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Chester County Press

Editorial: The Girl Dads

01/29/2020 12:08PM ● By Richard Gaw
One night last week, the father started the car in the parking lot of the church gymnasium in Chester County, where he has just come from.

His driving companion was a 13-year-old basketball player who sat shivering against the winter cold, silently staring ahead at the memory of what she believed was the worst game she has ever played. She could not find the rim. She threw poor passes. She allowed her opponent to score at will and, most heartbreaking of all, she felt as if she let her teammates down. The loss drifted in her body until it found a place to linger, and it chose the basketball player's heart as the place where it could make the largest impact.

The father was silent. He didn't know what to tell her, and he feared that if he opened his mouth to speak, everything would come out wrong. Leaving the parking lot, he inhaled the pungency and echo of what has become the familiarity of his and his daughter's life in basketball – the cramped myopia of the tiny gym, the referee's whistle, the blend of perfume and sweat, the flip-flop motion of the young athletes' long hair up and down the court, the banter of fathers just like him, and the zipping up of winter coats over uniforms in the church lobby, preparing for the harsh realities of weather.

The father has shared this journey with his daughter ever since she was six years old, when she began watching the game on the family television, and soon, names like LeBron and Joel and Ben and Kobe were as commonly used as the names of her friends, teammates and family. For these seven years, he has watched along with her, admiring the acrobats and the ballerinas and the warriors and the trench men who apply their craft on beaming hardwood floors before packed arenas and millions more watching from home.

The father has watched his daughter attempt to duplicate their moves and their symmetry not only from beneath the makeshift rim he rigged up in the driveway, but also in church and school gyms in Unionville, Kennett Square, West Grove and Oxford. She is currently wearing her fourth uniform, climbing the ranks of both leagues and talent, and her aspirations are to eventually be good enough to play for the high school that she will eventually attend.

The father took the exit off of Route 1, and soon, the recognizable buildings and homes of the life he shares with his wife, his son and his daughter came into focus again. He has made this ride from the church gym hundreds of times, but only last week did he fully acknowledge the beauty in its repetition. This time, it permeated his skin and took up residency in his mind, and he knew that this moment would serve as a touchstone to all of the other moments he has had with his daughter on these car rides back and forth on her basketball journey.

Last Sunday, January 26, the father first heard the news on the car radio, and at first, it seemed surreal. He pulled the car over and read the reports on his I-phone, and saw that the news was confirmed when he watched it unfold on television later that afternoon. A 41-year-old father, just a few years younger than he is, was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others after the helicopter they were riding in disappeared in the early-morning fog in the hills of Calabasas, Calif.

When the news became final, the father did not think about the fame and legend of Kobe Bryant. Rather, he thought of Bryant as the father of a young basketball player, who was accompanying his 13-year-old daughter on their way to her basketball game. He imagined the gifts Gianna gave Bryant, that allowed him to temper down the tenaciousness that drove him to be the best basketball player of his generation and approach the game again, lovingly, through his daughter's eyes.

For Bryant, Gianna had given him the gift to see basketball a different way.

Last Monday, ESPN reporter Elle Duncan shared a memory of Bryant. They met backstage at an ESPN event in New York a few years ago, and when Bryant noticed that Duncan was pregnant, he asked her if she knew the gender of her child. When Duncan told him that she was expecting a girl, Bryant, who had three daughters at the time, high-fived her.

“Girls are the best,” he told her. “Just be grateful that you've been given that gift because girls are amazing.”

The father pulled into the family driveway after a silent ride home from the gym. He looked over at the young basketball player. Her silence is the gift she is giving me, he thought – a gift that will soon promise the invitation to huddle into her vulnerability and sort through her failures like they are discoveries.

He has shared these same rides with his son, but this is a different language than that. Hers is the language of women, where after silence and reflection comes the river flow of emotion willingly revealed. This is why girls are amazing, he thought.

The father pulled the car into the garage, but instead of leaving, the father and the 13-year-old basketball player began to talk about the game that she had just played -- a scene that was similarly being played out all over Chester County and all over the United States and all over the world. The father is reminded of a photograph he saw soon after the word spread that Kobe and Gianna Bryant had died. 

It is of the two sitting courtside at a basketball game, lost in the language of basketball. The father imagined the content of the conversation, and despite the fact that he lives in a different world than Bryant did, the father suspected the conversation was very similar -- one of Xs and Os, of heartbreak and victories, with few commas and no pauses. 

The basketball player sat in the cold car in the garage and grasped for reasons to explain why she had played so poorly.  She told her father that she had a long way to go to be good at this game, and didn't know where to begin.

“Love your family,” the father told the basketball player. “Love your teammates. And outwork everyone else in the gym.”

That's what Kobe used to tell Gianna, the father remembered. He then gathered the basketball player's gym bag, and together, they entered their home.