LEXINGTON, Ky. – The lights inside Rupp Arena had been off for 20 minutes, but Patrick Patterson wasn't ready to leave.
Not as long as there were still pictures to take, he said. Not as long as there were autographs to sign and fans to meet – especially the 4-year-old who had waited more than an hour after the game to talk to her favorite Kentucky basketball player.
As Patterson reached over the rail to sign the girl's program, a security guard grabbed him by the arm and directed him toward the tunnel. Rupp Arena was officially closed, the man announced. It was time for everyone to leave.
Two years later, Patterson still remembers how he felt as the girl dropped her pen, wrapped her arms around her father's leg and began to sob.
Patrick Patterson with Kentucky fan Heather Durham.
(Photo courtesy Elizabeth Allen)
"It was terrible," he said. "I didn't have any choice but to walk back over there and sign her program and take a picture with her. I couldn't make a little girl cry. She looked up at me said, 'Thank you Mr. Patterson.'"
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound Patterson paused and softened his voice.
"It really is amazing," he said, "how much power you have as an athlete, how much influence they can have on a little kid. It feels good to be able to make them smile."
Perhaps that explains why Patterson, a probable first-round pick in next summer's NBA draft, ended up in the living room of a total stranger last week. After serving as an instructor during a Kentucky's basketball camp for women, Patterson encountered a mother in the parking lot who needed a ride home because her husband had experienced car trouble.
As if offering to give her a lift wasn't enough, Patterson followed her into her home and spent 10 minutes talking with her husband – an avid Wildcats fan – and their two young sons.
Patterson approves almost everyone who requests access to his Facebook page. As of Wednesday he had 4,992 friends. One of them is Heather Durham, a 14-year-old Kentucky fan with cystic fibrosis.
Heather, who is on the waiting list for a double-lung transplant, had never met Patterson when she sent him an instant message a few months ago, so she wasn't expecting him to respond. Patterson, though, spent the following two months offering encouragement to Heather during online chat sessions.
Patterson took things a step further a few weeks ago when he showed up at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital for a surprise visit with his new friend. Heather said the two of them talked for nearly two hours.
"He was so cool," Heather said during a phone interview Monday. "He told me he'd be praying for me."
Other than the nurses taking pictures of him with their cell phones, Patterson didn't encounter any cameras or microphones or reporters as he left the hospital that day, mainly because no one knew he was there. Oftentimes visits by sports stars are organized by the athletic department and publicized with a press release.
This act of kindness, though, was all Patterson's idea and something he didn't even share with his parents or coach.
"Patrick isn't looking for attention," Kentucky's John Calipari said. "He's not out chasing ambulances. He's just doing what comes natural."
Shortly before he arrived at the hospital earlier this month, Patrick Patterson received a call from his mother.
"I can't talk right now," he told her. "I'm on my way to see a friend who's sick."
Tywanna Patterson gasped.
"Oh gosh," she said. "Whoever it is, I hope they're all right."
Unfortunately Heather Durham is not OK.
In July her cystic fibrosis progressed to the point where doctors put her on a waiting list for a double-lung transplant. Although Heather can still take part in most of the normal activities of a 14-year-old – she recently went skating – she needs the constant aid of an oxygen tank to help her breathe.
Heather was 2 when her older brother, Joshua, died of cystic fibrosis at age 6. The disease, which is inherited, causes thick, sticky mucus to build up inside the lungs and digestive tract.
"No one knows how long she has," said Elizabeth Allen, a nurse at the hospital who has grown close to Heather. "It's a waiting game right now. If she doesn't get new lungs and her condition continues to progress …"
Elizabeth, 24, stops for a moment as she thinks about Heather, who often spends the weekend at her home. Not long ago she took Heather to a shrimp boil. Last month Elizabeth and Heather stayed up until 4 a.m. window-chalking her boyfriend's car.
Because her condition has worsened, Heather is now being home-schooled in order to limit her contact with children who may be sick with something such as the flu. If new lungs become available, Heather has to be at the hospital within an hour for the transplant to begin. The procedure won't be allowed if she has an illness or infection.
As she waits for a donor, Heather spends her free time texting friends or on the computer chatting with people such as Patterson, whose hospital appearance is still a hot topic among the Durhams and their friends.
"He could've given her five minutes," Elizabeth said. "He could've said, 'Bring her by practice and I'll step away for a minute and say, 'Hi.' But for him to do this for a 14-year-old girl he'd never met, and for it to be his idea … I couldn't be more impressed."
Uplifting as the afternoon was for Heather, Patterson was touched by the visit, too.
Kentucky's Patrick Patterson shoots over Ole Miss defenders, Malcom White and Terrico White during the first round of the SEC Tournament on March 12, 2009.
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
None of it would've happened had Heather not sent a message to Patterson back in July – the same day doctors told her she had been put on the waiting list for new lungs. Heather was already one of the thousands of friends on Patterson's Facebook page but, until that day, the two had never chatted online.
"I walked into her [hospital] room, and she was like, 'He's writing back! He's writing back!'" said Allen, the nurse. "She was so excited.
"I left and went to look him up on Facebook myself so I could send him a message and tell him about Heather's condition. He responded later that night and said, 'I'd love to meet her.'"
At the time, Patterson was in San Francisco, where he spent eight weeks during the summer working with a personal trainer. Still, in his free time, he managed to keep in touch with Heather leading up to his surprise visit late last month.
Allen, who doesn't really follow Kentucky basketball and had never met Patterson, picked him up that afternoon and drove him to the hospital. She said Heather blushed and turned "15 shades of red" when Patterson walked into her room. Heather had been admitted to the hospital the previous day because of abdominal pain, but that was hardly an issue during her nearly two-hour conversation with Patterson.
Heather asked him how he liked Calipari and questioned whether he was going to grow out his hair. Patterson teased her about boys and told her about what it's like to be "stalked" on campus. Then they looked at pictures on Heather's camera.
All the while, nurses and patients crowded around the door to take pictures through the glass window. Eventually Heather pulled a curtain around her bed.
"He's here to see me," she said, laughing.
Heather's mother, Gracie, was in the room during the visit.
"Sometimes people like that will act like they don't have time for you because of their celebrity status," she said. "It's like you're not ever worth their time. But Patrick was so down to earth. It was like he'd never met a stranger."
As Patrick said his goodbyes that day, he promised Heather he'd keep in touch. He said the words Heather uttered before he left the room still stick with him.
"She told me she was scared," Patterson said. "She said she was scared she wouldn't get new lungs, scared of the operation if she did … just scared. I told her to stay strong and that everything would work out. I told her she'd be able to lead a normal life once she got those lungs."
Heather said she and her father are planning to be at Rupp Arena on Friday for Big Blue Madness so she can cheer for Patterson. She hopes to be able to talk with him but realizes that may be difficult because of the big crowd.
Whatever happens, Elizabeth Allen said Patterson has already provided an invaluable gift.
"All Heather wanted to do was meet Patrick Patterson," Elizabeth said. "I will never forget him for making that happen for her."
In the fall of 2006, while trying to decide on a college, Patrick Patterson and his parents listened to a recruiting pitch from Marshall head coach Ron Jirsa. Marshall is located in Patterson's hometown of Huntington, W.Va.
Tywanna Patterson said Jirsa tried to sell them on the notion that Patterson could star at Marshall for one season and then enter the NBA draft.
"My husband [Buster] just about went off on him," Tywanna said. "He hadn't done his homework. If he was pushing the NBA after one year he clearly didn't know anything about the Pattersons. With us, it's about education."
As successful as he's been on the court and in the community, Patterson has been equally impressive in the classroom, where he's on the verge of achieving a feat that's almost unheard of for a college athlete.
If everything goes as scheduled, Patterson, a junior, will graduate in May after only three years of college.
"That's the plan," he said.
It hasn't been easy. Patterson said he has taken 18 hours every semester since his freshman year as well as nine hours each summer. A communications major, he said he carries about a 3.0 grade point average.
For Patterson, the trek to a degree sometimes means reading text books on airplanes while other Wildcats play cards. He often passes on video game tournaments in hotel rooms with his teammates so he can work on his laptop.
Last year, following a game at Vanderbilt, Patterson said he crammed for a communications exam during a nearly four-hour bus ride from Nashville to Lexington.
"The bus pulled in about 5 a.m. and the test was at 8," he said. "I never went to sleep. I'm going to do whatever is necessary to get that degree. The opportunity is there. Why not seize it?"
Even during his pre-college years, discipline was always one of Patterson's trademarks. For that, he credits his parents. Tywanna has worked in Huntington's Social Security office the last 20 years. Before Patrick came along, Buster was based in Washington D.C. as a member of the U.S. Navy.
Patrick Patterson averaged 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds as a sophomore at Kentucky.
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
With Patrick as their only child the Pattersons did everything to make sure their son was well-rounded. Tywanna read Bible stories to Patrick while she was still pregnant with him. Eventually Patrick would learn to bowl and ice skate. He joined the Cub Scouts and placed second in the fifth grade spelling bee.
Patrick said he was one of the only members of his senior class to have a curfew. Frustrating as the situation became, it kept Patrick from running with the wrong crowd both at Huntington High – where he earned McDonald's All-American honors after leading his team to three state titles – and at Kentucky.
"Being affiliated with thugs and negative people doesn't do you any good," Tywanna said. "People in the NBA … they don't want guys without good character. It's not marketable, and it's not good for the team."
The NBA is where Patterson will likely be soon. Professional scouts have pegged him as a probable top-20 pick in the 2010 draft. He likely would've gone in the first round in last summer's draft after averaging 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds as a sophomore, but a few weeks after announcing his intentions to turn pro, Patterson withdrew his name from the pool before he ever conducted a single workout.
Along with earning his degree, Patterson said he returned because he believed Calipari – a former NBA coach – could help him become more versatile in the paint and because Kentucky has a legitimate shot at winning the national championship.
"These days," Calipari said, "unless a kid is brainwashed, they're going [to enter the draft] when they have a chance to go that high. But this kid made a decision, and he and I barely even talked about it. I just told him, 'I'm here if you need me. I'm not going to try to convince you to stay. If you want to be coached, I'd love to coach you.'"
Now Calipari, who was hired in April to replace Billy Gillispie, will get that chance.
Kentucky's season will begin in earnest when the Wildcats take the court for Big Blue Madness. With the nation's top recruiting class joining Patterson in Lexington, most preseason polls have Calipari's squad ranked among the top five teams in the country.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help take us to the top," Patterson said. "I feel like I still have a lot to prove. I want to be one of the top-10 players who ever played here. I want to be someone that fans always remember."
Patterson has already accomplished that mission. Not just because of his play on the court, but because of what he does off of it.
"I don't think a lot of athletes realize how much people are watching them," Patterson said. "People look at us as the top dogs on campus. We've got an example to set. We can influence and help so many people by just doing the little things.
"Smiling, being friendly, that kind of stuff."
"It's really not that hard," he said.