boy.
He didn’t plan on stopping at the $100 maximum, however.
“I plan on putting in some money, because I like doing stuff like this,” Releford said.
Quintrell Thomas moseyed over to the DVD section, where he was looking for a “Lord of the Rings” film. He hadn’t decided on his course of action for the rest of the shopping session, as he stowed items for a young girl.
“You can do one of two things,” Thomas said. “You can assume what somebody that age would want, or you can just get a gift card.”
Mario Little felt particularly cheery as he hauled his shopping cart around. He toted items requested by a mother for the washroom and kitchen. Nearly everything in the cart was red.
“I’m trying to get it all in the Christmas spirit with the red,” Little said.
Little revealed his favorite Christmas gift of all-time. It turns out, he was a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers fan, and he adored the action figures. In particular, Tommy, the white ranger, tickled his fancy.
“He had a little sword,” Little said. “I used to like Tommy so much. I always wanted to be the white ranger.”
Guard Sherron Collins had his work cut out for him as he exited the toy department with a skateboard kit and Indiana Jones Monopoly. He was headed for the women’s clothing aisle to look for pants. His mission simply was to make the family members on his list smile.
“That’s one of those things my mom always told me,” Collins said. “Smile every day because it’s a brand new start for a new day, that’s probably my method. I try to make people smile all the time. So, as long as they smile and they enjoy their gifts, I think that will be the great part.”
Coach Bill Self said the event was something his players looked forward to every year.
“We are all blessed in so many ways,” Self said. “Our players have all come from different environments. They enjoy having the chance to help families that are needy over Christmas.”