I lost a piece of my heart this week.
My friend and longtime Grand Rapids Press sportswriter Gary Bond passed away Thursday night from an apparent heart attack. He was only 55.
The Press was my first full-time journalism job, and Gary was quick to take me under his wing when I started there 12 years ago. I was just a kid, and Gary stayed on top of me to make sure I became a decent man. Sometimes he would do it over lunch, sometimes in the newsroom, sometimes as he was leading his pick-up basketball team to a victory over mine.
He was never too easy on me, and never too hard always a just and fair man.
My career eventually took me away from Grand Rapids, but Gary remained an important figure in my life. He was always there to remind me that it's better to get the story right than be the first to tell it, and to never be afraid to tell it like it is -- two rules that have always guided my work. Whenever I talk to students about journalism, I repeat those Gary-isms, as well as other pieces of advice he gave me.
• Treat people with respect.
• Do your homework on a story.
• And most importantly, never ever write anything about another person that you aren't man enough to say to his or her face.
Simple codes, really -- on paper anyhow. But, man, are they hard to live by in real life, especially in the loud world of sports journalism, where the pressure to be heard can make even the most rational reporter shout a little hyperbole. Gary seemed to live by those codes every single day of his life.
Don't take just my word for it, though. Chances are, if you're a sports fan, you've come across the work of someone else Gary touched along the way -- people such as Marc Spears at Yahoo Sports, John Eligon at the New York Times and Cleveland sports radio personality Branson Wright. Or you could check with former University of Michigan great and NBA assistant coach Mark Hughes.
For 30 years, Gary shepherded interns and newbies through their time at The Press, and watched athletes and coaches come and go in Grand Rapids and throughout Michigan. For 30 years, he remained a beacon of wisdom to whom we all could turn.
Even as the world of new media began eating away at the readership and revenue stream of newspapers -- and Gary became a casualty of layoffs at The Press -- he always talked about how grateful he was to have had the opportunity to tell good stories for a living. Sure, he was upset to lose his job, but he never lost himself, and continued to work for the paper as a freelancer.
He was pure gold before he arrived at paper. And he was pure gold Thursday when I saw him alive for the last time.
When I returned to Grand Rapids three years ago, Gary was one of the first people I called. In our earlier years, we played basketball on our lunch break three times a week. More recently, tennis was where we jockeyed for bragging rights. Every week, we played tennis together and talked about the stories we were working on, the loves of our lives and our kids. Always, always, we talked about our kids -- how crazy they are and how much we love them.
On Thursday, as we were leaving the gym – sweat-soaked and laughing -- someone asked who'd won, and if we even bothered keeping score. Without hesitation, Gary said, "Hell, yeah, we keep score; we ain't out there for fun." That was Gary, always the straight shooter, always the competitor. On this particular day, we split four sets, an even match. But I will never consider myself equal to Gary in any way. Not on the tennis court, not in journalism, not in life.
He will forever be the bar I'll never reach, the father figure I look up to, the man I admire.
In his memory, I'm going to break one of his Gary-ism rules. I'm going to do something he told me never to do. I'm going to say something about another person in a column that I didn't have the guts to say to his face.
You see, in all the years I knew Gary, I never told him I loved him. I'm sure he knew I did; but, regrettably, I was never man enough to say it to his face.
That saddens me. But I also see it as another example of just how amazing he was. Even in his passing, Gary is still teaching me important lessons about life, still shaping me into a better man.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.