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A 6th grader asked a billionaire for tickets to the All-Star Game. His school got 30.

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It was already an exciting enough Friday afternoon at Marvin Elementary because billionaire Joseph Tsai, the co-founder of Alibaba (China’s version of Amazon) and co-owner of the Brooklyn Nets, was in the gymnasium, security detail on hand, to speak to students in the Chinese immersion program.

But nobody had any idea that one off-the-cuff question by a sixth grader during the question-and-answer session would turn into the invitation of a lifetime for a big chunk of the students in the room.

Tsai, in town for the NBA All-Star Game, had told organizers he wanted an unscripted, friendly visit with the 130-some students in the Chinese immersion programs at Marvin and two neighboring middle schools. So when the it came time for students to ask questions, 12-year-old Kenton Gargus shot up his hand.

He’d planned to ask Tsai for Nets star point guard D’Angelo Russell’s cell phone number, but in the moment, fired off another question instead:

“Can we have tickets to the All-Star game?”

The room exploded with laughter. Tsai made no promises. “I myself am begging (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver to give me tickets. But I’ll see what I can do,” he told the crowd.

After the assembly ended and Tsai posed for photos with students while a security detail stood to the side, nobody thought much of Kenton’s question besides giving a chuckle at the memory.

But at 5 p.m. sharp Friday, Marvin Elementary Principal Jared Worthington’s cell phone pinged as he pulled into his driveway. It was a text message from one of Tsai’s assistants: “I have 30 tickets for you and your students to attend the All-Star game on Sunday night.”

The last 36 hours have been a blur: Worthington had to figure out how to choose which students would get to go. (He settled on inviting the entire 20-student fifth-grade Chinese immersion program, plus Kenton Gargus and another sixth grader and several chaperones.)

He arranged transportation logistics, OK’d the trip with the Union County school district, and says he marveled all the while about the craziness of how it all came together.

“The kids have this amazing opportunity that comes across once in a lifetime,” Worthington said. “While we’re afraid of the logistics, all the kids are thinking about is, ‘I get to see LeBron James tonight. I get to see Kemba Walker.’ ”

One person who isn’t completely shocked by Tsai’s invitation is Queen Smith, the Marvin Elementary mom who made Tsai’s visit to Marvin Elementary happen.

Smith, a former women’s basketball coach at Yale University (where Tsai completed undergraduate and law degrees), met Tsai in China in November, when she brought her 11-year-old son, David, to China to serve as a ball boy for two Yale basketball games in Shanghai.

David struck up a conversation with Tsai in Mandarin at a post-game reception Tsai hosted for the basketball team after one of the Shanghai games, and Tsai was so impressed with his Mandarin that he promised to link up with David when he visited Charlotte during All-Star week.

tsai cropped.jpg
Joseph Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, speaks to students in the Chinese immersion program at Marvin Elementary and two neighboring middle schools. He later gave the school 30 tickets to the NBA All-Star Game. To his right is David Smith Jr., 11, who met Tsai while visiting China in November. Indre Both / Little Nest Portraits

He made good on his promise — and then some.

It’s hard to know whether Kenton Gargus, who plays competitive basketball 12 months a year, and his friends understand how impossible it is for regular people to get tickets to an NBA All-Star game.

But it’s a pretty safe bet that when they walk into the stadium on Sunday evening and find their seats in section 203 and feel the electricity of the crowd and see some of the world’s best players in front of them, the memory will etch into minds.

“I say this often to my kids ... when you have opportunities like that, you can’t take them for granted,” Queen Smith said. “I hope that out of this experience, when they are able to give back and make a difference in this world, that they remember this time.

“That’s what life’s all about.”

Cristina Bolling writes about Charlotte culture for The Charlotte Observer and most enjoys introducing readers to interesting people doing interesting things. In addition to writing about the region’s style and fashion scene, she also covers topics ranging from the arts to immigration.
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