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The Celtics, My Father, and Me

This NBA postseason has been overshadowed by real life, but even in the worst of times, basketball can be a comfort

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Watching the Boston Celtics with my dad is one of my favorite pastimes. Last month, we attended the Celtics-Spurs game at TD Garden and sat closer to the floor than we ever had before. We reminisced all night during what could be our last live game together. My dad’s been bringing me to games since I was 10 years old, and we’ve enjoyed it all. The high fives and the hugs. The shouting and the screaming. The nosebleed seats. The mission to find a spot in the lower bowl. The trips home, when we packed like sardines on crowded train cars that smelled like sweat and beer. The greeting we’d get from Mom as soon as we got back. The requests at family Christmas parties to watch basketball instead of A Christmas Story. The nights we’d watch from home rooting for contending, pretending, and tanking Celtics teams over the years, and loving it no matter the result. All that really mattered was watching it together.

Life changed for me twice on March 26: once in 2013 and once this year. Last month, my parents and I crammed into a hospital room to listen to a doctor explain that my dad has incurable stage 4 cancer that’s so advanced it was initially difficult to pinpoint its origin. There’s cancer in his bile ducts. There’s cancer in his liver. There’s cancer in his lungs. There’s cancer in his lymph nodes. There’s so much cancer that jaundice rapidly developed, yellowing his skin and the whites of his eyes like an over-ripening banana. Chemotherapy can be detrimental when a patient has jaundice, so multiple procedures were required to place two stents, an internal one and an external one, that drain into a bag Velcroed to his thigh to normalize his bilirubin level. Dad’s new body luggage lowered his bilirubin level, but there were complications that may prevent him from even trying chemotherapy. Whether chemo or hospice is next, chemicals will soon be pumped into his body to help alleviate his increasing pain.

Even if there’s a miracle coming, it’ll get worse before it gets better. Doctors say he has only weeks or months to live without any treatment—even with treatment, it’d still likely be only months. Putting stock into these timelines is useless since every person responds differently to treatment, but it’s stunning how rapidly someone can go from asymptomatic to approaching their deathbed. Dad, Mom, and I will do all we can to make the most of our remaining days together; there’s nothing to be gained from living in denial. Cancer is killing the man who provided for our family, the friend who fostered my love for basketball, the dad who pushed me to dream big.

Basketball has changed for us in recent years. It’s surprising how suddenly your loyalties can evolve once you work in sports media. I am no longer a Celtics fan, but my fandom hasn’t exactly perished. It’s more that my love simply expanded to all 30 teams. It’s an identity shift that supercharged my dad’s interest in the league beyond the Celtics. He reads every article, listens to every podcast, and watches every video. Dad is my first fan, and my biggest fan; he’s the one who first motivated me to even pursue sports writing.

In 2012, he suggested I apply for an internship at Comcast SportsNet New England, the local TV station for the Celtics. I was reluctant since working in sports never seemed achievable, but I applied and got accepted. The gig required interns to clip highlights, run the teleprompter, and transcribe audio. Some interns complained that it was unpaid grunt work, but it was a thrill for me to work alongside people who ran the show and walk the same hallways as a basketball legend like Tommy Heinsohn. Dad always hoped I’d get a chance to meet Heinsohn, the ancient Hall of Famer whom Celtics fans love and rivals loathe for his homerism. The opportunity arrived one night as I was leaving the building after my shift: Heinsohn was sitting alone in the dark of the front lobby watching the end of a Celtics blowout win against the Suns. I stopped in my tracks and nervously thanked him for a lifetime of memories. Heinsohn’s response was a snore. Literally. I didn’t realize he was half-asleep. Dad and I shared a laugh over it the next day; he always lives vicariously through those moments.

The first time my life changed on March 26 was the most pivotal day of my internship. It was 2013 and the internship was winding down, with only a few weeks remaining. Interns were usually brought into the field only once, and I had done my field visit at a Boston Bruins game. But before my time was up I hoped to attend a Celtics game. My parents encouraged me to ask for it, so I did and was given an opportunity to spend a shift assisting the broadcast team during a Celtics-Knicks game.

Kevin O’Connor

Hours before I left, Dad was giddy. He wondered whether I’d get to go into the Celtics locker room, ask Doc Rivers a question, or meet someone who could set me up with a job. I told him to chill. None of that would ever happen—I was just an intern. But the latter sort of did: A sports TV producer named Andy Levine praised my hard work but grilled my nonexistent post-internship plans and recommended that I blog about the Celtics for SB Nation. I spent the entire night typing an application on my phone, not watching more than a few minutes of the actual game—Carmelo Anthony had the most Carmelo Anthony game with 29 points on 30 shots in a 100-85 win for the Knicks. There was no guarantee my message would even get read, never mind if I’d get a chance, but I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about it anyway. After the long ride home, I filled them in: Mom was confident I’d get an opportunity, and Dad thought maybe soon I’d get to attend games as media. It felt like a victory to even make a move in that direction.

It turned out to be the email that changed our lives. Jeff Clark from CelticsBlog added me to his staff, and I began writing as often as possible while finishing college and angling for paid gigs. Dad operated as my de facto editor by checking for typos and improving my discipline. I bounced article ideas off him as we watched games, and he encouraged me to reach beyond writing about the Celtics, which led to publishing my annual NBA Draft Guide and doing work for a sports psychology company. I never imagined it would all lead to this: writing for Bill Simmons, working with so many people that I admire, and living in Los Angeles. Each step taught me to start dreaming big, like Dad always did for me.

Even though my dad has a deadly disease, I feel fortunate. Through all the tears, the overwhelming feeling is that of thankfulness to have had such a truly awesome father in my life, a loving husband to the best mother I could have ever asked for. How many children never have a parent? How many families simply never connect? Nobody imagines cancer will end it all, but nobody is exempt from life itself. There were an estimated 18 million new cancer cases worldwide in 2018 and 9.6 million total deaths. My dad is just one of many people who have been hit by this disease. It’s not the cancer that’s a shock, it’s the timing.

Mom told me that it doesn’t feel real that her husband has stage 4 cancer. How could it when he was less than one year away from retirement? Dad worked the past 15 years making traffic signs, after 32 years silk-screening umbrellas for a golf company, where he inhaled toxic fumes that doctors believe could have spurred his cancer. It’s not work that he loved, but it helped us get by. All the friendships he formed there made it worthwhile—like meeting my mom, who worked in a neighboring office before becoming a hairstylist in 1989. Not only has my dad been forced to retire, but so has my mom, who’s leaving a career she loves to take care of her husband. My parents had planned on rekindling their dating days of the 1980s. But small trips, new hobbies, and a potential move to California have been replaced by stressful journeys to the hospital and farewells to friends and family. My parents worked so, so hard to raise a family and enjoy their elder years.

My dad has said it pains him most that he won’t get to share the future with Mom and me—the friend in him wishes he could watch more basketball games with me, the fan in him wants to see me publish a book and develop on camera, and the father in him wants to simply be there for life’s highs and lows.

Dad’s still here now, though. My family will cherish our time together, no matter how long he’s around. I recently told him the most valuable lesson he ever taught me was to be mindful. He pushed me to take advantage of opportunities that develop, especially with my career. He reminded me to cherish every moment, since only the present is promised, especially the ones we’ve had watching sports.

The only time that I can ever recall a sporting event making us both tear up was Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals. The Celtics annihilated the Lakers, 131-92, on their way to their first championship since 1986. It was a special night, not just because the Celtics won a title. It was the journey we took to get there. It was the years of those trips into Boston, and nights watching from home, rooting for a team that hadn’t won anything in a long time. It was what we had endured as fans. It was the losing, year after year. Just a season prior, the Celtics tanked their way to 18 consecutive losses and had hopes of drafting a franchise savior. But they lost the lottery, and it seemed like Paul Pierce would be traded. Somehow, they dealt for Ray Allen on draft night and fleeced the Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett, who had long been my favorite non-Celtic ever since my first live game in December 2000. The Big Three was formed. From Allen’s game-winner at the buzzer to Garnett’s laying out Zaza to Pierce’s wheelchair game to the Doc Rivers Gatorade shower, it all felt surreal considering where they started.

Garnett summed up the feeling every Celtics fan felt, shouting, “Anything is possible!” My dad and I both lost it. As we laughed and hugged, he stopped, looked at me, and said how thankful he was that we shared the experience together. It seems so simple, but his recognition of the moment—a father and son, watching a team they never gave up on celebrate a championship—still sticks with me. He always taught mindfulness, even if he didn’t know it. This mentality has become part of my fabric; it helps most today as our family must make the best of each day despite the looming challenges.

Cancer changes everything, but in some ways, it changes nothing. We all have this one life in which death is the lone inevitability. Every day must be maximized, regardless of the circumstances that life deals you. The road ahead will not be easy, but my family still has each other. Cancer can take his life, but it can’t take our love.