It’s Wednesday afternoon, just past 5 p.m., and San Antonio Stars guard Shay Murphy is filling dinner plates with egg rolls. She is laughing, recalling the bread sticks she served a week ago, and cutting up with teammate Alex Montgomery in the cafeteria at Haven for Hope, where more than 500 hungry residents are waiting to be fed.

“Give me the simple stuff,” Murphy offers in a light, self-deprecating tone. “I’m the worst cook ever.”

Murphy has come not to cook but to serve. The previous week, she and several teammates, along with Coach Vickie Johnson, served 400 meals at Haven for Hope. Before the season ends, Murphy hopes to serve at least another 1,000. Numbers do not drive her. People in need do.

Two days after the Stars acquired her in a trade with Phoenix on June 28, Murphy approached the team’s director of media relations, Rebecca Sweat, with a request.

“Hey, Rebecca,” said Murphy, a 32-year-old WNBA veteran, “I want to feed the homeless. Can you set something up?”

Haven for Hope serves more than 65,000 meals a month to the homeless. The 22-acre campus provides food and shelter as well as resources and programs to help homeless people become self-sufficient. Murphy had never heard of the nonprofit or its reputation. But Sweat knew Haven’s mission would fit perfectly with Murphy’s passion.

So here she is, serving dinner, chatting with residents, connecting with people who remind the 5-foot-11 shooting guard a little of herself.

Murphy’s father died in a car accident when she was 12. Shay and her younger brother, George, grew up in Van Nuys, California, with a single mother, Pauletta, a radio dispatcher for AAA.

“Times were hard,” said Pauletta, 61. “I used to go to the churches to get food until I got paid.”

Basketball paid for college and set Shay up for a nice post-graduate career. At USC, Shay not only developed into one of the nation’s best players – the 15th overall pick in the 2007 WNBA draft – she found her passion to serve. Toward the end of her junior year, Shay volunteered with Food on Foot, an outreach to the homeless in Los Angeles. Each Sunday, Shay and other volunteers fed hundreds in a parking lot.

“I had always had this idea that only rich people can donate, that only rich people can help those that are less fortunate,” she said. “But the older I got, I realized you don’t need a million dollars to donate and help people. Sometimes, it’s just a smile. Sometimes, it’s just a hug.”

The Food on Foot outreach inspired Shay to serve in other ways. Her mother recalls the time Shay drove past a bus stop and saw a woman with two children. Shay picked them up and drove them home, not knowing the family lived 20 minutes away.

“Shay was with Chicago at the time and gave complete strangers a ride home,” Pauletta said. “Shay remembered when we would be at a bus stop when she was young and wished that someone would give us a ride. The lady she drove home called and thanked me for what Shay did. Shay loves to give.”

When Shay played for Ros Casares, a pro team in Godella, Spain, she and a friend organized a basketball camp for young girls. Shay donated sneakers, socks, and wristbands to the campers. She also provided food so one mother could feed her daughter.

“She’s been doing that for a long time,” Pauletta said.

What especially touches Pauletta is when Shay and her brother, George, a realtor, reach out to the homeless together.

“She and my son both get Ziploc bags and put dollars and scriptures in there,” Pauletta said. “If I die tomorrow, at least I know both of my kids made a difference on this earth. I am very proud of them.”

Two years ago, Shay tore ligaments in her left knee while playing in Europe. After coming home at Christmas to rehabilitate, she felt particularly patriotic and inspired to try something new. So she began a movement to buy lunch on Thursday for a stranger. She called it “#BLT” – buy lunch Thursday.

“For a whole year, every Thursday, I would buy a random stranger lunch,” she said. “I didn’t care if they were rich or poor, I  would just go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to buy you lunch.’ They were like, ‘No, thanks. I don’t need that.’ And I’d say, ‘Please, sir.” I would have to beg certain people to do it. I’ve done this in South America. I’ve done this in Europe. It’s really fun.”

Stars players assemble dinner plates prepping meals for Haven for Hope residents.
Stars players assemble dinner plates for Haven for Hope residents. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Teammates from Shay’s WNBA and European teams joined her. When they bought someone lunch on Thursday, they posted photos on social media.

After more than a decade of purposeful and random acts of kindness, it seemed natural for Shay to lead teammates to Haven for Hope. On the court, she is averaging 3.4 points a game. Off the court, Shay may be the team’s most valuable community servant. She is scheduled to make three more visits to Haven for Hope before the season ends in September.

“She’s an amazing person,” Johnson said. “This is bigger than basketball. We were put on this earth to serve others, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The residents at Haven for Hope thank Shay for serving them. She smiles, shakes her head, and insists she is the one who should be thanking them. Nothing feels better, she says, than putting a smile on someone else’s face.

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.