Healing Magic of sports
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A departure from the usual form this week, folks. A houseful of memories to be dealt with. Forgive me. Next week, I promise we'll return to books, movies, commercials and stuff.

    "There are other things I remember as well ... but to tell them would just be too much." -- Lucinda Williams, "Bus to Baton Rouge"

Fifteen years ago on a Friday, four friends of mine -- Wes, Matt, Paul and Pat -- showed up at my dorm room in Berkeley. It was April, and I was finishing up my first year of school.

We ate Mexican food for cheap on Telegraph Avenue that night. Matt played his guitar some. We talked late, smoked cigars, sat with our legs hanging out my window, and didn't sleep much.

  Papa was the one who took me to games, told me about the old Dodgers and Lakers teams, taught me how to watch and what to listen for. My devotion to sports and my devotion to him were (and still are) one and the same thing. 

The next day, we rode the BART train into San Francisco. Our plan was to walk as much of the city as we could in a day. We had decent shoes, the weird sort of energy you have when you're doing something pointless and ambitious with your friends, and we had a basketball.

We came across people doing Tai Chi in Washington Square Park, I remember, and played "21" for a while at an elementary school somewhere near Chinatown -- one of those sunken courts you see in the city sometimes, fenced in and down below the sidewalk.

We found a game on the panhandle of Golden Gate Park against a team of five regulars who all called each other "Phil." They looked at us -- five skinny white guys -- and said we looked like BYU and called every one of us "Danny" or "Ainge." We were up at one point in the game, but then we got hammered. Phils flying everywhere. After it was over, we just dribbled off through the park laughing, comparing Phil notes and spinning Phil legends.

One or the other of us dribbled the ball the whole day, up and down hills, in and out of record and book stores. We'd pass it among us. Wes would flip it over his shoulder to Pat without looking, or I'd bounce it off a brick wall out in front of Paul. We were a casual and confident troupe, always moving.

When we hit the Marina, the ball bounced out into the street, and I ran after it. I caught up to it, and I stood there in the middle of the street, cars going past in both directions, dribbling it back and forth between my legs. I can't say why exactly, but I felt fearless and at-home then, smiling at my friends across the street.

Near the end of the day, we went to the Grace Cathedral up on California Street, sat on a wall at the edge of the property and looked out over the city. I can still see us sort of hanging together there, shoulder to shoulder.

When we got back to my dorm that night, there was a message on my answering machine: My grandfather had suffered a severe heart attack, and I needed to come home right away.

I don't think I said much. My head was in two places at once. The warm buzz of the day seemed totally disconnected from the news on the phone.

A few hours later, I was getting out of the car at the Oakland Airport, hugging Wes goodbye and, weird as it sounds now, feeling like I might never see him again.

The next few days are fuzzy. I remember sitting by Papa's bed, brushing against those stiff, bleached white hospital sheets, watching fluid drip into the IV. I remember telling him about being in San Francisco with my friends, and about how the Lakers were doing, heading into the playoffs. I remember seeing his feet and wishing I could put his socks and slippers on.

He was unconscious most of the time. His arms were strapped down and his skin was cold to the touch. There was a pale stripe on his finger where his wedding ring used to be.

He seemed uncomfortable, like he was straining, and I wanted to be able to tell him it was OK for him to let go, but I couldn't, because what I really wanted was for him to wake up and get up and watch a game with me.

Papa was the one who took me to games, told me about the old Dodgers and Lakers teams, taught me how to watch and what to listen for. My devotion to sports and my devotion to him were (and still are) one and the same thing.

He fought for almost a week, and it looked for a while like he might recover, but then he died.

I remember going back into his hospital room, trying to remember what he looked like lying there just the day before, trying to picture his face from before the heart attack. (I couldn't do it then, and I can't do it now, and I hate that. There's just a space there, something I try to fill with words, but I never do.)

Magic Johnson
It was easy to lose yourself in the pure joy of watching Magic Johnson on the court.
About six weeks later, like a lot of people, I was watching the Lakers and Celtics in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Late in the game, Larry Bird hit a 3-pointer to put the Celtics up two with 12 seconds left. On the next play, the Lakers inbounded the ball to Magic Johnson, he faked a pass to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and cut across the lane for a running hook shot.

It's a stupid cliché to say so, but I swear I knew it was going in before he let go of it.

What I mean is, I felt the shot. I saw it open up, I felt the push off the left leg, the reach with the right arm, the delicate letting go in the fingers.

I knew the shot it wasn't but could have been (Kareem's sky hook), remembered the shot it erased (Magic's miss in 1981 against the Rockets), and thought, in that instant, about its place in a whole history of big plays and great games between the Celtics and Lakers.

I felt the free joy of that day in the city with my friends in it, too, and the easy rhythm with which we played off each other. At the same time, I felt incredibly sad about my grandfather dying and all these things he'd said about Magic were coming back to me, and I was remembering the way he'd slap my knee and say, "Hey, hey," whenever the Lakers made a great play.

I wasn't just watching, I was floating there in the air with the ball, all happiness and sorrow and past and future, waiting to fall through the net, waiting to shout and cry, wishing I could swallow the moment whole, hoping it would wrap itself around me for years to come ... and knowing that it would.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at neel@sportsjones.com.



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