Two years ago, I threw my Gerald Wallace jersey in a bag with all my dirty laundry and left my dorm room in Chapel Hill to return home to Charlotte for the first home playoff game in Bobcats history.
I remember little about anything outside of the game. The skyscrapers pierced the night sky with orange lights, another first for the city. Year after year, the city had lit the sky in the Panthers' electric blue for football games, but there had been little incentive for orange pride until the Bobcats claimed a top defense in the league and clinched their first playoff seed. It was a complete whirlwind for a Bobcats fan: a stunning turnaround in fan support that I had long hoped to see. I remember going to Brixx a few hours before tipoff of game three and being in a flood of Bobcats fans like I had never seen. There was a buzz about the city. It was a playoff atmosphere in a city that critics had said couldn't have one again. For years you couldn't escape the jokes when trying to have a serious, reasonable discussion - even within the city limits - and finally we had something we could be proud of, for once. And I wouldn't have chosen anyone else with whom to experience it.
Two weeks ago, I threw myself in my 25-year-old Volvo stationwagon and left my apartment in Chapel Hill to return home to Charlotte for what I thought would be the last time I'd ever see my father alive.
After surviving an 11-hour open heart surgery marred with complications less than a month ago, my dad had swollen to what I can only estimate as nearly twice his normal size. His health was in dire straits after his right ventricle struggled to make any recovery and kidney function stalled. The days felt like years, each minute excruciatingly suspending us as we desperately tried to keep a hold on hope. As I worked on a patio tiling project to earn extra cash that day, I got a call from my aunt, who was staying with my mom for support while my heavily-sedated dad remained in the hospital. The fact that my mom wasn't the one making the call was concerning, so I knew I had to come home with haste.
I took the long route from Chapel Hill to Charlotte, via highway 64 and later 49 because of NASCAR race weekend traffic. The drive is a lonely one. Passing through the bustling metropolises of Ramseur and Siler City, the highway probably sees more traffic at night from deer than cars, especially as you get past Asheboro. I departed for Charlotte a little before 8 p.m. and my only company for the three-hour drive would be my thoughts.
It hadn't even been a week since the initial surgery, but my mind had racked up what felt like years in the time since. Every day I felt emotionally and mentally exhausted. We all knew the outlook was rough and frankly, constantly staying positive is freaking impossible. I'm realistic at heart, and never-tiring optimism in the face of such a stark situation is not feasible for me.
Everything reminded me of my dad. With my mother, he's one of the two most significant foundations in who I've become today, which is someone I'm pretty proud to be. It was impossible to think about anything else besides the memories I've shared with him. He is not perfect; in fact, far from it. But he's the man who influenced me to love a lot of the things I love: sports, comedy, music, movies, television, art. Everything I thought about reminded me of him. Everything I am reminds me of him.
And one of those things that particularly tore me up inside was going with him to the first home Bobcats playoff game.
My father wasn't the one who taught me basketball. He wasn't the one who took me to my first basketball game. Or my second. Or my third. But he was the one who encouraged my passion in writing and talking about it, as he did with everything I'm passionate about.
At this point, I hadn't started writing about it, but my interests centered around basketball. Cardboard Gerald had been in existence for over a year. My dad joked about my signs and all those things, but loved going to the games with me regardless of how embarrassing I'm sure I was.
And at the first home playoff game, the atmosphere was charged and although the Bobcats were down 2-0 in the series, it felt like the team had a good shot at winning game three. It was damn loud and magnified the moments I shared with my dad, both of us experiencing the game we both love.
Now, in hindsight, we realize that as great as it was to bring back that atmosphere, it was a large set of mistakes in shorting the Bobcats' future.
But one of the things I think we forget about sports in the hubbub of analysis and statistics and predictions and speculation is the moment. Those times of Gerald Wallace throwing down an acrobatic jam on a surgical backdoor cut, or Stephen Jackson hitting a three with his defender's hand in his face and then barking at him, or Tyrus Thomas's boundless energy in rebounding, or five men coming together on a basketball court utilizing their carefully-fostered skills and gifts to create a smothering defense that had the top defensive rating in the league - all of that, sharing it with someone like my father, I couldn't have asked for anything more.
I have no regrets about how I felt about the Bobcats going to the playoffs that year. There's often this feeling fans feel compelled to have when something they were excited about turns out bad, and they have to say "I'm sorry for believing in that." People are afraid to admit they're wrong, especially in the alpha dog sports culture. Screw that. I was wrong and so what? Yes, it's a shame that where the franchise is now is more or less a direct result of the decisions made to reach that goal two years ago. That said, to be able to have those experiences with my father and now with what we've been through, it feels invaluable. I can't deny how much I'm thankful for it and I'll be damned if I'll apologize for that.
I see nothing wrong with appreciating that time for what it was. However, to see long-standing success in the future, and not just a year with a playoff sweep, changes must be made from what the team did back then.
There's nothing we can do now, but heal and rebuild ourselves.
The same can be said for my dad.
Two weeks removed from the day I drove to see him possibly on his deathbed, I'm going today to see him on father's day.
Since that day, a lot has happened. His kidneys resumed normal function, permitting the Duke University Medical Center to accept him as a candidate for a heart transplant. After more uncertain times, they removed a clot and now aim to forego what they once thought would be a necessary transplant, in favor of saving his own heart.
The path has been a difficult one, and one I can't even fathom for him. Beginning with just the opening of his eyes, to the movement of his feet, to talking for the first time in weeks, to now starting to walk again - it's been stunning.
He's not out of the woods yet, though, and the life he once lived must move further into the rearview. He must commit to an overhaul in his diet and, hell, his life. The damage he did in his past came to its dark climax. Now my father must ascertain a new way of life, one that leads to more sustainable healthy living to experience the joys in life he'd otherwise miss.
Both he and the Bobcats are in the midst of immense changes in their ways. The pains are not through yet, and won't be for years. But with making good, sustainable decisions, they each can move on and reach new heights.