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A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul

A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul

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A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul

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Jan 26, 2015


For my first 10 years as a sportswriter I was living the dream. I focused on the inspirational side of sports, searching for stories of triumph over trials. My mantra was simple: Dreams do come true. I knew it because I lived it. No athlete I covered exemplified that better than Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers. I had the pleasure of covering Hank, and getting to know him quite well while working on a story about his life. His story told of a climb from the ghetto of North Philadelphia to a sure-fire first round draft pick. The day Hank Gathers collapsed on the basketball court and died, my beliefs were shaken to my core. I found myself adrift, and slowly morphing into a cynical sportswriter that I had fought hard for years to avoid. I wrestled with myself, searching for answers on bike rides along the Pacific Coast Highway. Then, by twist of fate, cycling became more than my escape. It became my beat. "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul" chronicles my years covering cycling in the US from 1989 to 1996, when I rose to become the most respected American journalist covering cycling. I became intimately close to some of the most extraordinary people I've ever met. They graciously allowed me access into their lives, and shared their tales. I feel privileged to be able to tell their stories.

Jan 26, 2015

Sobre el autor

Born and raised in Wisconsin, John Rezell has visited 44 states, lived in seven, and calls Oregon his home.He began his newspaper career in high school, writing for the sports section of The Brookfield News.While studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, he wrote for the student newspaper and worked for the Janesville Gazette.Once out of college, he began a career of climbing up the newspaper ladder, beginning with smalltown journalism at the Jefferson County Daily Union in Fort Atkinson, WI where he was a do-it-all sports editor — writing, editing, layout pages and taking photos.From there he crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa to work for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Continuing his Westward march, he spent the bulk of his newspaper career at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, CA. There he created the weekly cycling column, as he focused on off-beat sports like beach volleyball, surfing, running — any assignment that might include bringing suntan lotion.After a freelance career establishing himself as the premiere cycling journalist in the US, he became editor of VeloNews magazine. Later he started the e-magazine bike.com, and eventually came full circle back to newspapers as an outdoor columnist for The Register-Guard in Eugene, OR.In 2015, he will publish three ebooks.Two of the books (Taken for a Ride and A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul) chronicle his early days of covering bicycle racing, including his relationship with a young Lance Armstrong (Taken for a Ride).The third book, You Can't Cook a Dead Crab and Eat It, is the life-changing story of how John and his wife Debbie decided to find the perfect place to raise their daughters. In 2005, they sold as much of their belongings as possible in an endless Moving Sale, packed the rest into storage and spent 85 days traveling 8,000 miles while living in a pop-up camper as they explored the American West in search of a place to call home.John is working on his next book, based on his outdoors column he wrote for The Register-Guard that focuses on adventures in nature with his family in Oregon and many National Parks.

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A More Simple Time - John Rezell

A More Simple Time:

How cycling saved my soul

By John Rezell

Published by John Rezell at Smashwords

Copyright 2014 John Rezell

Discover other titles by John Rezell:

Taken for a Ride: Chasing a Young Lance Armstrong

You Can't Cook a Dead Crab and Eat It

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


CHAPTER ONE: Wake-up call

CHAPTER TWO: Checking out

CHAPTER THREE: What goes around comes around

CHAPTER FOUR: Perfect introduction

CHAPTER FIVE: Hanging on

CHAPTER SIX: The full spectrum


CHAPTER EIGHT: You either get it, or you don't

CHAPTER NINE: The roots of a story

CHAPTER  10: On the Road

CHAPTER 11: Flying high

CHAPTER 12: The First Time

CHAPTER 13: Taking a leap

CHAPTER 14: Judgement day

CHAPTER 15: First signs

CHAPTER 16: Let’s Race

CHAPTER 17: Let's check the scorecard

CHAPTER 18: Snakes alive!

CHAPTER 19: The final blow

CHAPTER 20: Tip of the iceberg

CHAPTER 21: Red, White and Blues

CHAPTER 22: Doing it right

CHAPTER 23: Check off my list

CHAPTER 24: Riding into Shape

CHAPTER 25: The final stretch

CHAPTER 26: Charting a course

CHAPTER 27: Euro-American

CHAPTER 28: Brothers

CHAPTER 29: Winds of change

CHAPTER 30: Quick start

CHAPTER 31:The meat of the season

CHAPTER 32: The main event

CHAPTER 33: More than racing

CHAPTER 34: Steel City

CHAPTER 35: Brotherly Love

CHAPTER 36: Sisterly love

CHAPTER 37: Wisconsin’s gal

CHAPTER 38: Choices

CHAPTER 39: Cycling’s Huck Finn

CHAPTER 40: First taste

CHAPTER 41: America's Queen

CHAPTER 42: Back to my roots

CHAPTER 43: Branching out

CHAPTER 44: Going long

CHAPTER 45: Back at it

CHAPTER 46: Best interview, period

CHAPTER 47: A little taste of it

CHAPTER 48: The countdown begins

CHAPTER 49: All the right reasons

CHAPTER 50: Battling back

CHAPTER 51: Another road trip

CHAPTER 52: The other side of DuPont

CHAPTER 53: Nice Asheville

CHAPTER 54: Wild and wonderful

CHAPTER 55: Trying harder

CHAPTER 56; Natural progression

CHAPTER 57: The better half

CHAPTER 58: Third time’s a charm

CHAPTER 59: Pursuit of a story

CHAPTER 60: In the stars

CHAPTER 61: Pierce arrows

CHAPTER 62: Shanghai revelations

CHAPTER 63: This is it

CHAPTER 64: Rejuvenation

CHAPTER 65: His way

CHAPTER 66: Dialed in

CHAPTER 67: Making a case

CHAPTER 68: Holden pattern

CHAPTER 69: Pause to reflect

CHAPTER 70: The next level

CHAPTER 71: Completing the circle

CHAPTER ONE: Wake-up call

The funny thing about wake-up calls is that too many of them begin with red flashing lights. Rollers. Cherries.

  I'm not talking about your daily wake-up calls for work, or wake-up calls from the front desk. Unless, of course, you're in a rock 'n' roll band and the call is that sweet chick at the front desk alerting you Po-po are on their way up the elevator in riot gear.

  No, I'm talking about reality-check wake-up calls that signal your life is at a crossroads and, whether you know it or not, things are about to change.

  It didn't feel like I faced a crossroads at the moment I saw the rollers. Truth is, I didn't feel anything. I wasn't feeling any pain, but not because of too many beers or any other indulgence, which just as easily could have been the case given my lifestyle at the time. I felt numb from life, or rather, the loss of life. A big one.

  Hank Gathers collapsed and died doing what he loved, playing basketball in the West Coast Conference tournament in San Francisco on March 4, 1990. It happened about 20 hours before my encounter with the rollers, but it still had me wandering about in a daze: Wrestling with the heartache of losing someone close while basking in the euphoria of my own life.

  I headed to work, for another day as a sportswriter at The Orange County Register, making my daily 50-mile commute from Carlsbad to Santa Ana along the beautiful Pacific Coast. I cruised down the I-5 hill between San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, turning inland as I did every day, leaving the views of the ocean behind for a day at the office. My thoughts laser locked on one truth: What a lucky man I am. Then I saw the cherries in my rearview mirror.

  You had to be pretty well preoccupied to get an Interstate speeding ticket in California back then. The CHPs usually trailed you for a good mile or so, building a strong case against you. If you saw them and offered respect with your brake lights and a change of lane, you usually got pardoned. I know, because I benefited from countless pardons. Not this time.

  I suppose subconsciously I needed to punish myself in some manner, to even out the cosmic score a little bit, if not in reality, at least in my mind. It didn't seem fair that I managed to corner the market on luck — on the pure joy of living — when someone else so much more deserving than I appeared to be star-crossed.

  Maybe my life wasn't as great as I thought it was, although I believe beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From where I sat, it looked pretty damn sweet. As that officer wrote the ticket I thought about two major pieces of evidence to defend my claim to a great life that I wouldn't trade for anyone's.

  Exhibit A was the simple fact that I got to cover Gathers as a star basketball player at Loyola Marymount University, and got an even greater chance of a lifetime to get to know him rather well — while getting paid to do so.

  I wrote a feature on Gathers almost one year to the day before he died. I shared his amazing story with thousands of readers. It was the greatest story I had written, on a multitude of levels. Most of all, for me, the story of Hank Gathers represented hope and confirmation of the one element of covering sports that drove me on and on and on: Dreams do come true.

  You see, Hank grew up in North Philadelphia, where everyone goes into an eerie hibernation in the cold, desperate winters. The vigor of the ghetto that thrives under the summer sun disappears.

  Father Dave Hagen described the scene outside the window of his North Philly row house on a February afternoon when we spoke. This is the pits. The buildings are falling down. There are probably 22,000 abandoned units around here. The whole place is just falling apart. Each year it gets older, and worse.

  Across the street from Hagen's house sit the asphalt courts of Franklin Douglas School. On that cold day a handful of kids shoot hoops. It's nowhere near the turnout of crowds that emerge when the weather warms up. Many kids spend winter days at school. Why? Simple. It's a warm place to stay.

  There's always someone playing basketball, Father Hagen said, that never changes.

  Hank found an escape from the hopelessness of the slums at Father Hagen's house and on those Douglas School courts. Basketball forged the ambition and ammunition he relied on to escape North Philly.

  When I was growing up, if I wasn't at home, I was either at Father Dave's house or across the street playing basketball, Hank told me in one of a series of interviews. Father Dave's house was like a little island. It was a place to hide from the rest of the neighborhood. If you were with Father Dave, nobody messed with you.

  Hank grew up in the Raymond Rose Housing Project, a circle of 13-story apartment buildings that tower over the blocks of older, beaten down row houses. In the projects, the elevators seldom work and the dark, trash-littered stairways reek of urine.

  In the winter, I don't know where they all go, Father Hagen said of the locals. The scary day is the first warm day of spring when everyone comes out again and the streets are buzzing. It's a creepy feeling, wondering where they have been all these months.

  A culture shock, not to mention three time zones, away in Los Angeles, the winter was neither quiet nor cold for Hank. Interviews and photo sessions kept him busy off the court when he wasn't earning them on the court.

  I watched as the 6-foot-7 junior center, led the nation in scoring at 33.5 points a game and rebounding with 13.7 per game. He provided the spark and the fuel for the highest scoring team in NCAA history. While he bathed in the sunlight and spotlight, he never  forgot his roots, those folks back home, and those chilling winters.

  Raymond Rose is just a bad place, Hank said, shaking his head and rolling a long draw on the word bad for emphasis. "It's the slums. It's not one thing; it's everything. I remember growing up just thinking that there had to be something more than all this.

  It's not a great place to grow up, but I have great memories. I loved my childhood there. I have a lot of friends there. It's important to remember where you came from.

  Even more important to remember the people..

  Although North Philly was decaying, a spirit survives in those special individuals who refuse to let the place tear them down. Hank couldn't talk enough about the people who helped fire his drive to get out and do better,. People who were still back there gazing out their windows.

  It's just starting to snow right now, Gathers' mother, Lucille, said, looking out the window of her row house just down the block from Raymond Rose where she raised three sons in a small apartment on the ground floor. The snow makes it look a little nicer for a while. But this is a tough place.

  Lucille competed against the overriding influence on most kids when Hank was growing up — gangs and turf wars. She watched those wars eventually be replaced by drug-induced apathy that permeates North Philly.

  You almost can't not be in trouble, said Father Hagen, then 50, a priest, former basketball coach at St. Elizabeth and close friend of the Gathers family. It's nearly impossible to live here without being influenced by everyone else.

  Impossible without a mother such as Lucille Gathers and a friend such as Father Hagen around.

  It was tough on my Mom, said Hank, sounding like a 21-year-old going on 40. Looking back I realize how tough it was raising three kids in the projects, where the kids can be so bad that it's a miracle if you can get out of the neighborhood.

  Lucille Gathers wouldn't tolerate apathy from her sons Hank, then 21, Derrick, 20 (who played at Cal State Northridge) and Charles, 19, (who played at Keystone Junior College in LaPlume, PA). They lived under her constant vigil.

  Hank says I was overprotective, said Lucille, 42, who worked in general services at a hospital as she has for years. Sometimes, I guess I was, but it was for his own good.

  She was a single parent just as her mother had been, one of the legacies and realities, she said, of life the ghetto. Gathers' father was an alcoholic who stayed away, according to Lucille. She didn't have a lot to offer, but what she had, she gave.

  You wouldn't do anything bad because if you did, you'd have to answer to her, Hank said.

  Said Lucille, Hank never did like spankings.

  As an adult, Hank became the one who dishes out punishment. On the court, his wrath is unleashed on opponents who try to deny him his specialty: rebounds. If you asked Hank, he would say that he led the nation in scoring simply because, If you shoot enough, it isn't hard to score 30 points per game.

  He led the nation in rebounding because it reflects his life, his struggle, and his personality.

  Rebounding is from the heart, Hank said proudly, his beaming smile bursting across his face while his eyes blaze. There's really no half-stepping in terms of rebounding.

  Half-stepping isn't Hank's  style, not his way. His chiseled body: thick chest, bulging biceps and powerful legs show off evidence of his greatest asset, which pounds feverishly under his shirt.

  His personality is one of tireless effort, Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead said. Nothing is ever enough. He wants to be in every play. He wants to take every shot. He wants to rebound every miss. He's like a kid in the candy shop, you let him in and he wants it all. He's an upbeat, aggressive person.

  He molded his style on the courts at Douglas School, where Hank said he would sometimes fight for his chance to play and sometimes cry when the opportunity didn't come.

  A chance was all he wanted.

  What I like best about Philadelphia ball is they respect your reputation, but once they throw the ball up on the court they come right at you, Hank said. You have to prove yourself every time you play.

  That means pouring out his essence whenever he steps on a court.

  I would probably describe myself as being very dependable, independent, Hank said. "I'm witty. I'm caring. I carry all that onto the basketball court.

  The thing about the projects is that if you are an athlete, everyone leaves you alone. They respect you and leave you be. That's something I respect about the projects.

  Hank concentrated on basketball, playing for Father Hagen at St. Elizabeth. Later, he starred at Dobbins Tech with teammate Bo Kimble. They both went to USC as freshmen. At the end of that season, coach Stan Morrison was fired. Gathers and Kimble saw their scholarships taken away, so they both transferred to Loyola Marymount.

  They led Loyola Marymount to its best record (28-4) and an NCAA tournament berth in their sophomore years. Hank garnered gaudy statistics and raised enough attention that many wondered whether or not he would leave school early for the NBA draft, where he was considered a sure-fire first round pick.

  Lucille Gathers wanted Hank to stay in school. At that time she was taking night courses with hopes to begin college herself the next fall. Her influence wasn't lost on Hank.

  Right now I'm about 60-40 to stay because I put a lot of work into school and it wasn't easy to find discipline within myself to do schoolwork, Hank said, adding that his ability to work through college classes is a source of pride. Something he never thought he would be able to do.

  Just like his mother, he would like to be a strong parental example for the kids who read about him from clippings hanging in the window at Izzy's corner store. And, for his 5-year-old son Aaron, who lives down the street from Lucille Gathers with his mother.

  It's important to me that I go back and teach the kids there now what I learned, Hank said.

  Fathering Aaron at the age of 16 was one of Hank's' toughest lessons.

  I made a big mistake and it was hard, Hank said. The worst part was I thought I'd have to give up basketball, but my mother stepped in and said we'd find a way to get through it.

  Aaron is raised by his mother, but Father Hagen and Lucille keep a close eye on him.

  Whenever I call anyone back there the first thing I ask is, 'How's Aaron?' Hank said, his bright eyes firing up to another level of brightness when he speaks of his son.

  Hank wonders about the future. If he has the means, he might be tempted to pull Aaron out of the projects. He leans toward keeping him there.

  I guess it's tougher there now, Hank said. But I made it out. I might keep him there, but keep a close eye on him and not let him get into trouble. There's a lot to learn there.

  The biggest lesson Hank learned is one he never forgets.

  If you can get out of Raymond Rose Projects, Hank said, you can accomplish anything you want.

  When Hank told me that line, we were sitting alone on the bleachers in the practice gym. No one else around. He took a deep breath and paused. He looked out at the empty floor and squeezed the basketball rolling around in his huge hands. Then he repeated it again, just a little quieter. And one more time, just barely audible, he simply said, Anything.

  It had been years since someone reintroduced the magic of sports back into my life. The magic that sparked the flames of possibilities over and over and over again in my childhood growing up in Wisconsin.

  Magical moments like Bart Starr sneaking his way to put the finishing touches on the Lombardian Legend for the Green Bay Packers. Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson somehow coming together in Milwaukee, of all places, to give two legends — one rising, one fading — a championship for the ages with the Bucks.

  There was Oregon’s All-American runner, Steve Prefontaine, coming into my life through the magnificent prose of Kenny Moore in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and leaving it just as abruptly. And, of course, Marquette’s Al McGuire and his scintillating farewell trip to his NCAA Championship, part of which I got to witness through my own, teary, eyes.

  Those events and those incredible larger-than-life personalities seemed gone forever. Their imprints in my mind slowly had been buried, if not erased — worn down by the egomaniacs who have taken sports hostage as they demand compensation and public reverence for their God-given talents.

  I fought hard to keep that cynicism out of my writing and out of my life. It isn't easy when your job brings you up-close-and-far-too-personal with the jerks who make up most of professional sports.

  I remember a dream-come-true assignment early in my career. Although I have vivid memories of sitting in my basement listening to Blaine Walsh offer play-by-play of the Milwaukee Braves on the radio when I was small, I came of age with the Brewers after the Braves busted a move to Atlanta.  I didn't quite make it to the Brewers’ first game in Milwaukee in the spring of 1970, but I did make it to see them in that first weekend, thanks to my older brother Jim who, by the way, also took me to see the Bucks play Cincinnati in their first year — when the Big O was still a Royal.

  The Brewers were as pitiful as a baseball team could be, but, of course, they were our team. To be a true Brew Crew fan is to know a names like Danny Walton, Tommy Harper, Ted Kubiak and Jerry McNertney. To know how the stadium only would fill up each year on Bat Day. To watch Bernie Brewer slide after each homer. Years later, the Brewers had finally come of age. I got the opportunity to cover them in their home games of American League Championship Series in 1982. The old Harvey's Wallbangers who, of course, began as Bambi's Bombers.

  They hobbled back from California down 0-2 to the Angels in the best-of-five series. No team had ever come back from 0-2 in a series in baseball. No matter, I was thrilled with the prospect of my assignment, even if it might turn out to be just one game. Like most reporters, I went down onto the field during batting practice. The pack of reporters surrounded Brewers manager Harvey Kuehn, asking worthless, lame questions that reporters ask.

  I wanted to just soak in the ambience of the moment. It was the first time I had set foot onto the grass of County Stadium, after years of sitting in the far reaches of the upper deck, or the sun-soaked bleachers in the outfield with my buddy Jack. It was one of those moments where, yes, I actually looked down and watched my shoe step onto the grass as chills rushed up my spine. I turned away from the pack, to head back up to the press box, when Cecil Cooper emerged from the dugout for his turn in the batting cage. Cooper was a fan favorite. County Stadium would echo with Coooooop! whenever he came to bat. He replaced a Brewer legend at first base, George Scott. The Boomer. Cooper was so damn talented that Milwaukee fans fell in love with him, too. I had no intention of doing anything but strolling past. I did, however, make eye contact. That's when the reality of professional sports reared its ugly head.

  Don't even fucking think about it, you mother-fucker, Cooper snipped under his breath, pretending not to be speaking to me, yet glaring from beneath his visor with eyes afire. Don't you fucking dare ask me a fucking question.

  I lost all desires to ever have a pro beat at that moment, although, I really never thought about it much. Even watching the Brewers magnificently battle back to win the next three games and advance to the World Series couldn't change my mind.

  College sports always has been my first love. Over the years I saw the professionalism of athletics slowly creeping into the college ranks, but never to that Cooper-esque level — at least for me to witness. Still, it slowly grated on me — the insane antics of egomaniacs — wearing me down like Dean Smith's four-corner offense.  Then I met Hank Gathers, and my spirit had been renewed. Replenished. My soul refreshed.

  Back to those cherries. As the officer gave me the talk that comes with the speeding ticket, exhibit B in my defense of having more luck than I deserved crossed my mind. It was this simple fact: Although I covered Loyola Marymount basketball for two seasons as the main reporter for The Register, my primary responsibility at that time was to the Community Sports section. As such, I miraculously sat at home that fateful day, not court side to watch Gathers fall.

  I know in my heart that had I been there, my career as a journalist would have been shattered into pieces too small to salvage. I wouldn't have risen to the occasion. I would have simply tossed in the notebook, probably shuffling down to the nearest bar to soak my tears in beer suds. That's because I knew one thing about myself: I could be completely objective and non-partisan on demand, but only if I knew beneath it all that there was a pure, honest truth to life out there that kept all the chaos and turmoil of the human drive under control. If I ever completely lost faith in that truth, it would be over. Done. Time to move on.

  So I took the speeding ticket as a sort of badge of honor, that with the passing of a true champion who deserved the opportunity to show the world his greatness well beyond the field of competition, my luck would never be the same again. No more pardons.

  Just 24 hours earlier I had vowed to channel my frustration and anger into motivation to prove to the world what I was made of, in true Gathers fashion. The fact that I wasn't in San Francisco for the West Coast Conference basketball tournament chafed me raw. I was pissed. I deserved to be there, if for no other reason, as compensation for bringing the wonderful story of Hank Gathers to our readers.

  I was, at the time, however, still clutching to one of the lower rungs on the career ladder at The Register. I could sense it was simply a matter of time before my grand opportunity would present itself. I would earn my own beat. Then? Katie Bar The Door. If you think Gathers went after rebounds with zest for life, just watch me when they unleash me on a beat.

  I managed to center myself, as usual, during a bike ride. Cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway on my trusted '82 Trek road bike heading south from Carlsbad down toward La Jolla and then back, I felt a rebirth. The reality of the ocean mist on my face just before hitting the Torrey Pines climb woke me up. The burning in my legs as I ascended the cliffs on the park road — the steep route, not the easy Coast Highway alternative — confirmed my resolve to push on. Controlled, rhythmic breathing in sync with my pedal stroke brought me balance. It soothed my inner beast. Never one to charge up a hill hellbent for election, my life has been a study in patience. That morning, with Gathers about to win yet another conference championship en route to who knows what when the NCAA Tournament arrives in a week, it was time to take a deep breath, chill and simply enjoy watching from afar.

  I got back from my ride feeling as I always do — on top of the world. When the bulletin came in during the basketball game I was watching, my tumble came hard and fast. I remember hearing the news. I remember getting a speeding ticket 20 hours later. I don't remember much of anything else. Except the wonder of being a sportswriter didn't feel the same after that. For a long, long time.

CHAPTER TWO: Checking out

I sat staring at my speeding ticket that Monday morning, sitting in for my boss as Community sports editor. That meant reading stories about pre-teen basketball players, gymnastics and swimmers. Kids in the infant stages of, what so many hope, will grow to be an athletic career for the ages. The great American Sports Dream. Hank Gathers.

  I got an email from the big guy, the sports editor of the regular section. Not a phone call. An email. A simple message, asking if I wanted to be involved in any of the followup coverage on Gathers' death.

  It's the kind of coverage that takes on a life of it own. It's what most reporters live for — the opportunity to ride a story the way a surfer milks a magnificent, perfect wave. Ted Koppel had the Iranian hostage crisis, that turned into Nightline becoming a staple of American journalism, and Koppel a pillar. That possibility dangled in front of me like a college scholarship. My chance might have finally arrived. I drifted off for, oh, probably 30 minutes or more, simply staring at my screen. I finally answered simply, from my heart:

  I can't.

  With that, I moved on. While the headlines screamed for months about blame and heart medication and estates and insurance policies and whatnot, all I could think about — all that consumed me — is what the world will miss without Hank Gathers around. I didn’t read a word of the follow-up coverage. I couldn’t.

  I have a keen insight. My intuition has served me well over the years. I can spend a few minutes with a complete stranger, and suddenly know through the sparkle in his or her eyes that I've connected with them like few others have. My interviews are discussions about life. Of what makes us tick.

  There are a couple of magnificent people in the world who carry an aura about them — a powerful energy — that permeates everything they do. It drips with an honest reality that they have an ability to focus on one thing, and one thing alone. To dispose of all distraction. Tunnel vision. You know instantly that these people will, without question, do things that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. Hank Gathers was one of those people. Basketball is what brought the spotlight upon him. By getting to know him, what drove him beneath it all, I could only wonder what he would do with that spotlight. It would be mind-boggling. That is, if he had been given the chance.

  Jaded. That was me. Jaded, beyond reprieve. Gathers would never have that opportunity to change the world. That wore on me. Oh, I didn't walk around pontificating to anyone that my world had been crushed. I kept it to myself. When your heart is broken, it isn't something you want to advertise.

  I had two loves in my life at that time. My wife and soul mate, Debbie. And sports writing. One of my loves died on that court with Hank Gathers.

  I knew that because I'd lie awake at night for weeks afterward, just listening to Debbie breathe in the darkness of the night, clutching a new reality in my heart with a stranglehold. This is all that matters in life at the end of the day. Nothing else. Life. Living. Possibilities. Everything that Hank Gathers had in spades one day, and had none of the next.

  Success in basketball brought Hank Gathers a chance to escape from the ghetto. It brought him, if not officially in terms of a diploma, a college education. It brought him fame and, to the brink of riches as a sure-fire first round draft choice, if not No. 1 pick.

  Now that he was gone, my aching hole left behind was not for Hank Gathers the basketball player.

  It was for Hank Gathers the son.

  Hank Gathers the brother.

  Hank Gathers the father.

  Hank Gathers the friend.

  The essence of my sports writing focused on bringing that magic of possibilities to a reader. I always searched for that challenge — that hurdle — that an athlete had overcome, and shared his or her triumphant story hoping against hope that somewhere, somehow, sometime, that someone would find a nugget of inspiration or information to help them succeed in their own lives when they faced their moments of truth.

  Everyone loves an underdog because of the quest. It's what everyone can relate to. The quest, and the dream. Because we all have dreams. Sports reaffirmed to me time and again that dreams do come true.

  Vince Lombardi taught through his Packers that the pursuit of excellence in something as simple as a single play — the Packer power sweep — could make dreams come true.

  Lew Alcindor taught the world that even the most obvious of attempts to thwart one person — that is, making the dunk shot illegal in college just as he arrived on that stage — can motivate anyone to new heights. The birth of the sky hook was the greatest face job in the history of the sport.

  Al McGuire showed that if you can find it within yourself to once, just once, keep your trap shut and not self-destruct — to let others show the rewards of your incredible insight — the world is yours to own.

  Yet, Hank Gathers was my Steve Prefontaine. I only knew Pre from afar. Still, I know this world would be a better place today had either, or both, Prefontaine and Gathers survived to leave a greater impact beyond the playing field. No question.

  The two athletes who had the greatest impact on my core personality, one who showed me the heart of a lion and the other who showed me the creativity of a wizard, also drove home the single reality of life that I now needed to purge from my essence to survive. The simple truth that not all dreams do come true.

  I had been a dreamer all my life. My dreams had taken me to life experiences that so many others would kill to have. Those amazing experiences almost became everyday life for me, my dreams and their fruition. I call myself an obsessive optimist. No matter how obsessive, optimism is predicated on one leap of faith — that dreams do come true. I needed to find that magic again. Somewhere, somehow.

CHAPTER THREE: What goes around comes around

Life has a mystic synergy. At least mine does.

Growing up there were two things I loved to do. First, give me a pen and some paper and let me write. Second, give me a bike and let me ride. In both cases, the art of the story unfolding before me provided constant inspiration.

  In the glorious childhood summers of Wisconsin, my bike became my chariot of adventure, taking me places teaming with life to fill my palette for future use. In the dead of winter, writing rocketed me to those places, like a magic carpet ride.

  Now years later, my heart broken, I needed both writing and riding to soothe my soul. Try as I might to find a voice to get my inner turmoil under control, I suffered a disconnect between my heart and my writing. Writing suddenly became a job. Nothing more than what I did to get my paycheck. For the first time in my life, my writing went on autopilot.

  At the same time, cycling suddenly became a big part of my life again. Hours out on the road by myself, wrestling with my mind. Just like the old days.

  My job suddenly became my enabler. I set my own schedule, so that meant plenty of days working at home. Everyone thought I was working hard, when I was hardly working. I was on my bike. One, two, three, four hours a day. I'd check messages at the turnaround point of a century ride.

  Weekends were a breeze, especially in the spring when Friday night prep football and basketball games gave way to mid-week baseball games and volleyball matches. I'd spend Friday on my bike, riding along PCH from Carlsbad into San Diego with the ocean lapping on the sandy beaches and the crisp breeze on my face. I'd get to my friend Pop's house mid-afternoon. Let the party begin!

  The hypocrisy of my life made me laugh every time I began to party. I pushed my body physically harder than I ever have in my life on my bicycle. After a shower, I pushed it physically harder than I ever have in my partying. The two sides of my Gemini twin, hellbent on reaching the summit on two combustible fronts.

  I'd spent my entire writing career as one of those lovable underdogs. Avis. Always second. Always trying harder. Yet I always carried that cumbersome burden of potential. It wasn't a matter in most people's mind whether or not I'd succeed wildly as a writer. It was simply a matter of when. I was never in a hurry. I was too busy savoring life. Savoring the quest.

  The roots of the underdog began on day one. I finally found the courage to join the student newspaper as a junior in high school only to find that I'd been scooped. Beaten to the punch. There already was a star sports journalist in my class. A fellow by the name of Bud Geracie, who would become one of my best friends.

  Bud got the jump on me. As such, he covered the major sports at Brookfield Central High School — football, basketball and baseball. That meant he not only covered them for the school newspaper, but the community newspaper, The Brookfield News, as well as working as stringer for the Milwaukee Journal.

  While that might grind most people to the point of morphing into the bitter, cynical stereotype that defines most sportswriters, it felt perfectly fine with me. Hey, I ran cross country as a freshman and into my sophomore year. I had a penchant for the off-beat sports. Like I said, Pre was one of my idols.

  Besides, fact was, Brookfield Central sucked in football and basketball during my tenure. Bud and I spent weekends drinking beers with guys on both those teams. Bud covered cellar dwellers. Me? I floated on top of the world. Our swimmers were among the elite in state. Same with track and field. When Bud gave up baseball the summer after our senior year, I covered their unlikely state championship victory after finishing in the middle of the pack in conference. I felt charmed.

  Even though I had been told time and again that my writing was stellar, I constantly found myself battling from the bottom up. As I spent that spring following Gather's death on long bike rides, I'd think of nothing more than the fact that I was covering community sports in Orange County while Bud was covering the Oakland Athletics for the San Jose Mercury News — about to graduate to the post of columnist.

  It wasn't that I wanted to be Bud, or even have his beat or his column. It simply was that I knew I deserved better. Yet,

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