Before he walks onto the court in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Wednesday, Chris Paul will write the initials of a woman he’s never met on his sneakers.
Like the Clippers superstar, she was a gritty point guard who never worried about her ability to come back.
Only Lisa Elaine Gallagher wasn’t trailing in a game. Her fight was against glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that can trigger massive headaches and speech and memory difficulties.
Paul learned about the 49-year-old mother’s battle through a tribute video posted early this month on Twitter by her family that detailed how her son Jack had placed one of the CP3 brand shoes she had given him on her grave.
After watching the video within 24 hours of its posting, Paul contacted his wife and personal assistant.
"I sent them the link," Paul recalled, "and I said, ‘Find him.’"
They located the Gallaghers of Erie, Pa., and arrangements were made for Jack and several family members, coaches and friends to make the 3 1/2-hour drive to watch the Clippers play the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills as Paul’s guests. The All-Star will take the floor with "L.E.G." inscribed on his shoes.
"Sometimes," Paul said, "stuff is bigger than the game of basketball."
The six Gallagher children are in need of more than a pick-me-up moment. Their mother is gone and their jobless father, Michael, is suffering from kidney failure and needs a transplant.
Jack Gallagher of Erie, Pa., is pictured at his mother Lisa Elaine Gallagher’s grave with a Chris Paul-model basketball shoe she had bought for him.
Lisa was given three to six months to live when she was diagnosed last November but persevered for nearly a year, dying in early September.
She passed on her love of basketball to her children, surprising Jack with a pair of CP3 sneakers the day before his seventh-grade tryouts last year because she knew Paul was Jack’s favorite player.
Lisa, a former high school player, also pestered Jack to attack the basket with his left hand.
"If you can’t go with your left," Lisa would tell her son, "you’re not going at all. Go left! Go left! They’re expecting you to go to right."
Sure enough, Jack perfected his left-handed moves.
Jack wore the shoes his mother gave him until they gave him blisters. But his body language signaled his sorrow in the realization he would soon have to move on to another pair.
"What’s the matter?" Jack’s father finally asked him. "He said, ‘The shoes don’t fit anymore.’"
Jack placed one sneaker on his mother’s grave, inserting purple roses into the opening. He stuffed the other in his gym bag and touches it before each of his eighth-grade team’s games.
Lisa attended as many of Jack’s games as she could before her death, though her condition often left her unable to recall any details the next day.
"She would see a game and she would know and she would talk to Jack and she would see him after the game," Michael said of his late wife. "But the next day she wouldn’t even remember being there. So it was always about the next memory, the next thing because we knew that while it was happening she was living it."
The family videotaped and photographed nearly every moment so that Lisa could savor her final days with those who mattered most. A video of Jack discussing his mother’s devotion to his basketball career and of his desire to have Paul write Lisa’s initials on his shoes for an NBA game left Paul wanting to make his own gesture, however small.
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"To know that someone cares about me that much to where his mom did that for him and to know he put that on his mom’s grave," Paul said, "I got goose bumps, I got chills."
Paul has wowed Jack since the boy started watching him on television three years ago. "I liked how he threw the alley-oops and everything and his ballhandling and his great vision," said Jack, 13.
Jack had been a point guard until recently sprouting to 5 feet 9, a growth spurt that prompted his coach to start playing him at shooting guard and forward. He wears No. 3 this season â Paul’s number â in addition to a new pair of CP3s purchased by his father.
Jack may never want for shoes again after receiving the care package Paul intends to give him. But Paul will take possession of the more meaningful gift: a framed montage of photos showing Jack and Lisa along with a cutout of the tongue of the CP3s the mom had given her son.
They were the same shoes Jack demanded to wear last summer to the Hollywood premiere of "Let’s Be Cops," in which Jack had a small role. A director had discovered Jack from a Facebook photo of the teenager with James Conner, a college running back from Pittsburgh who is a friend of the Gallagher family. At the premiere, actress Alexandra Gilbreath wore the same CP3 shoes in a show of support.
"Here I am appalled because he’s wearing sneakers with a suit walking the red carpet," Michael Gallagher said, "and he insisted because these shoes are his connection to his mom."
Lisa watched the premiere via Skype from Duke University Medical Center, where she was undergoing experimental treatment. She died a few weeks later.
The CP3s she gave her son will always be a part of him even though they’re no longer on his feet.
"I got kind of sad," Jack said of taking them off for the last time, "because they were the last pair of shoes that my mom got me."