SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Charles Barkley is never on the top of any golf leaderboards, but he’s been on the top of Preston Garrison’s favorite-person list for 20 years.
He’s been there ever since Barkley unknowingly turned Preston’s Make-A-Wish day into the memory of a lifetime.
Preston, who grew up in South Lake Tahoe, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer when he was 10 months old and given a 10 percent chance of survival. The odds were against him, but Garrison miraculously beat the cancer after going through years of various cancer treatments and chemotherapy at the University of San Francisco Medical Center.
He wasn’t cancer free for long, however. Preston was diagnosed with a different form of cancer at about age 10 that sent him through another round of chemo and cost him a kidney. It was during the second cancer fight that Preston was contacted by Make-A-Wish.
He was a huge basketball fan, and his one wish was to meet Michael Jordan. So Make-a-Wish hooked up Preston and his brother, Troy Garrison, with some celebrity golf passes and access to the locker room.
Jordan signed a jersey, baseball card and baseball and took pictures with Preston and his brother on the driving range. Maybe Preston had hyped the moment in his mind too much, but the experience wasn’t as spectacular as he had imagined it would be.
“At one point his agent said ‘I think you’re taking advantage of Mr. Jordan,’ which was kind of a turn-off,” said Dan Garrison, Preston’s father.
As part of the package deal, Preston and his brother got to go eat lunch in the clubhouse where all the players were hanging out. Barkley was up there and invited Preston and his brother to sit at their table. He had a business proposition for the boys.
Barkley told the brothers that they could offer his autograph to people for $5 and keep the money. The Garrison brothers agreed and took off to find Barkley’s fans. The idea was a hit and the boys racked in a thick stack of $5 bills.
“We probably only made $40 or $45, but when you’re 12 years old that may as well be a million dollars,” Garrison said.
At one point during the dealings, Barkley reached down and palmed Troy’s head like a basketball, easily picking him up off the ground.
“Although the cancer wasn’t necessarily life threatening at that point, it did a lot to lift my spirits. I’d been in the hospital on chemotherapy for week after week,” Preston said.
As the brothers neared 10 autographs they were willing to call it quits. Barkley, however, told the boys they would quit when he said. Looking back, Preston is amazed at that move. Barkley could have easily told the boys to get lost. He’d already given them plenty of time, but instead he let them continue to hang out and make some money.
“I think that Charles made the entire event. When I came home that night from work all I heard about was Charles Barkley,” Garrison’s father said. “Now of course we’ve framed that Jordan jersey, baseball card and picture with Jordan. It’s a treasure that Preston will have his whole life, but to this day when we bring that up you’ll hear Preston, who is a full-grown adult, say ‘Barkley is so freaking cool.’”
Preston ended up beating the odds twice. He is now 31, married, and living in Charleston, S.C., but remembers that day like it was yesterday.
“I don’t think any lifelong lessons were learned by it. It was just the memory of a lifetime. A person will never forget that day in his whole life,” Dan Garrison. “I doubt that Charles even knew that Preston had major cancer and was there for Make-a-Wish. I don’t think he even knew any of that stuff.
“He was just a cool guy, screwing around with the kids, jabbing them and having fun with them.”
Barkley was also the guy who donated $100,000 to the Angora fire victims in 2007 and hosted a dinner for about 100 local fire fighters. In 2009, he donated another $90,000 to the recovery effort.
It was a move that likely landed him on the top of many locals’ lists.