For Tom Penn, his involvement with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a simple concept.

“It’s a big time, change-the-world place. And so it’s really more of a privilege to be associated with it,” said Penn, the Blazers’ vice president of basketball operations. He has has served on the hospital’s Board of Governors since 2002, when he was in Memphis, as the Grizzlies’ assistant general manager, and became aware of the work the local hospital was doing for children facing cancer and other catastrophic diseases.

The brainchild of the late actor and producer Danny Thomas, St. Jude’s treats children who come there for all illnesses regardless of the family’s ability to pay, and has become one of the world’s leading research centers for studying potential cures for pediatric cancers. Since it opened in 1962, according to the hospital’s Web site, five-year survival rates for Hodgkin’s Disease have improved from 50 percent to 90 percent; for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the rates have increased from seven percent to 85 percent. Five-year rates for acute lymphoblastic leukemia have increased from four percent to 94 percent. St. Jude’s hasn’t done all the work in improving those numbers, but the hospital has been front and center in working on new treatments.

Now in Portland, Penn is trying to grow his singular passion into a league-wide connection.

Mainly through word of mouth, he organized dinners in Las Vegas the last two years during the NBA Summer League (full disclosure: I was honored to emcee last year’s get-together). An auction of 60 signed rookie jerseys organized by Timberwolves forward Kevin Love raised more than $26,000 in 2008, and St. Jude’s is now the official charity of the Vegas Summer League.

This season, six players — Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay, Lakers forward Pau Gasol, Pacers forward Danny Granger, Rockets forward Shane Battier, Blazers guard Steve Blake and Love — and Nuggets coach George Karl, have each committed to donate $20,000 to St. Jude’s, as part of the Hoops for St. Jude’s program. In addition, autographed items from Kevin Durant, Mike Bibby, Jeff Green, Greg Oden and other NBA players are available for fundraising bid on eBay all year at the Hoops for St. Jude website.

“To be in Memphis, and see those kids day in and day out, how they’re suffering, you have to give back,” said Gay, who’s visited St. Jude’s several times since coming to the Grizzlies in 2006. “If you look at their faces, you see that they’re suffering, what they go through. They don’t care about the circumstances; they’re just glad to see you.”

Another initiative will take place from March 1-7, when St. Jude’s hopes to line up players from every team in the league to donate for every point they score that week. At the same time, kids in schools around the country will also be doing fundraisers for the hospital, which had more than $528 million in expenses for fiscal year 2008, according to a Better Business Bureau review of the hospital’s charity and fundraising arm.

“What I’m really excited about here is that so much of the NBA family has embraced it, starting with the dinners in Las Vegas,” Penn said. “That’s really exciting, to have professional players oln the court at the same time, on the same day, at the same time fifth graders are doing it in PE class. For the athletes, it’s just phenomenal to have them in a leadership role on this. Because they’re involved, others will get involved.”