Deontae Shuler peered up from his mobile hospital bed into the eyes of Orlando Magic superstar center Dwight Howard, rarely even blinking so not to miss a moment of what was happening.
Ten-year-old Deontae is paralyzed from the neck down after his bicycle was struck by a car near Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando on the afternoon of Feb. 8. But for one night at least, the pain and depression that had set in since the accident faded as Deontae not only got to meet Howard, but also got to share an intimate conversation with his hero.
Howard, the Magic's franchise center and a six-time All-Star, had sent a signed picture to Deontae's hospital last week upon hearing about the youngster's difficult plight. But on Monday night, Howard took several minutes out of his pregame routine to share stories and jokes with Deontae on a personal level.
Howard pulled a wristband off his arm and slid it over Deontae's tiny left wrist. Howard's massive hands engulfed those of Deontae's as he squeezed his hands and talked about the power of prayer and laughter. Deontae's eyes lit up as if they were running off electricity and joy filled his blushed cheeks.
The larger-than-life image on the cover of Deontae's video game was standing right before him, offering up encouragement, gifts and most of all total support.
"Since the accident, this is absolutely the happiest that Deontae's been," said Marcus Shuler, Deontae's uncle. "It's amazing to see how happy and excited that he is right now."
In addition to taking home a No. 12 Howard jersey, several pictures, an autographed ball from the Magic and a lifetime of memories, Deontae got to watch Orlando throttle the Detroit Pistons from the Club Level at the Amway Center. Earlier in the night, from a spot just outside of the Magic's locker room, Deontae was greeted by Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, Jameer Nelson, Glen ``Big Baby'' Davis, Daniel Orton and Justin Harper.
But it was Howard, who clearly made the biggest impression on the doe-eyed 10-year-old. Prior to suffering spinal cord and brain injuries, Deontae had dreams of someday being an NBA player. He would play basketball on a daily basis. And when indoors he was usually playing the video game with Howard on the cover or watching Magic games on television.
Howard was blown away that Deontae's one wish was to meet him before he eventually heads off to Atlanta to begin a long rehabilitation process. Several times during Monday's meeting, Howard leaned in close, held the kid's hand and promised that he would be praying for him.
"I was just trying to talk to him and encourage him because I know things are bad for him right now. He needs some motivation and some hope and that's what I was trying to provide," Howard said. "He just wanted to come here and meet me – that was his only wish. I'm just so blessed and humbled to be able to help a kid like him out however I can."
According to physicians and nurses caring for Deontae, depression has been a huge issue following his accident and paralysis. But two topics that usually bring a smile to the 10-year-old's face are Magic basketball and Howard.
"He is a huge Dwight Howard fan and he loves the Orlando Magic. He loved basketball and always played it lots before the accident," Marcus Shuler said.
"He was so happy when I told him we were coming to the (Magic-Pistons) game. The whole week he's been smiling and happy. The two nurses came in and asked him if he knew what he was doing and he said, `Yeah, I'm going to the Magic game to see Dwight.'"
Upon being struck by the car while crossing the busy road on his bicycle, Deontae's body was vaulted several feet into the air. His life was likely saved by an ICU worker who just so happened to be on the scene and CPR was started immediately on his unresponsive body.
Deontae was in a coma for almost two months, but has since improved gradually. He's now fully awake and interactive, able to talk and communicate. Seconds into his conversation with Howard, he asked in amazement, "How did you get so tall?"
Howard told him of how he used to be the smallest kid in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood, but prayed nightly that he would someday grow so that he could be a great basketball player. Howard said his chiseled 6-foot-10, 275-pound frame is proof positive of the power of prayer.
"I was just telling him to pray and keep believing that he can overcome this, and I hope that he can," Howard said. "With all of the stuff that I've been going through it's good for me to talk to someone like Deontae and find out about his story. We've been through a lot of adversity this year as a team, but it's inspiring to me to see how this kid is fighting to try and overcome the adversity in his life."
Deontae suffered an irreversible spinal cord injury, is paralyzed from the neck down and cannot breathe on his own. He is dependent on adults for his care and has a tracheotomy requiring 24-hour support from a breathing machine.
But for a night on Monday, the muscular guy on the cover of the video game came to life and Deontae got to take home one of his hero's wristbands and jersey. Uncle Marcus took roughly three dozen pictures and several minutes of videos on his phone and he predicted the two would undoubtedly sit and relive the moment again and again in the days and weeks to come.
"He is Dwight Howard's biggest fan,"' Marcus said of Deontae. "This is just so cool for him to be able to meet Dwight."