A die hard NCAA fan wouldn’t miss a game, except in the case of Uncle Hank.
“Uncle Hank died,”
My girlfriend said solemnly a few weeks ago as I walked into our apartment coming home from work. Hank was in his early 70’s and had been battling cancer, but you’re never quite ready to hear those words uttered about a person you know, especially when they’re a family member of someone you’re close to.
Though I had only met Hank a handful of times, but that was all it took for him to make an impression on me. Based on stories I’d heard, the man wasn’t without his flaws. Yet, whenever I encountered him at my girlfriend’s family gatherings, he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. As someone who comes from a small family, I was intimidated interacting with my girlfriend’s huge family when she initially brought me around. Hank’s kindness those first few times went further than he ever could have known.
Then there’s the time he helped us out of a huge jam a few summers ago. My girlfriend and I were on our way from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania for the 4th of July when our car started smoking and stalling out on I-78. We managed to get the car off the highway and into the parking lot of an apartment building, but we still had a smoking car and little idea of what to do.
So who did we call? Hank, of course.
He and my girlfriend’s aunt dropped everything, arrived 30 minutes later, and not only did Hank drive the smoking car back to their house so they could bring it to a mechanic, but they let us borrow their car for the weekend so we could continue to our destination.
It’s a cliché I suppose, but that’s just the kind of guy he was.
When I heard Hank passed away there wasn’t a question in my mind that I’d be going to his funeral, but a small part of me realized that it would be taking place on the 3rd day of March Madness. Before this starts to sound callous or completely self-centered (too late?), let me explain my relationship with college basketball and specifically the NCAA Tournament.
Growing up, I spent almost all of my free time either playing basketball or watching basketball. One of my fondest childhood memories is winning my mom’s March Madness office pool when UCLA and Ed O’Bannon triumphed over the Arkansas Razorbacks and Croliss Williamson. I have a blog called “Send it in Jerome” where I’ve written thousand word posts ranging from topics like West Virginia role players to reasons college basketball fans should be excited about the upcoming season in the middle of summer.
Since I’ve become a part of the working world, I went a few years where the only vacations I took were the Thursday/Friday of March Madness. My girlfriend went to high school with the sister of current Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and when I met her a few months ago, I talked her ear off for 30 minutes and couldn’t get enough of hearing a complete stranger talk about her experience as the family member of a high profile college basketball player.
Basically, I take college basketball and the NCAA Tournament very seriously.
But March Madness or no March Madness, there was no way I was going to miss Hank’s funeral.
So on the first Saturday of March Madness with a full slate of games on the schedule, I woke up at 6:00am, got dressed, and boarded a bus bound for New Jersey along with my girlfriend. During that day, I can honestly say that college basketball was one of the furthest things from my mind (though I may have caught a few minutes of the Kentucky-Cincinnati game at my girlfriend’s uncle’s house after the funeral).
I spent that day remembering Hank, the way he lived his life, and being thankful I had the opportunity to meet him and be there for those who were closest to him.
Regardless of what else was going on in the world – including the fact that D’Angelo Russell was about to square off against Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson – there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
By the time we got back to Brooklyn it was past 7:00pm and I was understandably tired from the 6:00am wake-up call and all the traveling. I caught up on what I had missed and watched the remaining games, but those games carried a little less weight than usual that day.
What did carry a lot of weight was the fact that I was able to be there for Hank and his family.
Though I don’t know how helpful I was, sometimes just being there is enough. I was ‘just there’ this past Saturday and it was way more important than a couple of games.
For most of my life, the world has stood still for March Madness. But on that day, my world stood still for Hank. My younger self would have had a hard time picturing a scenario where March Madness could wait. Then again, my younger self had a lot of growing up to do.