There’s a nameless game that might be the silliest and stupidest game anyone has ever played. But, if you’ve played it before -- and if you appreciate 2nd grader humor -- you also know it's hilarious. You laugh even as you realize how stupid and silly it is. In fact, you laugh because you realize how stupid it is.
I’ll call it the “Try Not To Look At The Hand” game. Because...that’s all it is. You play it with a friend. You randomly extend your arm up in the air or down towards the ground. While doing this, you do something with your fingers. Maybe you point. Or maybe you pretend like you’re holding a cup of tea. The goal is to make the other person look at your hand. If he does, you win. If he doesn’t, he wins.
And that’s the entire game.
Of the thousands of memories I have of my friend, Richard Jones, us playing this in the locker room or in the main cafeteria is the one usually thought of first when thinking about him.
I have other memories, of course.
I remember going out of my way to develop a relationship with him and the other incoming freshmen, mainly because I remembered hating one of the seniors when I was a freshman, and I didn’t want the young guys to feel that way about me. I remember laughing at him trying to do the Harlem Shake at fraternity parties. (Or, maybe it was him laughing at me. I don’t remember.) I remember his big bright teeth and quick smile. I remember being surprised at how much we -- an 18-year-old freshman from Boston and a 22-year-old “super senior” grad student from Pittsburgh -- had in common. I remember him going through a stretch of games where he struggled with his confidence. And I remember being so happy for him when he hit a three during a crucial game that I literally jumped out of my seat on the bench. I also remember us both having a slight crush on the same girl. Actually, let me rephrase that. I had a slight crush. Richard was infatuated with and memorized by her. Seriously, there were times when her name might have come up in conversation an hour ago, and midway through another conversation about basketball or sneakers or something else, Richard would say “DY, I want to talk about Dana again.” And, I remember being impressed a year later when I heard Richard and Dana had begun dating.
But, that stupid game is often the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of him. Maybe because, more than any other memory, it encapsulates his silliness, his uniqueness, and the surprising connection we had. And maybe because it provides a sudden contrast to the other memory that often immediately comes to mind when thinking of him.
May 6th made it 10 years to the day when I heard the news: Richard collapsed while in a workout with a few teammates and a couple of the coaches. He lost consciousness. Then lost his pulse. He was rushed to the hospital, but they weren’t able to revive him, and he was pronounced dead. He was 21.
In the decade since Richard passed, I've spent years trying to understand his death. It didn’t make any sense to me. (And it still doesn't.) Even my mom’s recent death, as heartbreaking as that was, made sense. I understood why she was sick, and I understood why she died. Richard, however, was a 21-year-old college athlete in peak physical condition. A kid who made it out of one of the worst neighborhoods in Boston, was on track to graduate, and was one of those guys who everyone liked. And he dies on what’s supposed to be the safest and most sacred place for a basketball player: the court.
But needing to understand something like this is a selfish want; a want not so much about Richard’s life as it is about my own mortality. Realizing this, that it’s just not meant for me to understand, allows me to appreciate Richard’s life even more. I’m grateful for the few years I was fortunate to know him. I’m grateful for the memories I have of him making me laugh and mistiming alley-oops. A small part of me is even grateful he died while doing something he loved. All ballplayers repeat the mantra about “leaving it all on the court.” My friend Richard Jones, like Reggie Lewis, Hank Gathers, and countless others before (and after) him, actually did it.
Still, I miss my friend. And today I’ll think about playing that stupid game with him. And I’ll laugh. Which is fitting, because that’s all he was trying to get me to do.