Thursday, April 2, 2009

Life, Love, Death and Basketball

Me and Mom.

Back in the good ol’ days, when I was a compensated sportswriter, I always cringed when my brethren theorized that sports could bring relief or joy or a diversion to people who were struggling with unimaginable grief.

I cringed plenty in the fall of 2001, when, while covering the Mets, I parroted the popular line that the Mets’ post-9/11 run at the NL East pennant helped distract and inspire New Yorkers reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I remain moved by the purity of the Mets’ efforts during those frightening days and weeks following the attacks—I’ll never forget walking through the bowels of Shea Stadium and seeing relief pitcher Armando Benitez unloading relief supplies and stacking them on pallets—but in the years since have wondered: How the hell could someone who lost a loved one in the attacks find any happiness at all in something so ultimately meaningless?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bellowed at television commentators who said the 2006 New Orleans Saints—who reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history—symbolized the resiliency of and brought happiness to a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina. How does a football team full of millionaires have any idea of what it’s like to lose every worldly possession? How does watching a football game distract someone who has no home?

But I don’t cringe anymore at the concept of sports as a distraction in anguish-filled times. Not since 5:27 p.m. on Dec. 29, 2008, when my sister called and could barely get the words out in between sobs.

“We got the news on Mom. It’s not good."


My mom was always as bemused by sports as I was passionate about them. She was the one who always said it was just a game, that someone had to win and someone had to lose, and she didn’t approve of people taking it too seriously. I remember how disgusted she was when one of my classmates was throwing his equipment after a tough loss in a Little League game. I didn’t want to be that guy.

At some point, though, she got used to it, at least from me. I remember the 1992 NCAA Tournament, when I did everything shy of kick the cat when my national title pick, Arkansas, was knocked out in the second round. “Look at him go!” my mom said to my dad as I stalked around the living room.

And she always encouraged and cultivated my passion. There were family outings and vacations centered around baseball, even if half the clan couldn’t tell you how many people were supposed to be in the lineup. Mom never threw away my baseball cards, even when my grades went into the crapper and even when my bedroom was papered with cardboard.

She did, though, a few years ago create some more room in the spare room at home by tossing a bunch of notebooks and media guides from my Hofstra days. That made me mad. I told her I wanted to save my play-by-plays of the 1994 football season so that I could refer to them when Wayne Chrebet made the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

She understood, though, why I was mad and apologized profusely. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, she never wondered why, as a pre-teen, I’d spend hours copying standings into a notebook or writing my own stories. She chose instead to marvel at and complement my interest.

In college and beyond, she told everyone how proud she was of her son the sportswriter, even though she surely knew before I did that this was a minefield of a career unlikely to provide any semblance of security, financial or otherwise.

As an adult, my studious copying of statistics has been replaced by blogging. So it was as we spent a quiet day together in late February, she watching TV and me writing this story and this story leading into the Georgia State game, that she wondered what it was that had me typing so fast and working so studiously.

“I could never get you to write your research papers in high school,” she said, “but you’re really into that.”

Well, of course. This isn’t boring. Research papers were.


I began this blog last August to give myself a writing outlet as I continued to search for ways to jump back into the choppy waters of sports journalism. It turned into something much more than that in the weeks following Dec. 29, a day that marked only the beginning of the bad news.

We planned to take Mom to Dana-Farber in Boston, but her condition deteriorated so fast she had to be admitted to the hospital in our hometown. We did get her to Dana-Farber in mid-January, where the doctors delivered dose after dose of crushing news. Her stomach was riddled with tumors that made it impossible to operate on her, so she would likely need to be fed through a tube for the rest of her life. Her kidneys were damaged from the operation that began all this crap last August, which meant most she could not receive most of the experimental chemotherapy treatments.

Every time I heard bad news, the first—and usually only—reassuring thought to come to my mind was: When I get back to the hotel, I can blog.

It provided a momentary diversion from the micro and the macro. For a little while, I could think about something other than my mother dying before our eyes as the rest of us stood by helplessly. I could think about something other than my anger at the idiot doctors who told her for months that this was a good cancer to have, one that was treatable and would not stop her from living a normal life. Connecticut: A great place to grow up, a terrible place to grow old.

And I could think about something other than my anger at God and my unanswerable questions. How can someone who did everything right—who prayed and went to church and ate well and rarely drank and never took drugs and lived by the letter of the law both Biblical and otherwise—suffer so much and at such a young age? How could my mom be teaching kindergarten and going to concerts and tending to her yard and doting on her grandson and generally acting like the most active 60-year-old in town in June and learn, a mere six months later, that she almost certainly wouldn’t make it to her 62nd birthday?

I couldn’t blog everyday—sometimes, I was just too exhausted by the tidal waves of bad news. But while I was in Boston, I was able to compare myself to Drew Bledsoe and managed to milk even more out of the Hofstra debate angle.

And blogging, rather indirectly, even brought a smile to the face of my father, and for that I will be forever grateful, even if the source of the smile was probably the very thing that inspired Tom Pecora to deliver a paint-peeling tirade.

My wife, my father and I went to the hospital Jan. 21 and Dad spent time with Mom while my wife and I split time in the family room listening to the WRHU feed. I went back to Mom’s room at halftime.

“Hey Dad, it’s halftime of the Hofstra game, guess how many points the two teams have scored combined.”

“I don’t know, high or low?”

“Low. Very low.”

He guessed a couple times in the 40s, and then in the high 30s. Finally I said “Thirty-two.” And he smiled—an authentic, ear-to-ear, eyes ablaze smile from someone who’d had precious few things to smile about over the preceding months.

Flying Dutchmen basketball also provided another semblance of family. For the games I could not attend, Sully Ray stepped in with regular text updates (he also frequently lied about catching T-shirts). Every game we attended, Sully Ray and his parents asked how my mom was doing and offered their kind thoughts and prayers.

Blogging and Hofstra basketball also helped provide a diversion to my wife and I as we encountered a different but no less heart-wrenching grief. Shortly after my mom returned from Boston to the hospital in our hometown, my wife’s grandmother learned she had pancreatic cancer. She was gone within a month of her diagnosis. She died the morning of Feb. 18 and my wife and I spent the next few hours trying to figure out whether or not we should go to the Flying Dutchmen game that night.

“I didn’t come out here tonight to watch them lose,” she said as we walked into the Arena.

They didn’t, in one of the most memorable games we’ll ever see. It was times like these we needed a diversion like this, three hours in which we could just throw ourselves into a game and remember why we grew to love sports in the first place and why we get so passionate and irrational about them, even though we know they pale in comparison to Real World stuff.

The kindness of the Mets following 9/11 didn’t stop me from wondering what the hell was wrong with them a mere year later. That the Dutchmen declined bids to a pair of fledgling postseason basketball tournaments matters not a whit, yet it still ticked me off. (More on that soon) And I will always mock George Mason every time the opportunity presents itself.

At times, I felt guilty for having a diversion. After all, living more than two hours away already assured me I was getting the edited version of my mother’s illness. To see her grow weaker by the visit was nothing like what my sister—who lives two miles away from my parents—and my father saw. They were the ones who needed a diversion. They were the ones who got the unedited, NC-17 version of my mother’s cruel and unfair descent from a vibrant, lively, independent woman to someone who was bed-bound and required assistance to complete the most routine of tasks.

But I had this, and maybe it kept me sane. My wife suggested as much when she was trying to explain to a skeptical family member why we were considering going to Virginia for the CAA tournament.

Our collective smarts (OK, fine, her smarts) and our shrinking bank account eventually won out, so we were home watching it on TV when Charles Jenkins’ last shot of the season fell well short of the basket, dooming the Dutchmen to a one-point loss to eventual CIT champion Old Dominion.

In the moments afterward, I stood in the living room, bent over with my hands on my knees in my willing-that-shot-into-the-basket pose, unable to muster up the usual end-of-season anguish. My wife later expressed surprise at my unusual composure.

“There’s a lot worse shit than this going on,” I said.

“That’s why we needed this,” she said, still wishing Jenkins’ shot had somehow fallen through the hoop.

And she was right, and it would have been awesome if the season lasted at last another day. But you know what? This, this season, was more than enough.

Blogging about the Flying Dutchmen didn’t change anything. It didn’t make my mom or my wife’s grandmother any better, it didn’t answer my unanswerable questions, it didn’t make what our families were going through any easier.

But…it did something. I know that. A couple hours a couple times a week, when we either sat in our seats or watched or listened to the game at home, it did something. Every time I sat down and typed the words “Defiantly Dutch” in a new Word document, it did something.

Some people might have wanted more out of the Dutchmen this season—more consistent play, a CAA title, an NCAA Tournament appearance. But for me, and for my wife, the Dutchmen gave us much more this season than we ever could have asked for, and for that we thank them.


Mom was home when the Dutchmen’s season ended, and she seemed to be getting a little better. We all hoped maybe she would beat the odds, and if not beat this cancer, at least survive to see another birthday, another Christmas.

But she got progressively worse over the subsequent few days. She was admitted to the hospital the afternoon of March 13 and she died a little more than 24 hours later, at 11:20 p.m. We buried her 15 days ago, and Sully Ray and his mom were kind enough to come up for the funeral.
I’ve wanted to blog about the Flying Dutchmen a few times since then, but I also wanted to write this first, and penning it has been more difficult than I expected. I know she’s gone, but writing this is another confirmation of it. And it’s tough to find the words to describe what this season meant to me, and what Mom meant to me.

She was always the first person I called with news, good and bad, always the person whose approval I most wanted to earn. Who will I talk to now? Who will be proud of me now?

I hope she can hear me when I talk to her, and I hope I make her proud of me, and I hope she’s at peace. And in case I didn’t let her know enough while she was here, I hope she knows I don’t really miss those football play-by-plays or those assorted media guides at all.

I also hope she knows that any time I tell people about those play-by-plays and assorted media guides, I do so with a smile on my face, because it reminds me that while my Mom didn’t get sports, she got me, which is all a son can ask for and the greatest gift he can ever receive, all at the same time.

Email Jerry at And join the Defiantly Dutch group at Facebook today!


Stormy said...

Beautiful Jerry. I really didn't expect to be crying at work today, but here I am.

savvygal said...

You and me both, Stormy. You and me both.

gonzo hofstra fan said...

That was incredible, Jerry. I'm so, so, so sorry for your loss. I'm sorry I didn't find out more quickly and I'm sorry there's nothing I can do about the injustice of what happened to your Mom.