YOU HEAR that sports are silly and shallow and even pointless, and maybe once in a while you even think that yourself. Then you hear the story of Max and Chip Hooper.
In late February, Chip flew from California to Michigan to watch the last regular-season game of his son Max's senior year at Oakland University. Chip had planned to see a whole bunch of Max's games this season, even as Chip battled cancer, but right before the season started he had a stroke. Max says, "The stroke was a whole new ball game. That was transformative."
So Chip missed the whole season until the very end, when he showed up for senior night on Feb. 26 and watched the Golden Grizzlies beat Detroit from a bed in the stands.
Eight days later, he passed away at 53.
But that's not the story of Chip and Max Hooper. That's just the made-for-video moment and the devastating ending.
This is their story:
Chip Hooper should have been the coolest dad in the world. Other parents performed boring tasks in drab offices; Chip was a talent agent representing musical acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. You might expect that to buy him some street cred at his own kitchen table, but there was one problem. "I hated music growing up," Max told me last week. "I didn't develop an appreciation for it until I had friends who liked Dave Matthews, or parents of friends. They'd say, 'Have you met Dave Matthews?' 'Met him? What do you mean? He's my friend.' I knew my dad had a great job, but I never thought, This is so amazing."
To Max, amazing was not a guitar riff or a drum solo. Amazing was an empty gym, a leather ball and nobody looking to kick you out.
Max was his family's only hoopster; nobody else played basketball or seemed especially interested in it. But Max would shoot in his driveway until the sun went down, then ask his mom to turn on the car headlights so he could shoot more. He used a ball-gun machine to practice his shot "until I couldn't feel my arms," he says. At meals, Max would quiz the family about basketball stats.
Chip figured out: You can choose to bond with your kids, but you can't choose how you do it. That's up to them. "Basketball is Max's whole world," says Max's younger sister, Valerie, a Duke student who took classes in California this term to help care for her dad. "It became a big part of my dad's life too, because Max is a big part of his life."
At night Chip would tell Max, "I believe in you." And Max would say, "I believe in myself."
Chip would say, "I believe in your dreams." And Max would say, "I believe in my dreams."
And Chip would say, "You're going to make them all come true." And Max would say, "I'm going to make them all come true."
That's another made-for-video scene, but Max says Chip's example was "far more than words. It's his work ethic and his drive, the way he raised me."
Chip was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2011. Max was a freshman at Harvard when he got the news. A severe illness can strengthen a relationship, but this relationship didn't need strengthening. Max and Chip kept talking almost every day, usually about basketball. Gyms and circumstances changed, but the game never did.
Max transferred from Harvard to St. John's, where he barely played. Eventually Max landed at Oakland, in the Detroit suburbs. Back in California, Chip watched on TV, often yelling at it—as engrossed by hoops as Max always was. Valerie arranged for her father to fly to that last home game, and when it ended and Oakland had won and earned the second seed in the Horizon League tournament, Max ran into the stands and barreled past his sister to get to their dad. The clip quickly went viral—the Vine has nearly one million views.
Says Max, "Since I first fell in love with the game at four years old, it's been him and me on the journey." And that is the real story of Max and Chip Hooper.
A severe illness can strengthen a relationship, but the one between Max and Chip Hooper didn't need strengthening.
What's the most touching sports moment you've ever seen?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED