A Magical Act
He made a red cloth disappear and reappear in his hand. He showed one student how to make a rope stand straight up, then fall limp. After a few tricks, Saunders started to spin a basketball on his finger. When he brought one of the students out the audience to spin a ball on her finger like him, she said she couldn�t do it.
�Do you know what today is about?� said Saunders, leaning toward the girl as he picked up a second ball. �Being able to do anything you want to do when you put your mind to it.�
Then Saunders spun the ball onto the young girl�s finger. The ball spiraled away only after the crowd � which included Pistons Dale Davis, Flip Murray and the Detroit Shock�s Elaine Powell � had broken into applause.
Saunders was so impressive that some of the students � like Tim Hafke, 11, a fifth-grader from West Bloomfield, and his sister, Betsy, 10, a fourth-grader � said the magician was one of their favorite parts of the assembly, though they didn�t seem to realize he was a bit of a sports celebrity.
�I liked when the guy, he had (students) come on up and he had the ball in his hand,� Betsy said.
Yet Saunders was just a small part of an incredible afternoon at the Eton Academy in Birmingham, where on Monday the Pistons-Palace Foundation and its corporate partners � Rock Financial, Sprite, Detroit Medical Center, Belle Tire, Absopure, Bowling Centers Association of Southeastern Michigan, National City, Tim Horton's and Metro PCS � joined the Eton staff and students for the grand opening ceremony of its 13th Live, Learn and Play Center.
The Live, Learn and Play Centers, part of the NBA Cares and Read to Achieve initiatives, undertake renovations at various schools and youth centers in an effort to enhance learning environments. Many of these renovations are for a library or resource center, but at Eton, a private school for students from kindergarten to high school with learning difficulties, the Pistons-Palace Foundation decked out four new rooms with everything from 30 desktop computers to a fresh coat of paint.
Saunders would probably be the first to admit his sleight of hand will be insignificant compared to the magic that will take place as students benefit from this extraordinary project over the years.
�I can�t say enough about the Pistons organization, the NBA Cares program, and all the sponsors for making this come true for Eton,� said Eton Academy Head of School Pete Pullen. �We would have never, ever been in this place, this soon, without the help and I can�t say enough for [executive director of the Pistons-Palace Foundation, Dennis Sampier], his staff, and the leadership of this organization. It�s amazing.�
�This is all about you�
Eton Academy already was pretty unique when the Pistons-Palace Foundation partnered with it six months ago. Eton students come from seven counties in Michigan and more than 50 cities, each faced with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia or ADHD.
With small class sizes and individualized instruction to help students overcome their hurdles, 80 percent of Eton students go on to college after graduation. By comparison, only 14 percent of learning-challenged persons in the general population go to college, and most will not graduate.
�This is all about you,� Pullen said to the students Monday. �The Pistons-Palace Foundation is all about helping kids and the community, and the reason why they chose to help us is because they were inspired by you all � your courage, your dedication to learning, and all the amazing potential that you have, so I want you to give yourselves a hand.�
To help Eton meet all of its needs, the Pistons-Palace Foundation outfitted four rooms, making it one of the most expansive and comprehensive renovation projects by an NBA team. The rooms included a state-of- the-art computer lab with special software that helps students with reading comprehension; a library with new furniture, carpeting and even a �reading court,� a replica basketball court with Pistons beanbag chairs; an adjoining room that is a coffeehouse-type lounge for high school students; and a resource room.
Sampier explained that the resource room is truly special, a gift to the entire community.
�In our wonderful partnership with the staff at Eton, the Pistons created the Detroit Pistons Resource Room. It now contains hundreds of books and resources that parents can review if they believe their child may have a learning difference,� Sampier said. �The topics range from dyslexia to ADHD to vision impairment to Down syndrome and so many others. So now anyone can call the school, make an appointment, and visit the room without any affiliation to Eton Academy. The resource room was designed to inspire hope as well as to share knowledge so these parents can create a path toward helping their children both short term and long term.�
Senior Nate Attard, 18, from Commerce, got a sneak peak at the renovations before the ribbon cutting.
�It was well put together. The rooms are amazing. They did a great job,� Nate said. �It�s actually amazing. Some of the rooms were not even filled with stuff (before), so that�s really good. And the library � oh my gosh, that�s really nice. The coffee shop in there � I wish I was coming back [next year], just for the coffee shop.�
�It�s really nice,� said senior Daniel Bryan, 18, from Plymouth, who was on one of the computers in the literacy lab. He explained one of the programs could scan a page from a book and dictate it to the reader through a pair of headphones. This is a helpful practice for students who learn better by hearing the words rather than reading them. � I haven�t seen technology quite like this in a long time.�
�Eton Academy certainly presented us with a unique challenge,� Sampier said. �Having students with learning differences, they had very specific needs, and I believe that the greatest asset that the Pistons organization provided for this particular project was the advanced-learning software.�
�He really wanted to be here�
Nate and Daniel each performed in the assembly. Nate and fifth-grader Noah Sussick, 11, had the crowd clapping along for their hip-hop dance routine. Sixth-graders Rachel Cherry and Annarose Lemire performed a modern dance number and then Bryan strummed Green Day�s �Time of Your Life� on his guitar.
�It was a great presentation, a great program, (watching) these kids out here showing their talents,� said Pistons center Dale Davis, who has provided scholarship and run after-school programs through his own foundation in addition to his work with the Pistons.
�It was just a great overall event,� Davis said. �As far as Flip�s magic, he kind of surprised me as well. I told him he was going to have teach me a couple of those things.�
Saunders opened his act by complimenting the student performers, and then shared a little bit about himself with the audience.
�I always love the dancing,� he said. �I�ve got three daughters and they�re all dancers so I always get into watching all the dancing. I went to a lot of recitals and spent eight hours a day watching recitals, so I�m not expert but I can judge it pretty well, and (Bryan�s) singing was unbelievable.�
When Saunders pulled out the basketballs, he bounced one off his head, off his knee, and to the other hand, each time safely returning the ball to his right index finger, still spinning. For the finale, Saunders pulled a Superman action figure out of his back pocket � �he�s the best spinner in the world,� he said � and placed the �world� on the Man of Steel�s plastic fist.
That really got the attention of his audience, and Saunders used it to tell them something he didn�t want them to forget.
�We�re here for you, so take advantage of it,� Saunders said. �It�s been a pleasure for us to come out here. Have a great time the rest of the day.�
When he was first introduced, Saunders mentioned that he was not scheduled to appear but asked to participate when he learned about Eton Academy, which is not far from his own Birmingham neighborhood.
The younger students may not have known who Saunders was, but that message stuck with some of the high school students.
�[It was cool] just the fact he really wanted to be here and do it,� said Emma Schwartz, a 10th grader from Birmingham. �I mean he really wanted to help us out. That was pretty sweet.�
An NBA coach who shows up out of the blue?
You could almost say it was magic.