12 Years Gone and Duke Basketball

We spent so many hours with basketball.

With one in our hands — from a tiny Nerf ball for the Jordan Jammer that stood in our house until I was seven; a mini-leather ball when I graduated to the court in our driveway; and a regulation ball with a faux-Jordan signature that I dribbled and dribbled until the signature had eroded away when I played proudly but sparingly for my high school.

With one on our TV — watching Jordan and Magic and Bird out of awe, and out of devotion, Ferry and Laettner and Hill and Capel and Brand and Battier.

With one on our minds, as we tapped out emails at late hours after Mom had gone to bed and Dad merely awaited a good night note from me, concluding a long night in the bowels of the newspaper office, as I put the sports section to bed once more at the Duke Chronicle.

In the early days, before Duke was Duke, we’d sit on opposite couches in the family room, watching the Blue Devils falter year after year until finally they’d found their way to a championship. He’d hold that Nerf ball, and we’d pass it back and forth during timeouts, our superstitious contribution to the game being played a few hundred miles away. The game would end, and no matter the hour, we’d shoot around ourselves — Dad was always the rebounder and passer, and I was always the aspirant shooter, working on a jab step or a crossover before releasing another shot. The asphalt was uneven and the rim was too, but it was home, and the minutes we’d steal, shooting around, would echo as I grew older, more serious about the game, and yet more understanding that it would always just be a game for me.

It wasn’t until my father lay in a hospital bed, on his 58th birthday — February 17, 2005 — that I knew, to a certainty, that it was much more.

It bad become my greatest regret that, nearly a year prior, I had failed to convince my father to join me at the Final Four in San Antonio. Our Blue Devils were playing, and I was attending as part of my duties as the sports editor of the school paper. I had secured a ticket for him, but a nagging but unidentified health issue kept him from coming with me. I sold the ticket the day before the game, and he watched from home while I watched courtside as Duke fell in a heartbreaker to Connecticut.

It turned out to be esophageal cancer, something we learned a few weeks into my senior year at my father’s alma mater. I’d grown up in the garb, and in devotion to the basketball program that had been my father’s refuge from the stresses he faced as a collegian 30-some years before. He had to keep up his GPA to keep pace for a full academic scholarship; he had to keep working through the grief of losing his father back home in West Virginia; he had to get up and out. And regular visits to Cameron Indoor Stadium, long before the fans were known as obnoxious — let alone the “Crazies” — were a joy and a stress relief all at once.

All I wanted was for him to get up and out of that hospital bed on his 58th birthday. I wanted him home, wrapped in his own sheets, where my mother and I could take care of him, and where he could die around the rooms he’d made his own, that he’d filled with his love. I had flown up from Durham on his birthday, the card I’d sent having beaten me by a day; my mother had pinned it to his pillow, even though he was not conscious to read it.

Watching Duke play that season, either beside my father’s hospital bed or from afar in the apartment I shared with my two closest college friends, was dulled from what it once had been. I couldn’t truly share it with my father. I tried, however. The basketball program was generous, signing basketballs for my father that I placed in his room. They were meant to make him happy, but I wonder now, 12 years gone, if they felt like a cruel taunt instead.

They sit now in his old home office, a memorial that is largely untouched from how he left it, but for the papers that have been shredded or filed away, the desk cleared but for the pens and paper in the top drawer, as if he might reappear and get back to practicing law.

Duke had lost that night, on his birthday. I don’t remember watching it; like so much, it was unavailable to us in the Intensive Care Unit of Mt. Carmel West Hospital. I read him the story the next day, as I did with much of the rest of the sports section, a bridge to normalcy I could cross with him whether his eyes were open or shut. I returned to Duke only to field a call a few mornings later from my mother. His six-month bout had taken too much from him. There was no fight left in his body; his organs had begun to fail.

In the hours after my dad passed away, my mother and I sat around a table, drafting an obituary. It was not the obituary we’d have written today; it reads as cold today as it felt to write it. The flourish came in designating the memorial donations we hoped his friends and family would contribute, their way and ours of beginning to live the legacy I hope I may further for many decades to come. We had already decided to establish funds at the nursing school that had educated the men and women that cared for us since August, and on a scholarship at my high school alma mater to benefit a student of color. But we needed something to connect him to Duke as well.

I reached out to the person with whom I had worked when I was the sports editor, the same person that had ensured Dad received the signed basketballs. His idea was perfect: to dedicate a blue window that lined the perimeter of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

When I graduated a few months later, my mom and I visited the window and its plaque — “George Nassif Corey’69: Quintessential Blue Devil” — a ritual I repeat any time I’m lucky enough to return to campus.

Duke didn’t produce a magical run to the championship in 2005, but it did in 2010 and 2015, the latter just a state away from us in Indianapolis, the first I’d ever attended as a fan. I stood there, as Duke celebrated, and cried. It was Duke’s fifth championship, and I felt him with me, beaming.

Though I cannot lay my eyes on him anymore, or wrap my arms around him, I still see him on occasion in my sleep. He visits unexpectedly, and never for any particular reason, though he is always welcome. He has not aged from my last memories of him as a healthy man, his thin light hair and his tanned face from the final vacation we took before I departed for school and he departed his life. We catch up as if no time had passed, and never acknowledge the reality that awaits when I awake. We talk about my wife, and my mother, and Duke, and what I should do next with my life, now that my tenure on the Clinton campaign is done.

I only dreamt of my father once while he was still alive. It was January, and he was undergoing what would be his final surgery, an attempt to dry up a lymph leak that had made a full recovery impossible from his initial procedure to remove the cancer in his body. I could not bear the stress, and instead slept in the waiting room, sprawled across a trio of chairs. And he came to me, and asked my permission to let go. I did not grant it, and pleaded that he continue to fight.

I miss him every day, but especially on those cruel anniversaries — his birthday on February 17, and his death on February 25, and his burial on February 28. March Madness was always our favorite month, and though bittersweet, has been all the more so since, with the release it brings year after year.

The game means a little less to me again, the world as it is. And perhaps, it never should have meant this much. Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, journalists, women, my fellow Middle Easterners — so many justifiably feel so much trepidation at the world as it is dribbled by a man and a movement that cares so little. It is madness. What could a game, and the March Madness I adore, matter now, with so much in the balance? Is it just another cruel taunt, a reminder of the life that once was and that we can no longer have?

Yet the lump in my throat, the warmth of sharing something with a father I can no longer physically embrace, makes me know better: These little things we love, be they the games we play or the music we make or the lives we touch, still matter in the constellation that makes up our time under the sun.

If they don’t, then we’ve lost long ago.

But they do; they are not lost, nor are we. We will find a way.