Last week, Knicks rookie RJ Barrett went to pick up a package for his grandmother. He didn’t even get out of the car, but someone recognized him from afar. And it blew his mind.
“I really forgot that I play in the NBA,” he tells The Post. “It’s such a different reality that we’re in right now.”
The 19-year-old is riding out the coronavirus lockdown with his family in Orlando, Fla., playing video games, chilling with his French bulldogs, Kobe and Kingston, and bonding with his little brother, Nathan. It’s a bizarre new world for the 6-foot-7 shooting guard who only knows the frenetic pace of a ballplayer’s life. But while he had to shake the cobwebs to remember his status as one of league’s promising young stars, he has not forgotten his adopted hometown of New York and all of the people frantically fighting to keep the city whole as it remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have been following social media and watching the news, seeing how things have been getting drastically worse. What really struck me is all of the workers in the hospital. These people are risking their lives and they go home and stay in the same house as their family and kids. I wanted to see what I could do to help,” said Barrett, who was particularly heartbroken to see coverage of Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center in Brownsville, a facility so overwhelmed by the deadly virus that an ER doctor there called it a “medical war zone.”
“My mom grew up in Brooklyn. My family is there, and it hit me a little extra harder. We need to protect those workers as much as they are protecting us.”
His team reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s staff to see where it could plug the most gaping holes. The answer was always the same: New York hospitals were desperate for PPE. So his team embarked on an odyssey to source face masks, disposable face shields, KN95 masks, gowns and microporous disposable coveralls from distributors all around the world. They will be distributed to Brookdale and Gov. Cuomo’s relief efforts.
From there, team Barrett drew up a play to maximize his donation power and ensure that every move was done with purpose.
“I just wanted to get people what they needed,” Barrett said. And it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.
After reading stories that shoes aided the spread of coronavirus, the Puma athlete teamed up with the sneaker company to donate over 1,000 pairs of sneakers and slippers across Brookdale, Maimonides Hospital and Credit Valley Hospital in Canada so medical workers could leave their contaminated shoes at work and have fresh gear to wear home.
Barrett also looked north to his Canadian homeland, where the virus caused a very different crisis: depleting food bank supplies. He dropped $100,000 to the Mississauga food bank, which has nine locations throughout Ontario.
“I just spoke to them and they said the donation was going to be able to provide 200,000 meals and that put a smile on my face,” Barrett said.
Then he turned to his colleagues, the folks who keep the engine running at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“I love playing at Madison Square Garden. I am cool with the security guards. Everyone that works at MSG, they take care of me so much,” Barrett said. “I thought about all they do for us. They are such amazing people.”
He gave $25,000 to MSG Relief Fund, which provides employees with financial assistance for a variety of areas including unanticipated healthcare costs, rent, food, medicine and other expenses.
After all of the checks cashed and the equipment shipped, Barrett’s assist was worth $250,000.
“If we can make their lives a little easier and help people survive, that’s what it’s all about,” he said
Meanwhile Barrett is trying to keep in shape and stave off boredom.
“I do regular kid stuff like play video games,” said Barrett who is going for runs and working out on equipment in his home. He is watching old games of hoops.
“I am watching old NBA playoffs, women’s college basketball, tons of basketball. And I can’t wait for the MJ documentary to come out,” he said of the highly anticipated 10-part documentary “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty.
And he of course watched all the reactions on social media to his friend Sabrina Ionescu getting selected first overall in the WNBA draft on Friday night by the Liberty.
“I was hype for her. She will love New York,” Barrett said. “She is perfect for this city.”
Barrett says it will be cool to hit up restaurants and explore the Big Apple with Ionescu when everything comes back to life.
“What I really want to do is go to a game,” he said. “Maybe she can hook me up.”
As for his fellow Knicks, he is always in touch.
“I speak to my teammates and we try to check in. Especially with the New York staff. Everyone seems to be doing OK and trying to see how we can help. We all really miss playing basketball.”
This struggle has given Barrett a new perspective. “Life is short. This has taught me to be thankful. Be grateful for every single moment you spend with your family. I am blessed that we are safe and healthy and together.”