Remembering the trip of a lifetime

Two of my father's college friends decided to do something incredible nice for a young kid who loved sports and in the process turned Seattle into a beacon in my life.

When I was a newspaper reporter in my 20s, I was prone to pitching the kind of first-person stories that would allow me to write declarative sentences.

I dramatized a boat ride: “I’m 24, with an above-average adrenaline quotient, but I never feared for my life until I took my first 80-mph turn in a hydroplane.”

I got sappy about meeting Gary Carter, my childhood idol: “On the day baseball’s stars arrived in Seattle, I shook hands with my hero.”

I moralized about the raciness of pro wrestling: “There shouldn’t be any kids at the event.”

I’m 47 now, a little more circumspect and am sheepish about my desire to speak so emphatically, which is why I’m a little embarrassed to write that the NCAA Tournament changed my life. It gives off a heavy whiff of exaggeration with an underlying scent of melodrama. But it’s true. It did. On multiple occasions, in fact, and it’s that history that serves as a backdrop for my trip to San Diego this weekend to watch six games over three days in the opening rounds of my favorite sporting event on the calendar.

First, you’re going to have to learn a little bit about my family for this newsletter, which is free for everyone today.

My father grew up in Los Angeles, attending Loyola High School. He graduated in 1968 and from there enrolled at UC-Santa Barbara, much to my grandmother’s chagrin. She wanted him at a Catholic college. She didn’t like when he moved out of the dorms, either, and I don’t think she ever knew about the motorcycle he owned with a fellow named Artie Hardy. My father, whom we all called Pop, met my Mom at Santa Barbara, and they moved to Berkeley where he graduated with a degree in forestry. From there went to Oregon where he became a logger and they had a family. I was born in 1974, the first of their three children.

My Pop was sick from his early 20s on. It started with an exceptionally high fever during a backpacking trip with my mother that was their honeymoon. He woke up, his shirt soaking wet and freezing stiff in the cold alpine air.

He started running these exceptionally high fevers every couple weeks or so. He would sweat through the night and his joints would become painfully sore. No one could figure out what was wrong. At one point they did an exploratory surgery, which in the 1970s meant an incision from mid-sternum down to his navel. They were looking for something, anything, that might explain what was happening. They didn’t find anything. He had a 9-inch zipper of a scar down the middle of his chest. He told me it’s where the alien popped out. To this day I will not watch that freaking movie or any of the sequels.

I don’t remember my Pop ever becoming sick; I just knew that he was never truly well. He was mobile and active, but he never ran. It hurt too much. He would swim for exercise for a while, and then even that became too much.

By 1987, it was too much for him to travel so he stayed home in Oregon when we went to the Bay Area for a reunion that included friends of his from both high school and college. My Mom began to cry when we arrived, hugging one of their friends. I thought she was happy to see him, realizing only years alter it was because she knew what it meant my Pop wasn’t there.

Tom Kelly and Rob Morrell were both at that reunion. I’d never met them before because while they’d both gone to high school with my Pop, they attended different colleges. Rob was a doctor who lived in North Carolina, Tom was a newspaper editor who lived in Seattle. Over the course of that day they came to find out just what a nut I was about sports, specifically college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, which was then underway.

This was a Saturday, and Tom was headed back to Seattle the next morning to watch the West Regional final between Iowa and UNLV, which had become one of my favorite teams that season. By the time the reunion was over, Tom and Rob had hatched a plan to fly me up to Seattle with Tom, watch the game, and fly back to the Bay Area on Sunday night.

The game was incredible, UNLV trailing by as many as 17 points before storming back behind a hailstorm of 3-pointers from Gerald Paddio. Freddie Banks was on that team, too. And Armon Gilliam and a guy named Eldridge Hudson, whose knees were creaking at that point but went by the nickname El-Hud.

I’ve thought a lot about that first trip in the 35 years that have passed since then. It was such an incredibly kind gesture by two of my Dad’s high-school classmates, who decidedly to do something incredibly nice for a kid whose father was sick.

My Pop died the year after that trip to Seattle to watch the tournament. His illness had been diagnosed as Still’s Disease, an adult-onset form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It’s rarely fatal, but it was in his case as it developed into an auto-immune disorder. He was housebound for most of the final year of his life. He was 38 when he died, leaving behind my Mom, Carol Jean, and my younger siblings Robin and Casey.

In the year that followed, Seattle became a beacon to me. It’s too much to say that trip shaped the rest my life, but it certainly played a role. Seattle is where I chose to attend college and where I decided to return to after working in Connecticut for a year and a half. It’s where I lived for 20 years and where I met the woman who agreed to marry me and whom I’ve now followed across the country.

It’s a history that I trace back to that first trip to see a basketball game. That was the first time the NCAA Tournament changed my life. I’ll tell you about the second time on Monday.

But for now, there’s some hoops to watch. I’m here with Tom, his three sons among a group of 21 headed to the four games being played in San Diego today. Who knows, it might be life changing.

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