HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets involved hundreds of Santa Fe High School students, staff and first responders in the team’s Game 5 Western Conference Finals playoff pre-game ceremony Thursday.
“We are Santa Fe Strong,” the announcer yelled to screaming fans inside Toyota Center.
Wearing green and gold, Santa Fe High School students, staff and officers owned center floor before tip-off.
The school’s choir sang the national anthem. Honor students held and waved giant American and Texas flags. Along with first responders who rushed in to save students when a gunman attacked at school just six days prior, the kids heard standing ovations from Rockets fans.
The crowd cheered loudest for the 350 seniors sitting in section 412. The Rockets and oener Tilmna Fertitta gave them free seats. Four hundred officers and paramedics received the same. The students also got a 60-car police escort from Clear Lake to downtown Houston.
The school’s principal took the ceremonial first shot. Rapper and Houston native Travis Scott also paid tribute to the students.
Rockets players even wore Santa Fe patches on their jerseys.
Fertitta said he decided to do something special for survivors immediately after the shooting because the tragedy is personal.
“I grew up in Galveston County,” he said. “I played football on that field. I have lots of friends at Santa Fe. I have lots of employees today that live in Santa Fe. If we can bring 400 first responders and these 350 kids and administrators it was just something that was just an easy decision.”
He hoped the evening, which included a Rockets win, brought joy to a community in need of something to cheer.
Before answering questions about the series Friday, Chris Paul sent his condolences to those affected by the shooting, and the star guard addressed the tragedy again in an on-court interview with TNT after Tuesday night’s win.
“The city of Houston, we’re going to need you,” Paul said. “We’re going to need you Game 5. The city has been through a tough time with the things in Santa Fe. But … hopefully basketball can be a way that people can come and ease their minds if only for a second. Houston, we’re coming home.”
Santa Fe’s senior class, which is about 300 students, and administrators were invited to attend the game as guests of owner Tilman Fertitta.
Fertitta was born and grew up in Galveston, Texas, which is in the same county as Santa Fe, and hoped his gesture can help raise the spirits of students trying to find a sense of normalcy after the shooting.
“I have roots in Galveston County. Everybody knows that,” Fertitta told reporters Tuesday night. “I played on that football field in Santa Fe. We just wanted to step up … just something we can do to recognize the deceased and let the survivors have a great time.”
Proceeds from Thursday night’s charity raffle went to the Santa Fe Strong Memorial Fund.
The Rockets have joined the city’s other professional sports teams in honoring those affected by the shooting. On Tuesday, the Houston Astros donned T-shirts during batting practice that said: “Santa Fe Strong.” Houston Texans star J.J. Watt pledged to pay for the funerals of all the victims and visited with some of those wounded in the shooting at a local hospital Monday.
“We have to all come together, obviously, politicians mainly, need to come together and get it right,” Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien said. “Whatever the answer is, they need to come together and get it right because it’s got to stop happening. But what J.J. has done, nothing surprises me with J.J. He really cares about Houston. He cares about people, and it’s a great thing.”