I still remember hearing the sound of banging pots and pans from my neighbors outside. The Chicago Bulls had just won their fourth NBA championship, capping off a historic 72-win season. Everyone in the neighborhood was celebrating. I don’t recall actually watching those games at age 6. But I remember realizing through that experience what some guy named Michael Jordan meant to my father — an athlete and icon whose willpower and “competition problem” felt synonymous with the way my dad lived his life: proving others, anyone who doubted him, wrong.
That rip-your-heart-out-to-win version of Jordan so many of us saw with a magnifying glass in the recent ESPN documentary, “The Last Dance,” is what made watching the Bulls with my mom and dad from 1996-98 so life changing. I saw for my parents, watching basketball and an inspiring Jordan meant an escape from the rigors of daily life. That paved the way for me to pick up a basketball, and I still can hear my first chain net in Stelle, Ill., swooshing to give me that same emotional freedom my dad found.
Once I grew old enough, my dad planned the family finances around me going to instructional basketball camps. At one camp I attended at Bishop McNamara High School when I was in seventh grade, I found myself where my father played in 1968-1970. Having told me he was just an “average” player before that, I was astonished to see a photo in a trophy case of him being carried off the court.
My cousin and I pried the information out of my grandmother, Therese, and it was revealed he won a lot of games for his .500 Fighting Irish teams at the free-throw line. My dad made 108 free throws in a row back in his “prime.” The next day at the camp, being a typical 12-year-old, I created “Free-Throw Tom” sweatbands out of old Nike socks for the camp’s free-throw contest. I shot 47 for 50 after rubbing the sweatband as part of my FT routine.
Ever since, I wore the superstitious sock during my basketball career at Tri-Point High School to keep the family free-throw legacy going.
When my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2010, and I still was finishing my senior year in college 12 hours away, I wanted to do something to let him know I still was with him in spirit. I shaved my head to show him chemotherapy wouldn’t be his own battle. And I recreated two “Free-Throw Tom” sweatbands — one for him and one for me — to capture how we’re forever linked through sport. During that 18-month cancer fight, we both wore our sweatbands every day.
When we buried my father at All Saints Cemetery on River Road in 2012, he was wearing his sweatband on his right leg in the casket. Every day, I wear my raggedy sweatband on my right leg to commemorate the fact my best friend is still with me, helping me manage life’s struggles through the sport we both loved together.
During the eighth episode of “The Last Dance,” I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu and serendipity when Jordan, considered by most to be the greatest basketball player to ever live, was shown gripping a basketball and sobbing after the Bulls’ fourth NBA title. He had won it on Father’s Day, and it was his first ring without his dad by his side. Needless to say, I related to those emotions that were pouring out of Jordan — missing his best friend.
I also related to him when he was interviewed in present day, and you could virtually feel the enormous hole in his heart that still exists. That emptiness doesn’t go away. But the common thread of a sport such as basketball can help fill some of the void.
The emotional void surely is felt in this community where I grew up as a result of no professional sports on TV and the cancellation of local high school sports for area athletes, coaches and spectators. I’d give anything just to see even a little league game at Bird Park right about now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our hearts in so many challenging facets, including the escapism and entertainment that could be used to uplift us in dire times. But, sometimes, it takes a hole to see and appreciate what we’ve been filling our hearts with all this time.
So many of us have our stories of how we fell in love with sports. Mine is a confluence of moments related to basketball. When I coach grade school hoops in Chicago now, I leave an empty chair for my assistant coaching father up in heaven. When I write about college basketball bracket-busters and underdogs, the teams that like to prove the world wrong like my dad, I think of being in his hospital room six days before he passed.
We were watching March Madness together — just the two of us — and he was already in heaven. He had his son, and he had his sport. There was no need to escape anything anymore. Those moments that sports give us can’t be put into words. When they come back for good, I know I’ll be banging my own pots and pans this time.