Both of Ryan O’Hanlon’s grandfathers are gone, but he learns more about them every day.
My dad is awesome. He’s my idol, a role model, and all that good stuff. But he knows it, so I’m not here to talk about him. I want to talk about Grandpa and Granddad.
They’re both dead. They died a long time ago. In fact, Wednesday was the 18th anniversary of Granddad’s death. How do I know? He died a day after my twin brothers were born. My parents named John Thomas after him as a sort of tribute, but we all live on in some way as a tribute to him. The name just makes it that more obvious.
I don’t really remember Granddad. My memories are of him in a too-clean hospital room. A lot of white and some gray. There was a bed, and probably some windows. And him. I don’t remember anything else. It was his heart. He died from another attack a few weeks later. I remember him being mad about something. He’d just survived a heart attack, but who gave a shit about that? It was John fucking Starks (and this was before the ’94 Finals).
He couldn’t stand the guy, I think. I don’t know, really, but it’s what I remember. I’m standing next to his hospital bed, and he’s quizzing a five-year-old me on the names and numbers of Knicks players and telling me how bad that number-three was. Granddad played high-school basketball against Lew Alcindor, so he knows good basketball. And he knew Starks wasn’t it.
For all I know, this conversation never even happened. This Starks stuff could’ve been something I overheard somewhere else and, for some reason, my mind combined it with Granddad over the years since. But it doesn’t even matter if it’s real or not. Forever, that Starks moment is tethered to the one memory I have of my dad’s dad. Whether or not it’s true, it’s become real. The sterilized hospital suite and granddad bitching about John Starks.
Then there’s Grandpa. He didn’t pass until I was in seventh grade, so there’s more; but it still, it always goes back to sports. It’s us two kicking a ball around in his backyard. He’d make the goal extra wide with those bright-orange street cones he must’ve stolen, just so I could score. It’s those stories about the German-American league he once played in. The Cadillacs and the Oldsmobiles lining the field because they needed light. I couldn’t imagine him playing, his limbs so stiff then, but he said it happened, so it was true.
Then there was his recliner; the throne from which he tore down every goddamn idiot playing whatever sport was on NBC that Sunday afternoon. When the Knicks lost in ’94—oh, don’t even get him started. With my mom’s help, I bought him a t-shirt before the series started, one of those pre-Finals shirts with the Knicks and Rockets symbols on it. It was the thought the counted, but there wasn’t much thinking. Why would he want something like that if the Knicks lost? And they did. But he kept wearing it. Maybe he wanted to show his grandson he didn’t hate the shirt, but I think he kept wearing it because he could get it dirty when he’d cook our Sunday dinners. He could dirty it up without any guilt—and really, some satisfaction.
He’d bring his recliner self to my soccer games. Whether I was three, picking daisies (not a cliché, I really did), eating boogers, and being too scared to touch the ball, or I was on the club team, coming into my own as a player, giving him things to cheer for, it didn’t matter. He’d bellow that “Aghaghaghagh the hell!” at anyone he could. Refs didn’t know what they were doing, other kids couldn’t kick a ball right, and sometimes neither could I. But he was there, scaring the shit out of other parents and everyone else who’d never met him. He was always there.
I hesitate to give sports too much importance (even though that’s my job), but in a lot of ways that’s what keeps Granddad and Grandpa around. It keeps them here.
Whether it’s Granddad (possibly) in his hospital bed, telling me how much that damn Starks didn’t know what the heck he was doing out there or Granddad cursing at the television and barking at me from the sideline, these aren’t the fondest of memories. To be honest, I don’t remember enjoying sports much with either of them. But, somehow, running and kicking and jumping and yelling at guys who couldn’t hear you took hold of me. I played soccer through college and now I get to write about these games as part of my job. I’m not totally disillusioned just yet.
Whether or not Granddad and Grandpa had anything to do with that, I’ll never really know. Maybe sports became a part of me in spite of them. Maybe it’s in our blood. It’s hard to know. I never really knew either of them. But I think sports tell me more and more about them every day.