My father was my hero and my best friend. I lost him when I was 19 years old. I am my father’s son.
These three sentences, so simple in writing yet so unbelievably complex in life, define me.
Almost 10 years since his death, I don’t have much tangible left from my dad – old photographs, ticket stubs and programs from college basketball games we attended and postcards he wrote to me from business trips fill an old cigar tin that I treasure. As is often the case, many of his personal items, including the leather jacket I treasured when I was a kid, never made it into the hands of his next of kin.
But I have this memory from the first grade, of him playing in a pickup basketball game in inner city Washington, D.C. An errant shot ricocheting off of the rim and my father, in his 40s, the oldest player by a decade, skying above the fray. All 6-feet 6-inches of him outstretched, elbows above the rim, catching the ball in his right hand, cuffing it between his wrist and forearm, his arm cocked-back behind his head like a serpent about to strike. In one explosive motion, slamming the ball through the cylinder with such force that the basket remained shaking in his wake, from the backboard down to its support, long after he had retreated back down the court.
As cliché as it may sound, the memories locked away in my brain and the life lessons stored in my heart keep my father close to me no matter where I go.
It isn’t easy growing up as a kid when your father is in the 99th percentile for height and you spend your childhood stretching to stay above the 50 percent mark, but my father continually repeated to me “It isn’t the size of the man that counts, it’s the size of his heart. ” It’s a philosophy that has stuck with me my whole life.
I never made it past 5-foot-9, but being around my dad – a larger-than-life influence – made me stop caring about my own shortcomings (fittingly one of the last things he ever said to me, ribbing me in a way that only he could while sitting in the shade of his father’s porch off of Old Billerica Road in Bedford, MA, was “you know, I always though you’d make it to 5’10”).
My father bestowed in me my love of baseball and basketball, fishing, writing, wilderness and wildlife, the works of Homer and Mark Twain and the movies of Clint Eastwood (with whom he bore more than a passing resemblance). I got my sense of humor from the ribbing he used to give me about my height (and my return volleys about his receding hairline) and my appreciation of untold stories from him. It was through him that I developed my passion for writing and a compelling narrative.
Growing up I was a very nervous kid, not about something happening to me, but to the people I cared about. I would often turn to my father for reassurance. Ever the tough-love realist, he told me that I was going to outlive him, but that he would always be with me, emphasizing the point by touching my chest on my heart.
He was right.
In November 2003, my father was riding his bike along the Minuteman Bikeway from his home in Bedford to his work in Cambridge. He was struck by a van where it crosses Bedford Road in Lexington. He should have died instantly. Ever the tough old man, he lived for another month and a half.
When my father died, it left a void in my soul impossible to fill. My dad was literally always there for me; not in the babying, doing my work and picking up my slack sort of way, but in a way that I knew I could always turn to him for advice, guidance, help and support: the summer before his accident, my dad had kicked me in the butt to get back together with my former girlfriend, and now wife, Diana (putting aside his own discomfort over the fact that she was African-American). When my best friend took his life, my dad was, of course, the first person to race over and see me.
In his absence I threw away a chance at a career playing professional baseball because it simply wasn’t fun anymore; what had once been my passion, was now only a reminder of his absence.
But then something strange happened. All through his accident, his vegetative stay at the Lahey Clinic and a futile tenure at Spalding Rehab, I would go to America East basketball games.
Attending games in the small, overlooked conference along the back roads of the northeast was a tradition we had started together, along with my younger brother, Noah, when I was in high school. Prior to that, we had Refused to Lose with John Calipari and Umass. My father himself had been a Minuteman following a career as a rebounding machine, defensive stopper, big-time dunker and all around brawler (the story goes that, in one particularly chippy game, after his point guard was clothesline on a fast-break, he responded by KO-ing the offending player, and then punching-out said players father after he came onto the court, setting off an all-out melee) at Bedford High School.
After the Bruiser Flint-led Minutemen became too tough to stomach, we fell into the America East.
Looking back, I think it was the narrative of the America East, a tiny conference where overlooked players with oversized hearts and undersized bodies (by traditional basketball standards) spend their entire careers leaving it all on the court far from the spotlight, that appealed to my father, and he passed that on to me.
All through his time in the hospital, I sat through America East games, watching Ryan Butt (one of my father’s favorite players because of how unique a player he was – a 280 pound center seemingly without a drop of athleticism, who could dominate far taller and more athletic players) drop 20 on St. Joseph’s after getting his nose broken.
When my father died, I began my own personal journey to try to hang on to what was left of my father. For the better part of a decade, I have chased his ghost through the empty arenas and glorified high school gyms of the America East. Along the way, I’ve met, become friends with, and shared my father’s story to countless players who he watched and respected (Butt, Nick Billings Austin Ganly, the late Trevor Gaines, Stijn Dhondt, Jerell Parker, T.J. Sorrentine, Taylor Coppenrath, Levi Levine, Matt Turner, Billy Collins and hundreds more). Along the way, I launched this website and began to feel closer to him.
My father wasn’t there when I graduated college, when I had a cup of coffee and a moment in the sun in professional ball, when I got engaged, received my master’s degree, or on my wedding day.
But he has always been with me.
Two and a half decades later, when I close my eyes, I can still see the basket in Washington, D.C. and it is still shaking from the impact of his.
And even though I can’t see him, I can still feel his impact on me.