The bittersweet joy of a happy ending

I had, as usual, great seats at UD Arena. Center court, about eight rows behind the scorers’ table. It was Senior Day for the UD women’s basketball team.

The first basket came about 45 seconds into the game. Senior Ebony Gainey, who had missed a shot just after the opening tip, drove from the left and put up a layup that touched the glass and dropped through the net. At the 18:02 mark, coach Jim Jabir pulled her, and Gainey’s career stat line was final. Points, 2. Shooting percentage, .500. Minutes played, 2.

If you go to a lot of any team’s games, you come to know the faces on the bench and even feel a sort of first-name familiarity. Ebony had always seemed more coach than player to me, but just a couple of days before this game, I’d learned her story from ESPN. A two-time all-Ohio selection from Dayton’s Meadowdale High School, Ebony was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy weeks before the first game of her freshman year as a Flyer. It is a disease that attacks the heart muscle and that killed Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers in 1990.

Ebony’s older sister Kenyattie had died in her sleep of a heart-related ailment just months before Ebony’s diagnosis. On her doctor’s advice, Ebony’s college career was over literally before it ever started. For four years, she remained part of the team, but not a player on the court.

That was why I’d only ever seen her in street clothes on the bench, and also why the 1,300 of us there gave her a standing ovation at team introductions, a loud cheer when she took her first shot, another standing O when she made her next one, and a third when coach Jabir pulled her out of the game and into his arms.

The rest of the game wasn’t what I’d call a pleasure to watch, an uncharacteristically halting contest without flow for much of the second half. When Fordham’s coach called a late timeout, I leaned to the person next to me and joked, “Does she think she has a play to call for when you’re down by 16 with 44 seconds to go?” That kind of game.

But we won handily, and the player I know best, senior co-captain Kristin Daugherty, had a solid performance. Twelve points, seven rebounds in 25 minutes. I was there particularly to watch her last home game. I do my best to get to Senior Day games. I managed to catch three in the fall (volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer), and I’ve got a few circled on my calendar this spring. In the rhythms of university life, only graduation day has such bittersweet joy.

I knew it would be an emotional game for Kristin, but she held it together well until almost the very end. Fouled with a couple of minutes left, on the line knowing she was about to come out, the tears came. Two quick baskets. A few quicker steps to the bench. Hugs down the line from coaches and teammates. A standing O from us. We gave another a few moments later when the team’s third senior, Aundrea “Puna” Lindsey, came out.

Later, waiting in line near courtside with my sons for post-game autographs, I found myself next to the mother of Kristin’s biggest fan, 7-year-old Lauren Hinders. She sits in the front row wearing Kristin’s No. 40 every game, and Kristin always gives her a pregame high-five. Or maybe Lauren’s giving it to Kristin.

As Lauren played in the seats with her little brother, I asked her mom how she thought Lauren would handle Kristin’s departure from the team. It turned out that Lauren had given it some thought. She counted on seeing Kristin in the stands next year watching her sister Kari Daugherty, a sophomore guard. Lauren had talked of maybe rooting for star Justine Raterman, but she’ll be a senior next year. Might be a little too soon to go through that again.

Autographs signed, our two boys and my wife and I climbed the concrete steps to the concourse, where I noticed a man carrying a framed No. 13 jersey near the west Arena doors. Ebony’s father. As I knelt to tie my younger son’s shoe, I caught Mr. Gainey’s eye and told him what I’d told Kristin in the autograph line, congratulations. He smiled at me, a perfect stranger, and said thanks, then carried his daughter’s memento out to his car in the parking lot.

In another two months, I thought, he’ll be back, this time joined by other parents doing almost exactly the same thing, proud fathers and mothers carrying under their arms the diplomas of their daughters and sons.

(Essay by author; reprinted from University of Dayton Magazine, Spring 2011)


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