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Champion editor’s most treasured moments remain linked to dad and basketball

Brian Hendrickson

I can’t tell you when I first touched a basketball. But I can tell you why I fell in love with it.

It was no later than the second grade. I wasn’t very competitive at the time. I winced when defending in soccer, always afraid the ball was going to hit me in the face. I was scrawny, thanks to constant battles with tonsillitis that multiplied each winter, so I was certain peewee football would break me in two. Baseball was fun — except the younger pitchers loved to emulate Doc Gooden’s power, but not his control. I got tired of getting hit on the sandlot and gave it up for several years. I seemed destined for the golf course.

But basketball, that felt different. My dad introduced me to the game because it was his first love, too. At my grandparents’ house, I found newspaper clippings from his playing days that made him sound on par with my NBA heroes. He led his high school team in scoring. He even played a game with a broken arm. In a cast. A plaster cast. Apparently, health and safety rules were more lenient in the 1960s. I wanted to be just like him.

And because of basketball, I could be like him. Other kids were stronger. Some were taller. Many were more aggressive. But on the court, I could beat them if I could outthink them. If I understood how to use a screen, or knew when to cut, or where to move without the ball, or where to find a teammate for a layup, the muscle I lacked didn’t matter as much. I felt valuable.

In this special basketball issue of Champion, we explore how the game will evolve in the months and years ahead to overcome the unsavory influences that have soured the college recruiting scene in recent years. But we also celebrate why basketball matters in the first place. Take a look at the interviews collected with key figures in the game, “Why I Love Basketball,” and see if they make you recall how you fell in love. That’s the effect they had on me.

My dad taught me the basics of the backscreen, the chest pass, the fundamentals of a jump shot. When he wasn’t teaching me the game as my elementary school team’s coach, we were watching it together on TV as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dueled in the NBA Finals throughout the 1980s. Dad marveled at Bird’s court vision and Johnson’s ability to elevate his game in clutch moments. A couple of times each year, we would get in the car and drive to Seattle SuperSonics games, where my dad explained why “Downtown” Freddie Brown’s jump shot was so smooth and why Jack Sikma was effective around the rim.

I didn’t understand those finer points, which fascinated Dad. That took many more years. But I understood early that this game was more than dunks and fast breaks. I learned there was beauty in the movement, even in the elementary offense he taught my YMCA-league team. He taught us that a good pick set in the right place could offset size and speed advantages other kids held, giving everyone on the team a chance to contribute.

Playing basketball wasn’t my destiny. Yet the game, and our conversations, carried on. It was the common denominator of our lives. No matter what was happening, we could talk about the teams I was covering as a newspaper reporter or the big games we watched as fans. We talked about the NCAA tournament and the NBA Finals. We discussed new talents who had emerged and new teams he found fascinating.

Those conversations even came with us to the hospital for his last days, when a major stroke paralyzed his left side and left him unable to open his eyes. A night later, I sat next to his bed, narrating the final moments of the Golden State Warriors’ championship victory over Cleveland. Steph Curry was Dad’s latest fascination, so I described the big shots he made that Dad couldn’t see. Dad’s responses became confusing late in that game, the early signs that his brain was swelling. Two weeks later, he was gone. That night was one of our final conversations. It’s the only one during that time that I can recall in specific detail.

So, is basketball important? Does it matter?

To be honest, I can’t imagine life without it.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.