Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Joe, We Hardly Knew Ye

Joe the Dynamo
Deke's Note: One of my former hobbies was coaching youth basketball on the recreational level. My sons both loved "to hoop," and it's the one and only sport I have truly enjoyed. Driving my bus line has brought me back in touch with a few of my former players, and it's delightful to see them now as adults. This is a tale of an encounter with one of those young men I will never forget.

It had been a few years since I had seen him, so at first I didn't recognize the slight young man who stood in the bus entry.

Joseph said hello, and I looked up. Sometimes, I forget to greet people. It's disheartening nowadays with the Hop Pass passengers who believe this new fare system is their ticket to completely ignore us. So sometimes I just ignore back. This time, it was I who made this social faux pas.

"Hello," I said looking up. My face must have been a study in confusion.

"It's me," he said quietly, "Joseph!"

I studied the handsome young face before me, and a moment later it all came back. Then I was embarrassed, because this lad was not only one of my favorite basketball players as a coach, but his stepfather and I have been close friends for a decade.

"Oh my God!" I exclaimed. "Joe! Wow, it's great to see you!"

We shook hands, and his face lit up with that wry grin he'd had since he was a wee lad.

"Sorry," I continued, "but it's been years, and now you're all grown up. Look at you!"

"Yeah," he replied, "it's been a while, Coach."

Joe boarded my bus at the beginning of the line. For the next hour and a quarter, he stood up front, talking to me. He was both excited about his new job and melancholy about losing his girlfriend. It was obvious she was still very much on his mind. His sadness, as it always had, shone in his piercing eyes. We exchanged family news, his describing the current lives of his brothers and my catching him up on my sons.

For quite a while, we relived our team's ups and downs. He laughed at how we used to butt heads, since we're both very stubborn.

"You were a very tough nut to crack," I said, smiling. "But I don't think you ever did."

On the basketball court, Joe was one of the smallest but he had the heart of a lion. He was ferocious on defense, often letting his hands get him into foul trouble. Watching him handle a basketball was like seeing a live symphony orchestra. He was fluid, natural and intense. Nobody scared him, not even the teams I considered "semi pro," whose only reason for being in a league was to whip everybody. Joe would not cower in the face of the mightiest foe. A natural in any sport, he challenged anyone to best him, and usually won the battle.

I have always loved small point guards because of their speed and determination. Joe had plenty of both. A lefty, he confounded players who tried to guard him, because he could go either way and flash by them with ease, his jaw firmly clenched and usually scoring at will. Flashing past defenders, he would find his brother Ian with a quicker-than-a-blink pass for an easy inside basket, or fake his defender out of his shoes for an uncontested layup. Even Damian Lillard would have been impressed by this fearless dynamo.

Some players need coaching; this 13-year-old simply needed encouragement. I marveled at his skills, and sometimes had to remind him of the other players on the court. While not a ball hog, he could easily have taken on any team one-on-five, and bested them two out of three.

Joe never bragged, yet I could tell he was not afraid to trash talk a bit on the court. If a bigger kid challenged him, he stepped right in and would not back down. His temper was fiery, but his respect for good players was genuine.

One of his finest moments on the court nearly freaked me out. His stepfather was the Head Coach of that team and I was his Assistant. The season prior to that, our roles were reversed. Tom and I learned a lot from each other that way. While we were often prone to coaching mistakes, we were both committed to the boys who fought hard every game. We spent an hour every week planning practices and tailoring offensive sets for this talented bunch of rec players. Our lifetime friendship was forged on the backs of our young and determined teams.

Just before advancing to the league championship game, Tom suffered a heart attack and stroke. It was up to me to lead the team in the most important challenge of the season. With a prayer for my close friend, I took a deep breath before bringing our team together. I reminded them that their coach was with us in heart and spirit, and to play for him but most of all, as Tom would want, for themselves. They were to have fun and play hard, and accept the final outcome as a victory, no matter the score. We were intensely proud of them, and I think they knew.

Up seven late in the second quarter, our team had the ball. There were 10 seconds left on the clock when Joe took the inbound pass. The defense had sprinted down court, expecting us to rush in for a layup. Joe had other ideas. With me standing there open-mouthed, Joe calmly walked the ball to half-court. I had told him we needed a strong finish to the half, hopefully with a three-pointer or an and-one.

"Joe," I said from the sideline, "what are you doing? Let's go!"

He glanced at me sideways with his trademark smirk, but continued his slow dribble. He was watching the clock tick down. As it showed a scant few seconds, he launched a shot... from the half court line. We watched in awe as the ball slow-motioned through the air. Everyone else on the court, the crowd and the referees, stood dumbfounded. SWISH! Right as time expired and the horn sounded. Suddenly, we had a 10 point lead in the championship game.

Joe's teammates erupted, as did the crowd. I stood there with hands on hips, smiling broadly and shaking my head at this dynamo point guard. He had a magnificent grin as he looked at me and nodded. He seemed to be saying "See Coach? No worries."

We both laughed at each other's perspectives of "The Shot."

"You were pissed at me, huh?" he said, chuckling as he recalled my facial contortions.

"Well," I stammered, "not really, but I was wondering what the hell you were up to, ya scoundrel. Good for you it went in though!"

We laughed some more, and I was happy to be spending some fun time with Joseph. I told him I was proud of him for working through his problems, and suggested he "hit up" my sons, who really thought he was cool. He said he would, but I don't know if he did. Joe always seemed a bit of a loner.

After that night, he rode a few more times. Each time he seemed even more sad, withdrawn. I would try to engage him, and he would talk a moment or two before walking back to take a seat. Perhaps I was just another "old guy" to him, and he didn't have much to say. Either way, I tried to be encouraging and earnestly told him it was good to catch up.

Just yesterday, I learned Joe had died at the age of 23. His mother and Tom are understandably heartbroken. This news was shattering to me not only because I loved this young man, but also his parents. His four brothers are truly grief-stricken, their worlds torn apart by this devastating loss. No words could console them; they each know a grief we as parents consider a nightmare none of us want to imagine.

Today on my run, I couldn't look at people. My eyes were almost constantly filled with tears, as they remain. I remembered Joe not only as a kid, but also the gentle man he had grown into. Thinking of what this has done to his family was the most painful, because Joseph has moved on into peace. I wept for his parents and brothers, as much as for how much I'll miss him too.

The last person I lost was Daddy Blue, my only hero. I knew and revered him like no other. It was very hard to lose him, but he was at peace with dying because he had lived a long and happy life.

Joe was young, a new man with decades before him. There was no justifying his death... just a deep, echoing hollow with these words ringing in my soul: "Joseph, we hardly knew ye, and not nearly long enough."

Rest in peace, young prince. You shot a hole into your defenders, and left a stinging hollow in those of us who remain here in your lively wake. We will never forget you.


  1. Such A sad sorry, so hard to lose someone!

  2. Deke I’m so sorry for your loss. What you wrote is a beautiful epitaph for a young man who seemingly left too soon. Stacy Hall

  3. From Joseph’s mom:
    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful memory. As Joes mother it is nice to see people remember him it those times. Joe had two passions in life first is skate boarding and basketball. He loved being on your team helping with the team. I remember how parents would scream from the bleachers get the little one. Block the little one. I remember turning around saying that little ones my son and he has a name and its Joseph. I remember when he was barely 1 he climbed up to the arm of my couch i watched as he stood up with his rubber basketball in hand and with almost perfect form shot the ball into his baby swing. I knew then he was a natural. At 4 I taught him how to ride his bike without training wheels. A few days later my neighbor came to me and said “do you want him going off ramps?” I said what are you talking about he just learned how to ride his bike. She said “you might want to tell him that hes going off ramps” and sure enough he was racing in the parking lot jumping.