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My father has to be one of the biggest sports fans in the small town of Pocatello, Idaho. This is a man who loves the Chicago Bears. A man who has refereed football and basketball since his 20s. Worked as an umpire for baseball and softball. Played tennis in local tournaments. Lived as a ski bum for a couple winters. Played golf when he had the chance. The television remotes number keys 2 and 4 were worn out in my childhood because that was what channel ESPN was on: channel 24. He was a Utah Stars fan when the ABA was still in Utah.
My father’s job literally was sports. He was, and still is, the Recreation Coordinator for the City of Pocatello. He has been in that job since I was about 4 years old. He coordinated the Simplot Games for a number of years. One time even coordinating it from a hospital room when he had fallen ill and almost died due to some fluke illness that the doctors never were able to diagnose. My dad lives, breathes, and dies sports.
From the time I was born, my father was breeding me to be an athlete. My mother wanted a bible name. She wanted to name me Michael. My father liked the name Michael, but if there was anything sports had taught him, it was that I had to have a recognizable name for my future career as a professional athlete. He spelled my name, Mychal; after Mychal Thompson who would later have a son named Klay Thompson.
My mom wanted to get me my first Teddy Bear. My father made sure it was a Chicago Teddy-Bear.
Despite my mother being 5’1 and my father being 5’8, my dad was sure I could be great at basketball. He bought me my first hoop when I was about 1 and a half. He would play "ball" with me until I passed out at night. Later when I got older he bought my brother and I our first basketball hoop which we’d play in the driveway.
But when I was younger, sports never had the pull on me that they had for my dad. He’d get me some sports memorabilia or put me into baseball, and I’d beg for some ghostbusters toys. He’d buy me a Jazz shirt and I’d beg for Shaq shoes and an Orlando Magic jersey. He’d put me into flag football and I’d count down the minutes until I could get home and watch Power Rangers. Looking back on those years, my dad was really trying to connect with me, and I was putting up my child walls of toys, comics, and videogames.
But as a child, I lived the charmed suburb life. Two parents. Mom stayed at home with us. Dad worked and was the bread winner. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but we were middle class and things were good.
My dad didn’t have it so easy. His father was an alcoholic, abusive. My father remembers his dad taking him to the bar and my dad just having to wait hours until they’d go home with his dad verbally berating him. My dad from these terrible times became amazing at Pinball. You see, my grandfather would give him a couple 25 cents worth of nickels and dimes and those coins would provide my dad’s entertainment for the night. You choke at pinball and have a few bad turns, and it was watching his dad slowly turn into a belligerent drunk with no where to go. No lie, when I was a kid I would get cold sweats if I saw my dad step up to a pinball machine because we wouldn’t be going anywhere for an hour if he did AND it’d be from one quarter's worth of turns.
My dad’s mom was working non-stop. Both my grandparents worked for the Bell telephone company. They were always absent. My dad was an only child. He had step-siblings who were much older, but they were from a prior marriage of my grandfathers. I don’t know the details on why it fell apart but I can only guess it was due to the abusive nature of my grandfather. My father was babysat by a family in the neighborhood. So much so that the neighborhood thought my dad was their son, and not my grandparents. I guess that’s where sports came in. Sports weren’t just entertainment to my dad. They were his refuge. His only safe place in an abusive and lonely childhood. It was how my dad could feel a part of something. It was where he could be happy.
Hence why my dad tried so hard to get my brother and I to be in every sport imaginable. He wanted us to enjoy his domain. The place where he felt at home. I joke around with people when I tell them my dad put me in every sports program he ran just to see if there was something I was good at, but I’m not lying. He really did. Here’s a full list of sports that I tried and failed miserably at:
- Rock Climbing
- Cross Country Skiing
And there are photos somewhere of the photo day for all those teams. At every single one of those sports, my dad tried to help his short chubby son be successful. He’d practice in the driveway shooting hoops and doing dribbling drills. He’d play catch and even tried to help me become a pitcher. Failed, but he tried. Helped me learn how to catch a football. Would take me to the tennis courts late at night and use his city key to turn on the lights so we could have the courts all to ourselves. Cheer me on at swimming meets. Take me golfing with his buddies. Help me condition for track. Even went to gymnastics practice and would point at me as if I was the best damn kid who ever half assed a cartwheel.
But I failed at them all. Miserably.
By high school I had stopped my athletic pursuits and got into something well beyond my dad’s comfort zone: drama. This couldn’t be further from my dad’s love language. He wanted to connect through how the Bears were terrible yet again or how Jordan pushed off. No one in my family really could reciprocate his sports verbiage. I was the one who had least had a base knowledge of basketball, but didn’t really have a lot of interest.
Little did my dad know, but sports were far from a refuge for me. My failures, my height, my chubbiness and lack of conditioning had made me the prime target for bullying. I was made fun of, heckled, singled out, and beaten up. By the time high school arrived I couldn’t wait for sports to be in the rear view mirror. Drama became my refuge; my happy place.
Then right before Christmas I was cast in the school play of Peter Pan. Because of my height and my size I was perfect to play John. Even better I got to fly. But it required a parent to volunteer. My dad would be the one pulling me up and down in the air via pulley. He would stand on a ladder holding a rope, jump off of it thus lifting me in the air and helping the school dodge liabilities should anything go wrong.
Before rehearsals started, though, my dad’s world got rocked. On Christmas Day, his mother passed away. The prior night we had read Christmas cards to her before she passed the next day. We were going to visit her in the afternoon on Christmas but by the time we arrived home, she had passed on. I know he still feels guilty for not seeing her first thing in the morning.
You see, my dad’s father had already passed away when I was born 14 years earlier burying in essence that complicated relationship. But the death of my grandmother really rocked him to the core. My dad was alone. With no cousins, no siblings, no father, he was left to handle all the burial arrangements and the estate. A few friends arrived for the funeral and some of my grandmother’s living relatives, but for the most part, it was a small funeral.
He regressed. By the time rehearsals started for Peter Pan my dad was a shell of himself. He was in a cocoon of emotions. The normally happy and smily dad was gone. He stayed up later at night. The glow of Sportscenter or the Utah Jazz game from the tv hitting his face was a nightly occurrence. The only times he lit up like he used to during this time was when you talk sports with him.
I don’t really remember when it happened or what motivated me to start doing it, but after rehearsals were over at school (we had some company helping us do the flying effects so rehearsals would end at 9:00-10:00PM), I’d chill with my dad while he watched Sportscenter and the Utah Jazz. I think I did it at first to avoid going to bed because I was so wired from rehearsals and I wanted to avoid homework. But soon I kept watching the games with him because I got to see my dad again. My dad who was happy. Who was uplifting.
Soon I became engrossed with the Utah Jazz as much as he was. While I remember the Finals years—my dad actually mowed the Utah Jazz logo in our front yard for the playoffs—I became a fan of the Utah Jazz in the twilight of John Stockton and Karl Malone’s careers. My dad would explain the flex offense like it was a religion. He’d talk about how they play tough and don’t back down. We’d drive down to Salt Lake City to games and sit in the nosebleeds. My dad would brag about how he knew the secret parking spot at this Subway Sandwich shop a few blocks from the arena and we could avoid parking fees and the traffic.
Meanwhile, he became my biggest coach at Peter Pan rehearsals. He’d pull me aside after scenes as if we were in the big game, I was the quarterback, and we were down 4 with 2:00 minutes remaining, "You see, you had the audience there. They were eating it up and you let ‘em slip through. I really think if you emphasize this line, you’ll have a great scene. Now go get ‘em." And he pat me on the back, give me a drink from my water bottle, and start climbing the ladder where he’d literally jump so I could have the illusion of flying.
Soon after Peter Pan, my dad started recovering emotionally from the death of his mother. I have no idea if our late night Jazz sessions and Peter Pan rehearsals helped him through the process. I like to think they did. But even if they didn’t, by the end of it I was a fan of the Utah Jazz and, most importantly, I had my dad back.
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