We’ll talk about the Steelers. He’ll reiterate they need to draft “one of those athletic Black quarterbacks” next year. I’ll say we have bigger holes to fill than at quarterback. We’ll both joke about how Mike Tomlin gets so angry at press conferences after losses that it looks like his eyes will pop out of his head.
We’ll also talk about the weather. News one of my aunts told him over the phone about one of my cousins. The deer family in his backyard. The raccoon family in his garbage cans. A new steak rub he saw on the Food Network. How my car is holding up. My job. Area crime. Obama. White people. A Roots CD I gave him. Terrelle Pryor. Cristo Redentor. If Ray Donovan is any good. My nephew. My knee.
We will then talk about the only thing worth talking about: basketball. And it will remind us why we need to talk about basketball now. Especially now. It will be a familiar conversation. We will both smile. And this will make us both sad.
To know why I love basketball is to know why I love my dad. He introduced me to the game when I was six. My birthday is Dec. 30th, the Harlem Globetrotters appear in Pittsburgh in late December of every year, and he took me to see them as a birthday present. Interest piqued, I’d watch the NBA playoffs with him, and listen as he explained where Earvin Johnson got his nickname from and why dunks weren’t worth any extra points. I’d implore him to buy basketball magazines for me—Hoops and Basketball Digest especially. He take me to basketball courts. We’d shoot around before anyone else got there; me working on my touch and him rebounding my misses while reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. Older guys would start to come. My dad would play with them, and I’d sit on the bleachers, watching and waiting for my opportunity to sweat the way they did.
As years passed, the basketball jones continued to grow. We’d shoot 500 jumpshots a day every summer. Me counting my makes, he reminding me to be mindful of my follow through. I’d grown big enough to finally play with the older guys, and he’d always pick me on his team, reminding me to shoot when I was open and hit the open man. He’d drive me to my AAU games and sit in the stands. After the games, he’d make sure to tell me I played well. During drives home, he’d let me know which rotations I missed and why it was my fault when I threw that no-look pass to that guy who dropped it out of bounds because he wasn’t ready for it. We’d watch college and NBA games together at home. He’d point out bad body language, and we’d both instinctively grunt “Eh!” when Tim Hardaway or Mark Price or Chris Jackson made someone look silly. During breaks in the action, he’d quiz me on NBA history.
“What college did Oscar Robertson go to?”
“Eh…wait…I got it. Cincinnati, right?”
High school and college were versions of the same process. We didn’t practice together anymore—he was approaching 50, and I’d just work on my game by myself—but he still came to every game and still gave me the same advice. The grunts still occurred while watching college and NBA games, but they were peppered between us pointing out where Robert Horry mistakenly “popped” instead of “rolled” after setting a pick and theoretical debates pitting a 2001 Allen Iverson against a 1989 Isiah Thomas.
He’d also make sure to let me know how much he enjoyed watching me play basketball.
We’re both adults now, living on two separate sides of the same city. I’m busy. Not as busy as I say I am. But still busy. And, for the past few years, we haven’t watched as many games together as we did before.
This year will be different though.
While the story of my dad and I can not be told without basketball, the story of my dad, my basketball, and I can not be told without my mom.
My mom did not have much of an athletic background, and did not know a thing about basketball. But, she was the one who thought it would be a good idea to take me to see the Harlem Globetrotters. When my dad would forget to buy me a USA Today—necessary because the Pittsburgh newspapers didn't always carry NBA box scores—or the latest Basketball Digest, she’d run to the newsstand and get me a copy. She’d make us bottles of ice water and lemonade to take with us when going to the court. And, when we got back home, she’d note how the sun made us a half-shade darker that day and tease us for smelling like “the cement.”
She’d sit next to my dad at each of my games, listening to him explain what a 1-3-1 zone is and making sure to cheer loud enough for me to hear her. She paid for sneakers, shorts, jerseys, registration fees, trips, and even a new basketball when a stray dog ate my old one. I know she’d get annoyed with how much basketball my dad and I watched. But, sometimes she’d sit and watch with us. And sometimes she’d play mediator to my dad and I’s debates. My dad always thought she sided with me. I always felt like she sided with my dad. I guess that made her a good mediator.
When I tore the ACL in my left knee the summer after my freshmen year in college, she bathed me when I was still too weak and sore to move on my own. And, when I doubted I’d ever be able to recover, she reminded me to be patient and continue with my rehab. She was right.
The story of my mom, my dad, my basketball, and I came to an end Friday, October 18th, 2013. After a year long battle with lung cancer, my mom died.
I miss my mom. As much as I miss my mom, I know my dad misses her more. She was the story of him. She was his best friend.
I’m going to watch more games with my dad this year. We’ll talk about Kyrie Irving. The Heat. If Pitt is going to be any good this year. If he can still beat me in horse. (No.) Shaq’s suits. Carmelo’s follow-through. We’ll debate. We’ll dissect. We’ll laugh. And it will feel almost right.
We’ll both miss my mom. And it will remind us why we need to talk about basketball now. Especially now. We'll smile. And this will make us both sad. But we’ll both get through it. We need to finish our story.