In the course of your life, there are certain moments that you remember as clearly as if they happened yesterday. Some are big moments, but most of them are small. And this weekend, at Tony Bennett Basketball Camp, was one of those moments for Jack. And for me.
But not for the reason you think.
Despite his most fervent desire, the idea that Jack would even be able to attend a college basketball camp was a stretch at best because of a rare disease no one has heard of (for more read here). But this one – 2 half days with parents in attendance – seemed like the best shot we’d ever have to give him this dream. Way too often in my younger life, I preemptively said no to things that I suspected I couldn’t do. And that was the safe thing to be sure. But I also regret that I didn’t just try some things, even if they would have ended up with me unable to walk for days.
But my children want to try. Everything. And I love that about them. I love that they are willing to risk unbearable pain because maybe, just maybe, it won’t cause blisters. I love that they don’t view every door as closed. Instead, they see the light coming through the keyhole. So Billy and I decided we’d go and Jack would just do what he could. He has been too excited to sleep for weeks. And I have been excited because of that.
But I have also been petrified. Because I knew what was coming. I know what it’s like to want to do something so much only to find yourself sitting on the ground crying because your blisters are so bad you can’t even stand up. More than that, I know what it’s like to have somebody dismiss that pain and those tears with a “shake it off, you’re fine” simply because they just don’t understand. I get it. This disease is so rare, so out of everyone’s wheelhouse, that when they hear “blisters” they think they understand. They don’t.
There’s such a fine line between wanting to protect your children from known injury and letting them live their dreams. Today we let Jack live his dream.
And he did. The entire UVA Coaching staff and his favorite players were running camp. He shot baskets with Malcolm Brogdon and Sean Singletary and Justin Anderson. He got a pat on the head from Tony Bennett.
But as I suspected, by 10:30, he was limping badly. He came over to me and we tried a couple of tricks I had up my sleeve. After lunch, it became clear that my efforts were just postponing the inevitable. I tentatively approached the coaching staff to explain why Jack needed to sit out, desperately wanting them to know Jack’s blisters were different, that he wasn’t being lazy or undisciplined, that he was fighting through pain that is difficult to comprehend.
I held my breath, because with 60 other kids and a professional camp to run, I expected them to not really care. Or just smile, put him on the bench and forget about him.
But the most magical thing happened. Over the course of those two days, Coach Ron Sanchez brought the trainers over and got him bags of ice. He got an industrial fan to blow cold air over Jack’s feet. Coach Ritchie McKay and Coach Jason Williford sat down and asked him questions about his blisters. Mark Vershaw asked him to be his assistant coach for one game and run the scorer’s table for another. Ron gave him a piggyback ride to U-Hall for lunch so he could “be with the fellas.” When he wanted to try and come back on the court in his Crocs, they all said hell yes. The players who were helping to run the camp sat next to him when he couldn’t play and kept him company. They held their breath and rushed over when he crashed to the ground and hurt his blisters. They cheered him on and high fived him as he got up, with tears streaming down his face and ran down the court. Coach Sanchez sat with me, showed me pictures of his kids, made me laugh, and tried to think of every trick their medical staff uses that might help Jack. They hugged him and told him he was a joy to coach and asked us to come back to watch practice in the fall and meet the other players. They made us part of their family.
At the end of the first day, I watched my son run into the huddle with the UVA Basketball team, barefoot and clutching his bag of ice. He jumped up and down with them shouting “Hoos Hoos Hoos” just like the players do before a game. And I stood there and cried. I looked at Coach Sanchez and tried to convey to him just how much their genuine compassion and love meant to me. To Jack. And he smiled at me and said “aw Cameron, you know. That’s just who we are.”
Yes sir. I do.
At the end of the camp on the second day, the coaches give one award. It’s not for the most talented player or the hardest working or the most sportsmanlike. It is for Passion, one of Tony’s Five Pillars.
And it went to Jack.
The one who had been up all night crying in pain. The one who almost couldn’t get his Crocs on because he had so many blisters. The one who insisted on going back on Sunday, if only to sit and watch and cheer on his teammates. The one who hobbled through some ball handling drills just to be with Tony Bennett himself. The one who tried to play in the tournament game, even though he could barely walk down the court. The one who had to be carried to the bathroom. The one who had done everything he could to participate in whatever way he could.
Jack might have won the award for passion, but please let me tell you that these coaches, this team, this program – they win the award for the other 4 Pillars: unity, humility, servanthood, and thankfulness.
So I know you all think I love Tony Bennett because he’s cute. And I have let you think that because it’s funny. But the real reason I have loved him – from the moment he arrived 5 years ago – is because of the man he is, the coaches and players he surrounds himself with, and the 5 Pillars on which he built this program. I saw every single one of those in action this weekend.
I watched Jack be brave enough to live his dream this weekend, even if it didn’t turn out the way he expected. All because these men cared. Not because it was their job. Not because cameras were rolling.
It’s just who they are.
Yes, there is a lot that is wrong with sports these days. But not in Hooville my friends. These men are everything that is right with the world. These men love hard.
For more stories about Virginia basketball, read here (about redemption, grief, joy, and the end of the 2016 season) and here (how the loss to Michigan State helped me grieve the death of my father) and here (about why this is more than a game to me). And here are a couple about football too.
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