You have to understand the dynamics of my relationship with my father to understand how important the sport of basketball has been in my life. In simple terms, I had always been a mommy’s boy. By nature, she and I have always been a lot more alike: talkative, people-oriented and sometimes emotional.
My father and I, on the other hand, never really connected in the same way. That’s not to say my relationship with him has been any less valuable, it’s just been different. Basketball was our thing.
He taught me everything I know, even though, to this day he’s more athletic than I am. But it’s the sport he’s always loved most and I have no doubt that a lot of my passion for basketball came as a direct result of the passion he had for it. I wanted to love it like he did and I wanted to be as good at it as he was.
I guess I knew, even then, that basketball would be a strong binding element between him and I. And that’s why I went through most of my childhood with a basketball in my hands.
The sport became a staple of my everyday life by about 1990. I would play baseball during the day with my friends, but would wait patiently until nightfall when my father came home from a hard day’s work at Rochester Gear so that he could play basketball with me.
Using spotlights from our garage to light the driveway as the fading haze of orange sun dipped below the horizon, my father and I would square off 1 on 1 until it was finally time to go to bed.
Was it competitive? I sure thought so. When you’re six years old and you’re playing your heart out, you don’t know any better. You don’t recognize how superior of an athlete your dad is until years later when you finally realize that maybe he took it easy on you before you were grown enough to play him eye to eye.
But we would sweat, run, chase down loose balls, practice head fakes and drain pull up jumpers. Or at least my dad did. I did all I could just to muster enough strength to get the ball up over the 10 foot rim.
Fast forward to the 6th grade. Greece Apollo Middle School only had a 7th and 8th grade basketball team, so I was left to find something else to do with my free time during 6th grade. So I decided to join the drama club.
As luck would have it, I got cast for the lead roll in my second show: I was the Nutcracker in the Nutcracker. Seriously, I couldn’t make this up. (I promise, this ties in.)
To congratulate me after my final show, my parents gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received: tickets to see the Chicago Bulls play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland, Ohio.
And I cried. Like a little school girl, I cried. I’m sure I didn’t realize why it was so important to me then, but now I can look back and say for sure that having the opportunity to go to that game brought some of the greatest elements of my childhood into a full circle.
I was finally going to see Michael Jordan, my boyhood idol. And I was going to be sharing that moment with my dad.
There are very few moments in your life that you can remember with complete clarity, but driving to Cleveland and sitting in the nosebleed section of Gund Arena with my red #23 jersey on is something I’ll always remember moment for moment. As fate would have it, this game would also be the one where the Chicago Bulls would tie the NBA record for most wins in a season. April 14, 1996, and I was there.
Now, I only make it home to Upstate New York a few times a year. Interesting enough as it is to acknowledge that truth by writing it, I guess that’s how life works out some times.
But every time I go home, I make sure to leave my Tuesday and Thursday nights free. Those are the nights when my father and I drive up to the old church gym and play pickup games.
He doesn’t have to take it easy on me anymore, either. In fact, because of the skills he helped me to develop while growing up, I think he even hopes for the opportunity to play on the same team because we play so well together. And we always have.