My college roommate called his father every time something significant happened in the NBA world. They both had NBA League Pass — even though my roommate didn’t technically watch games with his father, he might as well have been in his dad’s living room. When their favorite player Kobe Bryant erupted (I know — how the hell did I end up with a roommate like that?), they spoke on the phone in reverent terms. When Brandon Roy dropped 52 points on the Phoenix Suns and couldn’t miss if Hurricane Irene swept through the gym during his follow through, my roommate phoned his father and knew he had been watching. They raved about Roy for hours. My roommate could come off as surly, but underneath the prickly outside he was anything but. Very few people saw his sensitive side but every night when he spoke to his father, it was evident.
His father loved basketball and he stayed in great shape playing it five or six times a week. He organized a pickup game every weekend. His friends ranged from 60 years old to 20. He could relate to everyone in the gym because he spoke everyone’s language — Basketballese, in case you didn’t know, is a universal dialect. When my roommate didn’t have college to worry about, he attended the pickup games too. He couldn’t forge his own identity at the gym though. There, he would forever be known as his father’s son. He didn’t need any other identity, though. That was all he ever wanted, to play hoops and discuss it and argue about it and to do so under his father’s wing.
I never saw my roommate’s father play hoops, but from what I hear they played the same style — the basketball wasn’t leaving their hands unless it was directed at the hoop. To them, “passing” was what one did when he didn’t know the answer to a question at school. The word didn’t have any basketball meaning to them, at least until they were screaming at a teammate to surrender the fucking ball. They argued on the court too, incessantly. Every call resulted in a battle. At least it did with my roommate. I imagine it did for his father too, since they were both built with the same mold.
My roommate joined the Peace Corps after college and went to Sierra Leone, where he was supposed to stay for two straight years. His decision came as a shock to everyone he knew. How could he spend two years without a television so he could watch the Lakers? How could he spend two years without full-time access to a phone so he could call his father on a nightly basis to talk about Andrew Bynum’s confounding potential? How could he spend two years without pickup hoops, without arguing every out of bounds call to the death?
My roommate didn’t stay away for two years like he was supposed to. He came home early to attend his father’s funeral. His father passed away suddenly from an oversized heart nobody had diagnosed. He was in his 50s and in great shape. His basketball buddies all went to the funeral. The horrible scene became gratifying as the discussion turned to hoops, as everyone from ages 20 to 60 spoke about the importance of my roommate’s father, how he kept the pickup games going week after week, how he took every newcomer and made him feel welcome, how he never passed the damn ball but still never turned away a friend.
Chris Wilcox is speaking to several reporters this summer partially to raise awareness for heart conditions. If he didn’t undergo such thorough testing, he might have passed away too early like my roommate’s father. I don’t know if I can help raise awareness, but I know how dangerous an undiagnosed heart condition can be. I watched my roommate stand tall at his father’s funeral, displaying more emotion than I’d ever seen from him. He spoke with tears in his eyes that day about his fallen best friend.
My roommate has a heart condition too, though I hope his isn’t life-threatening. Remember how I said he’s surly on the outside and sweet once you get to know him? His heart has always been bigger than normal, but nobody knows about it. As always, he’s just like his father.