MIAMI — Rodney McGruder went home for Memorial Day weekend, for reasons that didn't include barbecues and beach time.
He paid tribute to people he never met.
The Miami Heat guard was part of an NBA contingent that volunteered to spend time in the Washington area with about 500 children who are part of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — TAPS, for short — over the solemn holiday weekend, trying to help continue the support for families who lost loved ones serving in the military.
The itinerary included tours of the Pentagon, a Jr. NBA clinic, roundtable discussions, mentoring sessions, grief counseling and a trip to Arlington National Cemetery to meet some of the service members who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier around the clock. Those guards walk 21 steps in one direction, turn and face the tomb for 21 seconds, and then walk 21 steps in the other direction and repeat the process.
"We learned so much about the 21 steps, protecting the Unknown Soldier tomb, so just being there and seeing the detail that they have at their job, much respect to them," said McGruder, whose Maryland home is only about 20 minutes from Arlington. "It was breathtaking just seeing all the different stones. It was tough. It was tough."
New York Knicks guard Jarrett Jack — a military kid growing up — also helped represent the NBA during the weekend events, along with Dallas assistant coach Jamahl Mosley, Sacramento assistant Bryan Gates, Portland assistant David Vanterpool and retired WNBA player Iciss Tillis. Leading the group was Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who now works as an adviser to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
"I'm very proud of the way the NBA has reached out to military servicemen and women and how that has expanded to what we're doing here this weekend, which is outreach to the survivors of the fallen," Dempsey said. "It's fantastic. What happens is we can't take away the grief and the memory of the loss, but what we can do is layer positive memories on top of it. And so these athletes and coaches being involved, it's amazing."
The kids who were part of the weekend played in a basketball clinic, but most of the questions to the NBA players and coaches had nothing to do with the game.
McGruder said many wanted to know how he's dealt with loss — not on the basketball court — and how he copes.
"You realize right away that these kids are going through some pretty tough things," McGruder said. "One of the toughest questions came from a tough female who wanted to know if I've gone through something like that. I explained to her that my mother lost her mother very young, so it's not really the same but you share how you've been through similar disadvantages."
McGruder said he came away with a deeper appreciation of what Memorial Day means, and Dempsey — a lifelong fan of the game and someone who Mike Krzyzewski used during his tenure as coach of the U.S. national team to teach the game's biggest stars about what it means to represent the country — thinks the NBA players have an important message for kids on weekends like this.
"I think with the country kind of more connected technologically than ever before, but maybe pulling itself apart more than ever before, I think sports have a huge role to play to bring a bit of leadership and maybe conscience," Dempsey said. "I'm proud to be part of that."