A year ago tonight was the most terrifying hour of NBA referee Billy Kennedy's life.
It wasn't the night Rajon Rondo called him a "m-----f---ing f----t." Nor was this the moment Kennedy released a statement a few days later acknowledging, to a big audience for the first time, "I am proud to be an NBA referee and I am proud to be a gay man."
Kennedy then did something that evening he has done literally since elementary school: He put on a ref's uniform and prepared to call a game. This night though, for the first time, he took to an NBA court as someone new, feeling the full weight of being true to himself. How would fans react? Would a player humiliate him? What if someone ran onto the floor and tried to stab him?
The route from locker room to court during warmups is the most familiar terrain in Kennedy's life. In any NBA arena Kennedy could complete the walk blindfolded. But the most lonely place in the world can be a building packed with 19,000 strangers, with your friends a thousand miles away. Kennedy admits he was a wreck that night.
This game happened to be in San Antonio, which at first seemed to matter not at all. But a few steps down the hall Kennedy bumped into Spurs executive R.C. Buford. Buford asked if Kennedy was OK, and Kennedy surprised them both by hugging the general manager. To Kennedy's even bigger surprise, Buford didn't let go.
At the most vulnerable moment of Kennedy's life, Buford had several options. He could've offered a pleasantry -- just enough to clear the threshold of compassion. He could have stressed the optics of one team's general manager offering aid and comfort to a person who can swing his team's fortunes. He could have shrunk from the sheer awkwardness in a professional setting of being pulled into the body of a man he didn't really know. Instead, Buford just hugged him.
On the court, Utah's Trevor Booker -- now the Brooklyn Nets starting power forward -- saw Kennedy standing in a daze alone near the scorer's table. Booker took the opportunity to breeze over to Kennedy. "Much respect to you," Booker said with a nod, then was on his way.
"It was the right thing to do," Booker says looking back.
Like just about every player in the NBA, Booker has no relationship with Kennedy. By edict of the league, Booker and Kennedy aren't even allowed to exchange pleasantries should they run into each other at a restaurant. For Booker, the decision to acknowledge Kennedy's achievement wasn't inspired by political conviction or any great affinity for Kennedy. What inspired Booker was empathy for someone enduring a life experience of incredible magnitude.
Eventually the house lights dimmed for introductions. That's when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich approached Kennedy and delivered a pep talk that Kennedy swears he remembers verbatim.
"You have more guts, you have more balls than anybody I know," Popovich told him. "'You have more courage than anybody I know. Now, go out there and kick ass."
When Kennedy later called fellow NBA referee Scott Twardoski and shared Popovich's words with his friend, "I could tell he was smiling as he was saying it. Through the phone I could tell how much that interaction meant. It was like, if you can have a smile and a tear in your eyes at the same time, that's how he came across on the phone."
Three and a half minutes into the game, Kennedy whistled Rodney Hood for a shooting foul on LaMarcus Aldridge underneath, but Hood hadn't made contact with Aldridge. At the first opportunity, Kennedy walked over to Utah head coach Quin Snyder to acknowledge the error.
"I said, 'Hey, I kicked the play. It's an absolute wrong call,'" says Kennedy. "[Snyder] looked at me and he goes, 'We don't get them all right. You're OK.'"
Like Buford, Snyder had any number of reactions available to him -- a simple nod of muted appreciation, a few grousing words under his breath, an imperative to Kennedy to make it up to the Jazz later in the game, silence. Presented with a full menu of options, Snyder composed a message that spoke to Kennedy's professional pride, something Kennedy values as much as anything. To a man who was alone in the world that night, Snyder used the first person plural -- We don't get them all right.
Kennedy has been the beneficiary of similar interactions this season from the likes of Blake Griffin, Steve Kerr and Mike Breen, each of whom made a point to approach Kennedy and honor his personal achievement. Those individuals, like Buford, Booker, Popovich and Snyder, exhibited awesome acts of generosity and it didn't cost them anything other than a mindful awareness of another man's burden. Isolation is a force multiplier of life's struggles. Recognition, bearing witness and a little human contact can bring real relief. A touch, a few words, an expression of empowerment, a willingness to let something go. Small acts of generosity that play big.