When I was 14, I got a birthday card from a girl I liked. She lived in a different neighbourhood and attended a different public school than mine. Recognizing her name in the return address (back when pink envelopes and Queen Elizabeth stamps were the sticky equivalent of Twitter and Facebook), I was happy.
But when I opened the card I grew absolutely thrilled.
My would-be-girlfriend wrote something that in a million years I could never recall; what I’ve never forgotten was the hand-crafted message that was included with hers. It came from a basketball buddy: a few words in perfect cursive along with a picture drawn with a felt-tipped pen. The message read, “Happy Birthday, pal! Wade”. The picture was a basketball about to pass through a hoop. The ink drawing was so good it rocked me; an image so simple and yet so well done that, in thousands of doodles over many years, I've tried to recreate it.
I knew Wade Smith as a basketball wizard – a wiry kid with long strides and a sweet jump-shot – but I had no idea he was also a wicked artist. But there it was – the picture as proof. The image didn’t paint a thousand words, but it did raise a few questions, starting with: ‘Who the hell can play ball as well as he does and be an even better artist?!’ I was a perplexed. I was shocked. Above all, I was pleased that this guy I knew from the basketball court and instinctively liked (despite watching him rain down jumpers when we tipped off against his team) would take the time to send me an original bit of art-as-birthday-message.
The girl who sent the bday card and I dated for a while; my friendship with Wade has lasted decades.
Wade’s wife and my wife recently, in separate moments, said, “You are like brothers”. (If you know the three princes that Wade has for actual blood brothers, you’d know how astronomically high this praise is.) Our version of brotherly love has grown over time: we played mini ball against each other; we duelled it out from our vantage points at neighbouring high schools; and we headed off to university together, and even roomed with each other for our freshmen year while playing back-court for the St. Francis Xavier X-men.
Back then, Wade was a highly-recruited 2-guard who went on to an all-star career. I, on the other hand, was a walk-on who dutifully – if unhappily – took my place deep on the bench (for a single year before being cut) and watched my roommate’s career continue to soar. Through it all, Wade and I became close. We ate, danced, drank, laughed, and studied together. We even prayed together: in our second year of university, my father died and Wade - along with Ritchie, Tom and Chris - the finest kind of 'teammates' - were there for me.
After three years at St. F.X., I moved onto England, grad studies, and a starting guard position for the University of London basketball team, the rough equivalent of being top batsman for a Canadian university cricket team (i.e., not even close to being as impressive as it may sound).
By the time I came back to Canada a year or so later, Wade was closing in on marriage to the lovely, smart and talented Sherry. I recall clearly the day he drove over to see me and revealed what he was hiding in the glove-box: a beautiful, sparkly, expensive engagement ring. “What’d think?” he asked, beaming as brightly as the rare stones he had stashed alongside his roadmaps and gas receipts. What could I say? It was awesome. No, brilliant. “Sherry will love it,” I said.
She did, of course. And it was on a sweltering summer day in Truro, N.S., that Wade and Sherry became “Wade & Sherry” – united in the eyes of God and before the damp eyes of hundreds of cooing, clapping friends who knew they’d just witnessed something special. We danced at the Legion that evening and celebrated one of the great pairings of basketball talent. (Sherry had, after all, been as bright a star on the court as her new hubby.) I drove home late that night, happy for my pal and thrilled for his bride. Soon, Baby Jaydan arrived, and then Jaxon hit the scene. Life zoomed ahead.
Now, faster than Steph Curry can launch a jumper, Jay and Jax are young, intelligent, talented, handsome, accomplished men, scouting university careers of their own (and being scouted for basketball skills that rival their parents’). Meanwhile, Sherry has helped (and hugged) a million people, all while looking as though she could still put up a double-double game without breaking a sweat. And Wade… well he is as lean, handsome and strong as I recall back in the day when #21 was delivering bombs and hauling down awards.
But as I write this, I am very, deeply, heart-wrenchingly worried about my old pal.
The news came in an email from a dear, thoughtful gal Wade and I have known since university: “Wade has been trying to connect with you… our good friend is very ill… he has been diagnosed with stomach and esophageal cancer… It’s not a good diagnosis…” The message stood me up; I stumbled, then crumpled onto one knee. I then made calls with trembling fingers and quickly got the full story. I hung up, and sobbed.
In a matter of three shitty minutes, the whole damn world had changed.
As I write this, it is a few days later. I have sat and talked with my old friend and hugged his granite/gold wife. And I’ve joined the legion of family members and friends who await the results of a cancer biopsy. We are part of a too-familiar match-up: The People vs. Cancer. And while I am a guy who tries to try to see storms as events that presage rainbows, I have to admit that I truly have no idea how this will end.
What I do know is that I love the starting five on Team Smith: Wade, Sherry, Jay, Jax… and that all-powerful forward, God. No one could crack that line-up.
But if Wade does need me to sub in anytime any place, he will find me exactly where he left me ‘back in the day’ and every day since: Seated and leaned in, elbows on my knees – waiting, hoping and praying that I can play a few minutes of back-up to the star; just long enough to take the heat off my teammate, my friend… my brother.