UCLA’s Hayden Nelson, Clippers’ Reggie Jackson give gift of their time

You never know what’s lurking on the other side.

And you better watch out, it might be something genuinely, properly … sweet.

Like those belly laughs coming from the other side of the wall Monday evening at Harold & Belle’s, a creole restaurant in Los Angeles. The other diners there that night couldn’t have known it emanated from a party including Reggie Jackson – aka Mr. June, the Clippers’ star conversationalist and playoff hero a couple of seasons ago.

With his brother, girlfriend and a handful of Clippers staffers in tow, the 32-year-old guard spent a couple of hours entertaining two families from the Salvation Army Westwood Transitional Village, a facility that gives families who’ve experienced homelessness a place to stay while they get stabilized.

Or how about those video game players destroying the competition at Fortnite around lunchtime last Wednesday? No way their online opponents, similarly anonymous, could have pictured the pair on the other end of that Battle Royale.

They couldn’t have known they were getting beat by a 6-foot-4, 248-pound UCLA linebacker and his 8-year-old pal. The star of this duo: Irvin Aguilar, the small boy with supremely fast-twitch fingers sitting cross-legged in Yoda pajama pants and Spider-man socks, an elaborate rig of tubes and monitors beside him.

Hayden Nelson, a 20-year-old redshirt freshman on the Bruins’ football team, often spends time at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital so he can hang out with kids like Irvin, who has been there for months, unable to leave and go to school or play outside with friends.

Although free time is a rare commodity for a collegian with football responsibilities and an eye on his international development studies major, Nelson will come to spend his at the hospital, usually playing video games.

Yes, video games. They aren’t always the brain-numbing time suck we moms might assume; they can be therapeutic, something fun that can help kids cope with tough situations, said Anna Pubustan, the child life specialist with whom Nelson coordinates his visits.

That’s why Nelson bought the hospital a portable gaming station, fundraising $3,000 to add to the $2,000 he earned from an internship with Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s nonprofit Athletes for Hope.

Are these acts kind? Yes. Helpful? For sure. Random? No way.

Jackson wanted to connect with families who shared a military background, and so some of his guests served in the Navy; Jackson’s father was in the Air Force.

For Nelson, his experience being hospitalized after suffering a posterior dislocation of his sternoclavicular joint in his final high school football game in Wisconsin led him toward the hospital a few paces from the Bruins’ practice field.

“I knew how scary these places can be sometimes,” said Nelson, who was fortunate to overcome that rare injury, which can be fatal, and which re-routed him from Syracuse, where he had a scholarship waiting, to UCLA, where he walked on after he realized there was football in front of him still.

“When the coaches are trying to kill us during workouts and stuff, you can look up at the windows of the hospital and you know these kids would do anything to be in our situation,” Nelson said. “So that kind of made me think: ‘What better way to give it back than the Mattel Children’s Hospital on campus?’”

Monday’s event marked the first time Jackson broke bread with community members like Hanson Sheldon Mathews Sr. and family, but the Clippers guard also has helped out at food drives that the team participates in, boogieing as he does on the court while handing off bags of groceries.

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (center right) spent Monday evening at Harold & Belle’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles, dining and conversing with two families in transitional housing. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Clippers)

But he insists, “I ain’t no role model. I’m just being me. I’m just blessed to be here.”

Nelson, though, hopes his practice of checking in on the fifth floor at the hospital on campus will catch on, whether it’s with his peers on the football team or athletes in other sports. Perhaps even across town at USC.

And why not with you and me, too?

“I think more people than you think are looking for ways to help out,” Nelson said. “There’s kind of waiting for that push, a gentle push in the right direction. So now I feel like (his teammates) kind of got that push and some guys have come in, and I’m sure once the season’s over and their life is a little less busy, we’ll probably see a lot more people coming in.

“But that was my ultimate goal, to shine a light on this situation and opportunity.”

Physical gifts are one thing, because you can’t order strength or size off a menu, can’t put talent on a wish list for Santa.

But the relatable and replicable act of giving your time? (Or if perhaps your heart can’t bear hospitals, donating Fortnite V-Bucks so young Irvin can put his player in fresh outfits?)

It’s the not-so-flashy, everyday stuff – a meal, a video game – that’s really impressive, really impactful, really real.

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