Familiar, comfortable and brave

Bob Ley, left, and ABC's "Good Morning America" co-host Robin Roberts discuss the image of the black athlete in 2011 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. ESPN

It was a Friday the 13th, 15 months ago, when my friend Robin Roberts made good on her commitment to an evening of on-stage "conversation" with me to benefit a social service agency on whose board I serve. Looking back, the most amazing thing about that evening was that it was just several days short of Robin getting her harrowing diagnosis, which set her on the path to her life-altering bone marrow transplant.

Robin would tell me later that she knew she hadn't been feeling right, that something was out of kilter, and she was waiting on some test results. Even for a perfectly healthy "Good Morning America" host, being "on" for several more hours at night, a cocktail party, then a conversation before hundreds of guests, is a grind. It happened on a Friday evening, no less, capping a full week of waking up at 3:30 a.m. But Robin told me she'd be there, and in fact, she asked to do it.

Of course, she owned the room, as she does at any event or broadcast. On stage we talked, as colleagues who'd shared the anchor desk and other events together, and told stories from the TV trenches. Inevitably, the conversation turned to her own experience with breast cancer, which she had shared so publicly at the time of her diagnosis in 2007.

Then, a woman stood in the audience, and within seconds she had five hundred people, as one, catching their breaths and leaning forward with emotions challenged. Robin's questioner had just been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, having already undergone a double mastectomy. She was a week away from beginning chemotherapy for the second time. "How did you get through this, especially in public?" she asked Robin, the audience rapt in silence. "How did you keep your emotions under control?"

What followed from Robin was a heartfelt description of her own coping mechanisms and touchstones, a first-person narration of a journey that balances fear and faith. But as she wrapped up her final observation, about giving family and friends the "honor" of helping and supporting a cancer patient, she slid, without punctuation or pause into the invitation, "And if you don't come over here now and give me hug, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Robin walked to the side of the stage, the woman came up the steps, and they embraced. They exchanged private remarks amid waves of applause and could clearly feel the love in the room.

The moment said everything about Robin; the bond of familiarity and comfort viewers feel with her, which only deepened into respect and love through her sharing of her own experience with cancer. It is felt through millions and expressed one-on-one. And that night, days away from her own fateful medical diagnosis, Robin again paid it forward.

When Robin receives the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, she will join a lineage of honorees that range from the passengers on 9/11's Flight 93, once-anonymous men who rose to an extraordinary moment, to the globally revered Nelson Mandela. I think I know Robin well enough to appreciate her quiet but deep pride in joining that company. And I believe she will share it in her heart, with all those who have hugged and helped her. Which may just be anyone who knows her or watches her at work.