There are very few perfect moments in a normal life. To be certain, there are very few perfect moments even in an extraordinary life. Storybook moments, where things happen just as they are supposed to, can often elude us. Good doesnâ€™t always triumph over evil, the good guy doesnâ€™t always get the girl, and sometimes the princess is just kissing a frog. As we grow older, we become accustomed to the ordinary, the near-miss, and the unjust result, and storybook moments become just that, the stuff of childrenâ€™s stories. And yet, once in a while, without warning, one of these startling moments happens to us, and we become believers once again.
Athletic competition is a place these moments can often be found, both for participants and spectators. For all the other things that sports can be, they are frequently the opportunity to live vicariously through our finest athletes, and to celebrate their perfection as our own. When one considers the countless variables involved in hitting a home run, throwing a touchdown or sinking a three-point basket, especially in the face of enormous consequence, opposition and improbability â€“ one realizes that perhaps we witness miracles more routinely than we ought to. I have had the enormous good fortune to observe many of these moments and felt the accompanying rush of seeing history made; a combination of both disbelief and the grace of knowing that there are greater things out there than just the ones we can see. As luck would have it, however, I have had comparatively few opportunities to be an active participant in such moments; my cognitive skills have always vastly exceeded their athletic counterparts. But last Tuesday, I played a part in just such a moment, and by similarly good fortune, someone was there to catch it on film.
I found out about Tyler McKinnon from a business contact, who had previously worked with his mother. Tyler is sixteen years old, and lives in Memphis, Tennessee. Heâ€™s a tall kid, six foot, six â€“ lanky, and from what I hear, used to play a pretty mean game of basketball. He doesnâ€™t play anymore. Just over a year ago, Tyler complained to his mother of shoulder pain â€“ nothing out of the ordinary for a high school basketball player. The next day he was headed into St. Judeâ€™s Childrenâ€™s Hospital. Tyler was diagnosed with cancer.
Heâ€™s currently in L.A. participating in a Phase II drug study. For those of you that donâ€™t know, Phase II trials involve only animals and terminal patients. Heâ€™s here because he doesnâ€™t have much time left, not because thereâ€™s hope for more. Heâ€™s also the only participant under the age of twenty one. Heâ€™s two thousand miles from home, living in a corporate apartment with his mother, with no other kids around, treating a disease that he knows will kill him. And heâ€™s a basketball fan who has never been to STAPLES Center.
The business contact that knows Tyler also knows that Iâ€™m a cheerleader for the L.A. Clippers (a story for a different time), and he asked me if I could get a couple of tickets for him and his mother. I told him that I could, and told his story to our team director. She subsequently shared the story with representatives from the team, who set up something much better than tickets. On the Saturday before the game, we showed up at Tylerâ€™s apartment with a stocking full of Clippers gear, and that was only the start of it. The team set him up with media passes so he could be in the arena to watch warm ups: the basketball team and all the game night entertainment groups. Afterwards he was invited to the floor to take pictures. Michael Smith, Clippers TV Broadcaster came over to say â€œhiâ€, and Tyler met both teams and took pictures with the Spirit dancers at center court. They set him up with seats in the VIP seating area at the top of Section 101 (if you havenâ€™t been to STAPLES Center, these are good seats). The game was exciting, as despite his waning strength, Tyler was enjoying himself well into the fourth quarter.
One of the seminal moments for the Fan Patrol (the moniker for our merry band of professional cheerleaders), and perhaps the one weâ€™re best known for, in each game is the fourth quarter t-shirt toss. Despite the fact that weâ€™re throwing out single-sized (extra large), single-color-screened, cheap-at-best t-shirts, people in thousand-dollars seats scream for them as though theyâ€™re Wonka Golden Tickets. Something about getting something for free in front of 18,000 people just seems to get folks unnaturally excited. Admittedly, Iâ€™ve never had a very good arm for throwing anything: baseballs, footballs, Frisbees, or t-shirts. For three seasons Iâ€™ve been hucking rolled up t-shirts into the STAPLES crowd. And while Iâ€™ve had marginal success distance-wise, Iâ€™ve been about as accurate Rick Ankiel in the 2000 NLCS (look it up). But hope springs eternal, and every fourth quarter I still run out onto the court t-shirts in-hand, spotting deserving fans, and then missing them by at least two sections.
On Tuesday, I had five shirts in hand, and I knew that I was going to try to throw one up to Tyler, but my arm wasnâ€™t feeling great, and I missed my first four by more than usual, two of them ending up in empty aisle-ways (much to the chagrin of surrounding fans). I ran back to center court and looked up to where Tyler was sitting, and pointed right at him. He stood and I found out later that he told his host to move aside because he was â€œgoing to catch this one.â€ He had one arm in a sling, so it was going to have to go right to him, there wasnâ€™t going to a Randy Moss moment where I could just throw it up near him and hope for the best. I had saved a particularly tightly rolled shirt â€“ and jogged back to get a running start.
Iâ€™ll be honest, I didnâ€™t expect it to go to him, and had internally rehearsed a small speech about â€œtrying to get it closeâ€, so all that bunk about believing you can do it has now left my future coaching lexicon. But I ran up and let it fly, making of point of sending it a little higher than I normally do. Much like I had watched one of the dancers send a half court shot towards the basket (http://youtube.com/watch?v=9jyjqP1Bqwk), I paused for an impossibly long moment to watch the shirt fly.
It spun and arced perfectly, and in my mind, I prayed quickly and quietly for a little grace, enough to give this kid a perfect moment, to feel special â€“ not because heâ€™s dying, but because, out of all these people, this t-shirt was thrown into a crazy, waving crowd and yet, was coming right for him. I watched him put his one available hand up, as it hit his palm, bounced down to his waist, where his mother (standing by his side) helped him gather up his prize. And there it was. . . the perfect throw. I pumped my fist over and over (not noticing the photographer who captured the moment) â€“ and for all my team spirit, forgot all about the basketball game that was at hand. It was as happy as I have been in as long as I can remember. I trotted off the court, with a huge smile on my face, nearly unable to contain my excitement.
Ultimately, we lost the game. But it was close and exciting, almost down to the final whistle. After the game, Tyler was again invited down to the court for pictures. Many of us, including my director, were choking back tears the entire time. A few of the dancers could only muster a quick â€œhelloâ€ lest they lose their composure completely. Tyler finished up pictures and had a smile and a hug for everyone that stuck around to say goodbye. He and his group thanked me far too many times â€“ I tried my best to gracefully accept all of them on behalf of the amazing people that had made it possible.
It struck me how happy he and his mother seemed. The impending doom had no hold on them â€“ they were committed to making this time, no matter how little was left, good and full of life and love. It was enough to give anyone who shared time with him, pause and a reason to reflect on their own lives â€“ and to appreciate all the moments they may take for granted. I assured Tyler that he was welcome anytime as my guest at STAPLES, hugged him one last time, and trotted off the court.
I sat down in my locker and reflected on the evening. I had worried in the days leading up to that day, that although we were doing something great for this young man, it was hardly enough, when considered against what he was going through. Then I looked down at my phone saw that I had gotten two text messages. One from my coach, which reminded me what Tyler had given to us: â€œThank you for bringing Tyler into our lives, Iâ€™m going home to hug my kids;â€ a reminder to find joy in little things every day, and not to worry how they stack up or aggregate, because you never know which will be your last. And one from the business contact who had introduced me to Tyler so many weeks before, a reminder that perfect moments are only really perfect when they are shared: â€œWhat a throw!â€ What a throw, indeed.
Copyright © 2010 Glenn T
What a throw!
A perfect throw and a perfect catch. A perfect moment at STAPLES Center.
Copyright © 2010 Glenn T
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