"All a man's got is the integrity of his work." That was the lead sentence to the last column written by sports journalist Ralph Wiley, who died of a heart attack on June 14 while watching the NBA finals with his son.
Hell of a way to start off an article on a basketball game. Hell of a way to end a career, even for one of the most important voices to ever grace American sports or journalism. One of the many admirable qualities of Wiley's writing was his particular knack for capturing both the big picture and the minute detail. That opening sentence is the transitional phrase connecting these two extremes of human existence--the roles we play in the world, and our most personal selves, both of which he routinely proved to be infinitely more interesting than our respective uniforms.
The sudden nature of his transition--fast break, if you will--leads me to believe that the prescience of that sentence was unintentional. Indeed, the many memorials from his colleagues on espn.com's "Page 2" section were testament to numerous irons in the fire, a multitude of projects that Ralph Wiley will now never be able to complete. And yet the sentence hangs in the air like Jordan's championship-winning jump shot (the perfect one that preceded his "next-to-last" retirement), a graceful postscript, perfect place for an exit.
I'd been thinking about death earlier in the day, before hearing of his passing. While reading the news on the 'net, I ran across an article by Valerie Reitman of the L.A. Times relating the experiences of those caring for the terminally ill. After comparing her personal notes with physicians, caretakers, relatives and hospice workers, she identified a common theme of traveling and preparation for travel among those soon to depart this earth, particularly during their last days. Many recounted patients' and loved ones' lucid, waking dreams--no doubt, reality for them--which included detailed, travel-related inquiries. Not flights of fancy, these, but the minutiae of travel, things like being stuck in the passport office, or waiting for connecting flights and trains.
Those anecdotes of relatives preparing for a final journey certainly squared with my own family narratives, first- and second-hand recollections of relatives who've passed away after a long illness. It's as if, when we know it's coming, we pause on death's door, needing to know that everything will be taken care of after we've gone home. The article mentioned, as well, that the dying often don't seem to loosen their hold on this world until after they've received this assurance. In that, there's a certain sense of satisfaction on the part of the leaving and the left in such a long goodbye. I find irony there, for surely, if asked, most of us would prefer a quick transition to a slow, lingering fade to black.
I'd been thinking about death for a few weeks, really, due to my grandmother's recent health problems. Nana had a bout with cancer a few years back, had endured chemo and radiation and come out OK, to the best of our knowledge. She'd gone back to the hospital a little over a month ago due to some chronic swelling in her legs (lymphedema is a fairly common side effect of radiation therapy). She was adamant, however, that there would be no invasive testing or procedures this time around, expert opinions be damned.
Some of the doctors relayed suspicions to my mother and uncle that the cancer may have returned, but it's irrelevant at this point. My family hit 95 North on Memorial Day weekend, making the pilgrimage to Jersey to see my grandmother and my parents. She was in high spirits, and looked good. Nana was not the vital, perpetually late-middle-aged woman that I always picture her to be in my mind, but just the same, she was not the gaunt, world-weary woman I remember of her mother, my great-grandmom Wilson, during her twilight. After literally wondering whether she would make it home from the hospital, it was a blessing to see her.
Yet now, despite all my fervent prayer for her recovery, I find that I haven't been holding my end of the bargain. I haven't called but a couple times since seeing her, although I'd promised God and myself that I'd speak with her regularly, to help make her remaining weeks, months or years memorable and, hopefully, meaningful. But that promise from my inner self has been suborned to the uniform, the superficial me that plays in the day-to-day.
Tomorrow is not promised. Whenever I say to myself, "I'll do it tomorrow," I'm operating under what is, ultimately, a false sense of entitlement. And that's what bothered me about the death, at age 52, of a writer and personality in his prime, one with myriad projects in the air, and on deadline. If his last column seemed a fitting epitaph, a perfect punctuation to his life and career, it was because he wrote them all like that. That's the story.
I spoke with a friend shortly after the Pistons convincingly won Game 5 and the NBA Championship over the Lakers. I was calling to allow him to gloat--he'd predicted the Pistons, and I told him he was just being contrarian--since I figured I had it coming to me. He informed me that a close friend of his had just died, suddenly, at the age of 35. Blood clot. Not even of a heart attack or something that you could convince yourself is under your control. He was in good shape, and wasn't doing anything strenuous. Just got into his car and slumped over, his journey ended, sadly, leaving behind a wife and two young boys.
"All a man's got is the integrity of his work." Well, yes and no. In a professional sense? Sure. But beyond that uniform, under those team colors, all a man has got is the integrity of his life--the sum of his interactions with others.
If the volume of elegiac commentary from Ralph Wiley's colleagues, subjects and mentees is to be believed, then we have even more to glean from him as a man than from his considerable journalistic and social contributions. I smile as I re-read his first book of essays, published in 1991, Why Black People Tend to Shout. It's still fresh, relevant, evocative of his conversational style, and a testament to his talent for contextualizing that which most who preceded him in his field would have dealt with superficially. And more importantly, it brims with the advocacy and agency of a black writer fully aware of the responsibilities and challenges of his position, ones that he never shirked from. He transcended sports by showing that sports and life are so often one and the same.
For all that, I consider Mr. Wiley to be a profound influence on my writing style, and hope to learn from him, even in what seems to me and his many readers his untimely passing. The last lesson? There is sadness in loss if you take days off and plays off. But not if you bring your "A" game to life's court, day in and day out. What's to be regretted in that?
You can contact Derek Jennings at firstname.lastname@example.org