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Jazz Aficionados

In his father's final days, the author, who wrote a best-selling memoir about his family, found harmony in the travails of an NBA team

MY DAD, BOB, dreamed of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and in October 2006 at the St. George (Utah) Marathon he did, with a time of 3:34:56. Later that month, at age 53, he was diagnosed with ALS.

Despite the crushing news, my dad decided he'd still run Boston. He finished the race—arms linked with those of his trusty running pals—in 6:12:57, more than 2½ hours slower than his time at St. George only seven months earlier.

After celebrating his amazing accomplishment, we went back to our room at the Hyatt. My dad was so exhausted that he couldn't lift his arms. They hung at his side like broken tree branches. He was sweaty and salty. He needed a shower. That led to a situation that a son only imagines in a nightmare: I had to bathe my dad.

As I began to undress him in the hotel bathroom, he said, "I'm sorry about this."

"It's O.K.," I said. He had become so skinny: Each rib was outlined through his sagging skin; his shoulder blades were as sharp as volcanic rocks. The disease was ruining him.

As I began to wash him, he could've talked about how sad he was that this would be his last marathon or about how scared he was to face this relentless disease. But instead he said, "So, do you think the Jazz will make the playoffs this year?"

And then we spent the rest of the bath discussing the playoff prognosis for the Utah Jazz.

The team was a staple of my childhood. I was lucky enough to grow up during the John Stockton--Karl Malone era, and we had season tickets. My dad was a busy man, running his own newspaper business and taking care of my mom, Debi, who was battling Stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but we'd always find time to sneak away to the Delta Center.

My dad would buy us popcorn, and when I was of age, he added beer. It was our activity, the time we had together to talk not only about the intricacies of NBA basketball but also about life. We'd discuss my mom's illness, which college to attend and how I could get girls in Utah to like me even though I wasn't a Mormon.

As the ALS progressed, my dad had to go on a respirator. The dependable legs that had propelled him through six marathons stopped working, and he was confined to a hospital bed.

But we still caught every Jazz game on TV. He couldn't high-five any more, so I'd pull a chair up next to his bed and we'd do foot high-fives whenever something good happened. "Maybe I should jam some beer and popcorn into your feeding tube," I'd joke.

The games were a break from a bleak situation—a few hours of respite from the urinals, diapers, wheelchairs, feeding tubes and breathing machines. And on March 8, 2008, we got to attend a game in person again. One of our neighbors gave our family—including my brother and three sisters—tickets to a luxury suite. My dad's respirator dangled from the back of his 450-pound wheelchair as we watched Utah center Mehmet Okur catch fire, nailing six three-pointers as the Jazz beat the Nuggets 132--105. Being back on our old stomping grounds made it seem like things might go back to how they were before the ALS storm hit.

It was the last game my dad saw in person. The Jazz made the playoffs that year. I was hoping they'd go on some crazy championship run so my dad could see them win the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but all the foot high-fives in the world couldn't slow down the Kobe-led Lakers. They eliminated the Jazz in six games in the second round.

My dad died a few months later, after he elected to discontinue use of the respirator. Basketball is a silly game—a bunch of giants tossing a little orange ball through a metal hoop—but I had seen its power. Sports give us a medium to spend time together and help us become closer to the ones we love.

I still watch most Jazz games. Every season my mom—who fought off the cancer—and I go to at least one game together. If the Jazz win a championship in my lifetime, I will probably cry, hopefully with my mom at my side. And it won't be out of happiness for Gordon Hayward.

Dan Marshall's memoir HOME IS BURNING was published in October 2015.

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