Six years ago, I sat in my apartment on Pantops Mountain in Charlottesville with my dad and watched the 2009 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, which pitted North Carolina against Michigan State. My dad was on furlough between UVA Hospital and Duke Medical Center, where he was undergoing treatment for acute myelogenous leukemia. He had been diagnosed a month prior. My fiancé (now wife), who was on spring break, was out of town visiting her parents.
Like tonight’s game, it had a late start. My mom came into the living room to tell my dad to come to bed, so he could rest. He had spent half the day receiving blood transfusions and having his platelets checked. My dad, who was 59 and always a man who appeared ten years younger than his true age, looked over 80. He had lost more than 40 lbs. and his pants sagged off his behind. I had to pop a new hole in his belt with a corkscrew so that his pants would stay on.
His signature mustache was gone. (I had never seen my dad without a mustache) His full head of hair pre-emptively shaved, some of what remained falling out and resting on the shoulders of his white undershirt.
“I’m going to stay up and watch the game tonight,” my dad said to my exhausted mom.
It was a special moment for me and one I will always remember fondly. I recognized it at the time he said it, because, you see, my dad was not a basketball fan. He stayed up so that he could spend time with me, his son.
That night would end up being the last time he and I were alone together, just the two of us. No doctors. No other family members. No one visiting his hospital room. Just a father and his son.
My dad’s name is Wayne. And so, perhaps, it is only fitting that on this night Wayne Ellington would shoot lights out (during the Final Four he shot 7-10 from three point range), and be named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, as the Tarheels downed Izzo’s Spartans 89-72.
There were poster board signs fans held up as Ellington lit it up from downtown throughout the game that read LET IT WAYNE. Other moments, the crowd would chant, “Wayne! Wayne! Wayne!”
My dad got a kick out of that. I remember thinking that maybe this was a sign that everything would be okay, and I wondered if maybe he did, too. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
But that doesn’t take away from that special night.
And so, every year at this time, the NCAA Championship means a little more to me than just a basketball game. Because I am here alone, again, as I was last year and the year before that, while my wife visits her parents on spring break, and I imagine my dad and I sitting on the couch together watching the game just like we did that night in 2009.
And it makes me happy. And it makes me a little sad. But mostly it just makes me feel like he’s here again, and I love that feeling even if it only happens once a year.