The Voice of my Dad
I wrote most of this a few years ago. It seems much more important now (because of events I describe in my postscripts below), but I’m glad he could read it and appreciate it while he was still alive.
What is my father’s voice? What does it sound and feel like? What does it say? What difference does it make? I’ve written about how radio broadcasts would help me mute the sound of his voice as he and my mother argued and how, at a metaphorical level, my father’s desires and voice loomed as large in my childhood as Wilt Chamberlain loomed in the Philadelphia Warriors offense. But in fishing out the memories of those feelings, I’ve also snagged some other memories, other stories, and other feelings. They don’t all literally involve his voice, but the most important one does.
My dad was one of my earliest opponents on the basketball court (my two older brothers and, on occasion, my sister or her boyfriend were the others). My father loved to watch basketball—a quick and intelligent student of the game’s more subtle dynamics. But, a Spanish immigrant to the United States, he was neither experienced nor skilled as a player. Moreover, around the time I was eight or nine, he suffered a serious back injury that made it impossible for him to run and jump. Most of my memories of playing against my dad come from that time, when he was grounded, but still willing—somehow—to come out and play with me.
What a complex classroom in basketball and in life those contests would be. I say he was inexperienced, unskilled, and hampered by injury, but my father, as I recall his game, possessed a fair bit of natural athletic ability. I don’t remember him jumping, but I imagine he had pretty good hops in his day. Around 5-foot-9 with a medium build, he was quick with wiry, strong muscles in his legs and arms.
He was a determined competitor. At the time, I appreciated that. For me, playing ball was about playing against grown-ups and thereby feeling like less of the family baby. I couldn’t tolerate the idea of someone going easy on me. I’m aware now that the grown ups were both probably going easy on me and protecting me from the knowledge of that. But I still remember each game as an all-out war of bodies and minds.
Offensively, my dad had a somewhat limited repertoire. He had a fairly accurate one-handed set shot, given the time to set it up. He had a pretty quick first step to the basket, but he needed to look at the ball to dribble, which slowed his drives to the hoop. He also had this methodical way of backing in toward the basket, keeping his dribble alive, and then, finally close enough, tossing a quick turn-around, half-shot, half-hook, off the backboard. That was tough for me to stop because he was bigger and stronger. I still remember feeling the dread of the inevitable as I desperately dug in, trying to hold my ground.
But what I remember most viscerally is his suffocating style of defense. My dad gave new meaning to the phrase “man up.” I see him–feet wide apart, crouched low, back ramrod straight—playing torso-to-torso defense. He got as close as he possibly could without touching, his hands stretched to the side or straight up in the air depending on whether I was shooting. As I’d begin to dribble, his arms would come together in a kind of stiff-armed hug. I’d press my drive around him and it felt like I was trying to enter a turnstile the wrong way—a little give, but no way to get through. I imagine that we acknowledged fouls in those games, but I don’t actually remember any.
I do remember the combination of frustration and determination that his intense defense used to provoke in me, as well as the elation and triumph I’d feel when I scored. Sometimes I felt so beaten and trapped that I wanted to cry in frustration and complaint. Sometimes, I’m sure, I did (I cried easily as a boy). But sometimes I found that my father’s will to stop me seemed to infect me, and I’d feel an unshakeable will not to give up until I got past him. Then, no matter how many times I slammed into that turnstile, I’d backtrack my dribble, try a still-emerging crossover or fake, and try to get around him on the other side. Or I’d try a wider path to the hoop, hoping to elude his reach entirely. More than anything, what stays with me is the sense that I lost myself. And in that tiny, intense battle for a swath of poured concrete, that felt good.
Those times I drove past him, I felt elated, proud, relieved, but also a little anxious. I couldn’t tell what my dad felt, and that worried me. Was he proud? Hurt? Angry? All I could be sure of was that he was determined and serious. Probably, I was wrong even about that. Maybe all he was doing was trying to endure the pain caused by the herniated disk in his back. Maybe he was thinking about something else entirely. Yet it never felt that way. It felt like he was all there, all about stopping me by hook or by crook. It felt like we both had something personal at stake.
Sometimes this was confusing and unsettling, but most of all I remember those games against my dad as strengthening. They built my confidence, not to mention certain skills and qualities in my game that I still notice today when a stronger, bigger, more physical player guards me. I still usually respond by going to the basket with extra determination. I still do my best to bang underneath and to hold my ground when he tries to post me up. And so, above all, I feel the surging and energizing desire to win—more, to vanquish. And if I do, when I do, I feel it has so much to do with will, with wanting it more. I think of my dad and feel sure that nobody but him could have instilled that in me.
I’m reminded of Dave Hickey’s excellent essay “The Heresy of Zone Defense” in the book Air Guitar. Hickey opens with a description of this play:
Julius [Erving] takes the ball in one hand and elevates, leaves the floor. Kareem [Abdul Jabbar] goes up to block his path, arms above his head. Julius ducks, passes under Kareem’s outside arm and then under the backboard. He looks like he’s flying out of bounds. But no! Somehow, Erving turns his body in the air, reaches back under the backboard from behind, and lays the ball up into the basket from the left side.
Hickey thinks about the joy the play elicits and decides that its perfection is as much Kareem’s doing as Dr. J’s. Kareem’s perfect defense elicited Dr. J’s perfect response. I now think of my dad as my Kareem, the one whose perfect intensity and, ultimately, respect for me as his opponent elicited my best. He brought out my technical skills and most intense determination. Playing against my dad gave me the ability to transform feelings of frustration and anger into a combination of focused desire and intelligent calculation.
But my dad was more than my opponent. Once I started playing competitively, he was also my biggest, most conscientious, and most enthusiastic fan. I started playing soccer in competitive leagues when I was five or six and played every season through my senior in high school. I started playing competitive basketball in sixth grade and, again, played all the way through high school. I’m sure he must’ve missed a game or two because he travelled regularly during part of that time, but I can’t remember any.
Home and away, he was always there with my mother—a fixture among the sparse crowd of parents and friends on the sidelines of a soccer game or up about five or six rows behind our bench at our more crowded basketball games. With his bad back, I don’t really know if it hurt him to sit in the pullout wooden bleachers or to stand for the duration of a soccer game. I always imagined that it did. That was the reason, I figured, why he always paced the sideline. If his back did hurt, he never told me about it. He never complained once.
What’s more, and I’ve never heard of any other dad doing this, he kept track of the statistics at my basketball games all the way from sixth grade through high school. He used a small yellow steno pad and one of the ever-present fine-point pens from his shirt pocket. In neatly labeled columns, he recorded my field-goal attempts, field goals, free-throw attempts, free throws, assists, steals, turnovers, rebounds, fouls, and points. Once I made varsity, he started doing it for the entire team.
My dad never used these statistics to criticize me or my teammates. I don’t remember him actually ever even making any neutral observations about the statistics (He eventually entered them into a database, so he could print from his new personal computer in the early 1980s). My dad was a scientist, a very capable scientist, with a brilliant statistical mind and love of numbers. Though I never had his aptitude, I did love the mathematical games and tricks he shared with me when I was a boy, and I did love to pore over sports statistics. I even—I’m a little embarrassed to say—kept track of the statistics from one-on-one games against my friend Robb (I kept track, consulting him of course, of his statistics too). All of this is to say that my dad’s stat keeping was a way for him to connect more deeply with my life. It was enough that he was always there at the games, no matter what else might be going on. But he took it further, connecting one of his abilities and passions to one of mine. This enhanced and augmented the space we shared.
Of all these memories of competing with my dad and poring over statistics with him, the one that most sticks out in my mind is the sound of his voice—deep, hoarse, slightly accented—bellowing over the sound of my coaches and the hundreds of fans at one of our basketball games. “Go Yago! Goooooo Yago!” Sometimes my friends made fun of me. That annoyed and embarrassed me, but, very secretly, I was grateful to my dad for being the kind of dad-fan who yells for and not at his kid. Not all my friends’ dads were like that. Some of them never came to games. Others came but were quiet supporters. Others came and berated their sons publicly during and after each game. My dad came, kept stats, occasionally gave the ref a piece of his mind, and shouted “Go Yago!”
It’s not just that he yelled “Go Yago!,” it’s in that “Go Yago!” that he expressed all the pride and love and joy he drew not only from my accomplishments but from my participation. My dad let me know that he was proud of me when I won an award, or made all my free throws, or had a high assist-turnover ratio. But he also let me know, just as frequently, that he was proud of me and loved just watching me run down the floor. He just loved to watch me run. I don’t even know if it was really the running. I dimly feel that my running on the court (or on the soccer field) just stands for my being. And by loving my running, my father expressed his love for me, just as I was, just because I was. So “Go Yago”—the name of my first basketball blog—is most deeply that: a calling forth of the love and acceptance of my father for me, just because I am and my being brings him joy.
I have talked to my Dad daily, usually via FaceTime since early July, 2013, when my mother, suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s, had a seizure and a bad fall and had to be placed in a skilled nursing facility. He was suddenly alone for the first time in his life. None of this was what he imagined his final years would look like. For nine months I’ve talked to him daily. We have never been closer, talking openly of regrets, angers, sorrows, and love and mutual admiration. Sometimes, we would just be silent, looking at each other’s images on our respective devices, feeling the strange combination of proximity and distance. We closed our conversations by blowing each other a kiss. In January he received a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. In March he moved into the same facility with my mom. My wife and I were there to put him to bed on his last night in the home he shared with my mom for 44 years, the home they raised me in. “Ah, Yago and Claire,” he said before closing his eyes that night, “You are so sweet!”
We still talk every day, but his mind is going fast, and he’s frequently too tired to all for more than a few minutes. His voice doesn’t make much sense when it speaks or me anymore. His eyes aren’t open that often and when they are they are looking at something else. I don’t know what.
I’m afraid of how it will feel when I know I won’t hear his voice ever again; his voice, and eyes, and smile, expressing that joy that I exist.
PostScript. 6/21/2015, Father’s Day:
My father died on April 9, 1914, a week after I posted this. I was able to be by him for his last days. Tomorrow, June 22, would be his 87th birthday and, while I cherish and am deeply grateful for the time we had, especially in his final year, I wish we had wasted less. And every day, I wish we’d had more.