press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

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Reiko and Theo with daughter Naomi visiting grandparents in Tokuyama.

After the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was at a peak in confidence. The economy was roaring. Team Japan tallied the third highest number of gold medals at the XVIII Olympiad at 16. The world had rave reviews for the organizers, with IOC president Avery Brundage heaping high praise on Japan:

Japan had demonstrated its capacity to all the world through bringing this greatest of all international spectacles to Asia for the first time and staging it with such unsurpassed precision and distinction. It is certainly the Number One Olympic Nation today.

The world had come to Japan and was excited to see a young, curious and energetic people. And the young, curious and energetic Japanese were eager to see the world.

In 1964, Reiko Kuramitsu was a freshman at Ferris College in Yokohama majoring in English, and was recruited to be a guide and translator for the Silk Center, which opened in Yokohama in 1959 to promote the silk industry.

Reiko worked 9 to 5, and was given special permission to skip classes so she could do her civic duty and help foreigners visiting the Silk Center learn about the great industriousness and skill of Japanese craftsmen. Born in Tokuyama-shi (now Shunan-shi), Yamaguchi in the Western part of Japan, Reiko had progressive parents who encouraged their daughter to study English and expand her horizons.

And with the arrival of the Olympics, Reiko was excited.

It is hard to believe that it was only 19 years after the war. It was amazing to make such a quick recovery. All the spirit came back. The whole country was so excited about the Olympics and Tokyo. Most of the people were able to buy TVs, black and white. All of Japan was talking about the Olympics!

And Reiko felt that something special was coming for her. “Before the games started, I had a premonition that something is going to really happen to change my life,” she said. “I sense things are going to happen in the future. I felt it very strongly.”

As the Tokyo Olympics were coming to a close, a group of Olympians entered the Silk Center. One of them, an Australian, looked so much like the American actor Steve McQueen, that the workers at the Silk Center were star struck, asking him for autographs. Reiko wasn’t interested, and walked away from the gaggle of girls. Ted (Theo) Mittet, a young American rower, was accompanying faux McQueen, and noticed Reiko. He left the Silk Center without saying a word to her.

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Ted “Theo” Mittet in front of the Kenzo Tange National Gymnasium during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

But Theo returned the next day. Reiko wasn’t there, but her friend Sumiko, also from Reiko’s hometown, was. Theo asked Sumiko for Reiko’s name and where he could contact him. “The next thing I knew, I got his express letter from the Olympic village from Theo,” she said. “It just said, ‘Dear Reiko, would it be possible to have dinner together?’ He didn’t even know me. This must be fate.”

They met for dinner in Chinatown – Douhatsu – one of the popular restaurants in Yokohama at the time.  Reiko brought her friend Sumiko along – after all, she had never met this man before. Reiko sensed that Theo was unhappy that a party of two suddenly became a party of three. And she felt he was annoyed that she didn’t know anything about his hometown of Seattle. But she liked him.

He was cute. He had beautiful brown eyes. More interestingly to me, I learned he was studying to be an architect. I almost went to art school, but instead ended up studying English literature. To me, his interest in architecture meant he was artistic, and that interested me about him more than anything.

They met one more time before Theo took off on his 2-month journey through Japan. He even stopped by Tokuyama and met Reiko’s mother. After Theo returned to Yokohama, they met several times, but their relationship seemed to stall. And then one day, Theo was gone. He had embarked on a ship that took him around the world before returning home to Seattle.

Still they stayed in touch as pen pals, “just good friends.” But as her parents did, Theo encouraged Reiko to be more curious, to be more independent. And at some point, she decided that she would go to the United States, “to see America with my own eyes.”

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Greyhound Bus ad in 1966

While it is routine for single Japanese women to travel abroad today, in the 1960s, very few Japanese did. Overseas travel was not encouraged by the Japanese government, as they wanted to keep their hard-earned export dollars for use by Japanese corporations. And to get a visa to America, you had to go through a few hoops. She had to have sponsors in America, so she talked with her college teachers, and fellow church goers and got introductions to their friends in America. At the particular church she attended, she knew a Naval Commander named George Imboden, whose daughter she had become friends with.

Thanks to all these connections, she was able to convince the American Embassy she had a clear travel plan and people to meet her along the way. She boarded a ship that took 12 days, passing through the Aleutian Islands before arriving in San Francisco. Then she started her American journey in earnest, pulling out her Greyhound Bus ticket, taking advantage of an unlimited travel promotion called “99 days for 99 dollars.”

She was 21. She was on a bus. And she was seeing America: Colorado, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, Washington D. C., Illinois, Iowa. And then back to the West Coast with a visit to Seattle, Washington.

reiko kuramitsu and karen mittet_summer of 1967_bremerton ferry seattle
Reiko Kuramitsu and Karen Mittet on the Bremerton Ferry in Seattle.

Reiko was met by Theo’s family at the 8th avenue bus terminal, and was shocked to see these big Americans. Like Theo, his father and his brother were both over 6 feet tall. Reiko met Theo’s mother, and her sister. But Theo wasn’t there. He was in California, studying at UC Berkley.

So Reiko made her way south to California. She was able to stay with Commander Imboden at their home in Long Beach. When Theo took a summer job at a nursery in Laguna Beach, he arranged for a homestay for Reiko near him. And they got to know each other for another two months.

With her visa at her limit of 6 months, Reiko had to head back to Japan. But before she left, Theo and Reiko got engaged. A year later, they married.

If Reiko stayed in Japan, she likely would have ended up in an arranged marriage, and probably would still be in Yamaguchi.

My life is so much richer (for meeting Theo). I can’t imagine what would have happened if I stayed in Japan my whole life.

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Reiko and Theo in Napa Valley
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Photo taken by author on January 6, 2019, from the fifth floor of a building.

It’s rising!

The New National Stadium, which will be the focal point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is about twice as high as it was a year since I last took pictures.

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Current view of inside the stadium, from Nippon Terebi.

The architect of this stadium, Kengo Kuma, is famous for working with wood, and you can now see long slats of light brown cedar wood lining the upper part of the stadium. While criticized heavily for dropping plans for a thoroughly different design by world-renown architect Zaha Hadid, the organizing committee did well in selecting Kuma. His design will certainly merge more harmoniously with the surroundings, particularly the wooded confines of Meiji Shrine. In fact, the New National Stadium is called The Mori no Stadium (杜のスタジアム), or the Shrine Forest Stadium.

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The cedar slats that line the stadium eaves.

As Kuma explained in this interview, he was anxious about whether the color of the wood, which was tinged a light white color, would blend well with the green of Meiji Shrine’s trees. “But when I saw the texture of the trees (as a backdrop to the stadium), I was relieved that it was okay.”

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An Oedo Line train station – Kokuritsu-kyogijo Eki – is right underneath the stadium.

November 30, 2019 is the targeted completion date for the New National Stadium.

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Shizo Kanakuri at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics

He was one of two Japanese to compete at the 1912 Stockholm Olympians – the first Japanese Olympians. He competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics as well. And he created one of the most popular sporting events in Japanthe Hakone Ekiden.

Shizo Kanakuri also has the distinction of being the slowest Olympic runner in the history of sport when he competed in his first Olympics.

Despite setting what may have been a world record time of 2:32:45 for a marathon trial for the Stockholm Olympics, Kanakuri arrived in Sweden in terrible shape. It took 18 days for Kanakuri and his lone teammate, sprinter, Yahiko Mishima, to get to Sweden by ship and then by Trans-Siberian Railway  in time for the running competitions in July. And it was unexpectedly hot in Stockholm, with temperatures hitting 25 degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit), not ideal for long-distance runners.

Weakened by the travel, the lack of conditioning, the challenging local diet, and the heat, Kanakuri collapsed midway through the race, somewhere around the 27 kilometer mark. Members of a nearby farming family picked up the fallen runner and brought him to their home and cared for him until he was able to move on his own.

Despite the fact that half of the 68 starters also failed to complete the 42-kilometer race, Kanakuri was embarrassed by his failure to complete the marathon, and left the grounds without informing race officials. He then quietly returned to Japan.

But as far as Swedish officials were concerned, Kanakuri had simply vanished.

Fifty years later, in 1967, Kanakuri was “found” in Japan by producers from a Swedish television station, and to their credit, they made Kanakuri an offer he could not refuse – come back to Stockholm and complete the race.

shizo kanakuri_1912 and 1967
Shizo Kanakuri in 1912 and 1967

It was just prior to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and local businessmen were brainstorming for ways to raise funds to send Swedish athletes to Mexico. According to this link, they came up with this idea – “why not have Kanakuri ‘finish’ the marathon in front of the world’s media as a way to score some free publicity and attract sponsors to their cause?”

As The Japan Times reported, Kanakuri was very happy to start what he had always intended to finish, even if it took over half a century. At the age of 76, in front of the cameras, decked out in suit and tie, Kanakuri ran about 100 meters before breaking the tape and completing the world’s longest marathon.

Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon. His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to (historian) Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: “It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.”

akihiro gunji of tokai university winner of 2019 hakone ekiden
Tokai University anchor Akihiro Gunji breaks the tape to give his school the victory in the Tokyo-Hakone ekiden on Wednesday in Otemachi. | KYODO

It’s a New Year’s tradition in Japan – settling into lazy days of eating and laying about in front of the TV with family on January 2nd and 3rd, watching a running competition that spans over 200 kilometers – the Hakone Ekiden.

Since 1920, the annual Hakone Ekiden has transfixed the nation as teams of ten long-distance runners from universities in the Kanto region compete to complete ten legs of about 20 kilometers each. They run the roads of Japan from downtown Otemachi to Hakone on day one, and then back to Otemachi on day two.

Thousands line the streets to cheer runners from their alma mater while tens of millions more watch on TV from 8 in the morning to about 1:30 in the afternoon. It’s Super Bowl Sunday in America – without the glitzy half-time show.

And when 2020 rolls around, its feasible that some of the Japanese distance runners with medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics will be competing in the 100th anniversary of the Hakone Ekiden that January. In fact, that was the raison d’etre of the Hakone Ekiden – “to bring up runners to compete in the world.”

Those are the words of Shizo Kanakuri, who created the ekiden race. Kanakuri, along with sprinter Yahiko Mishima, were Japan’s first Olympians, competing at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While Kanakuri was not able to finish the marathon in 1912, he represented Japan again at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, placing 16th and finishing with a time of 2:48:45.

With expanded knowledge of what  international competition was like, Kanakuri grasped an opportunity to raise greater awareness of long-distance running, and thus develop Japan’s next generation of international competitors.

It started with a celebration – an event to highlight the 50th anniversary of Tokyo becoming the nation’s capitol. In 1917, Yomiuri Shimbun organized a massive road race that spanned over 500 kilometers and ran from Kyoto (the former capitol) to Tokyo. The idea of creating long-distance relay exchanges along the way came from the Edo-period practice of transmitting messages from Kyoto to Tokyo and back via humans who ran from station to station with their important missives.

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Zensaku Mogi

So impressed was Kanakuri with the idea of a long-distant relay race, he had a vision of America – that the same could be done traversing the United States from sea to shining sea. While that vision was, as it turned out, an impossible dream at the time, it inspired Kanakuri and his partners from Tokyo Koshi and Waseda universities to create an organization that would invite university students to participate in a local ekiden. In the end, four major universities in Tokyo – Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Tokyo Koshi – elected to compete in the first Hakone Ekiden.

On February 15, 1920, when Zensaku Mogi of Tokyo Koshi University broke the tape on his arrival in front of the Hochi Shimbun office of Yomiuri Group, helping his team to a total 2-day time of 15 hours, five minutes and 16 seconds, he ignited a tradition of hope in the youth and future of Japan that continues to this day.

year of the boar japan 2019

2019 is the Year of the Boar (in Japan) and Year of the Pig (in China). More specifically in the Chinese Zodiac, it is the Year of the Earth Pig, which waddles into the spotlight once every 60 years.

And it was 60 years ago on May 26, 1959 in the last Year of the Earth Pig, that members of the IOC met in Munich, Germany for the 55th General Session of the International Olympic Committee to decide which city – Brussels, Detroit, Tokyo or Vienna – would host the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

In a decisive vote that required only one round, the IOC selected Tokyo, which took a majority 34 votes of the possible 58. Detroit came in a distant second with only 10 votes.

What were the reasons given for Tokyo’s winning bid in 1959?

Successful Asian Games: in 1958, Tokyo hosted the Asian Games, where over 1,800 athletes from 20 nations participated in 13 different events. As the Detroit Times wrote the day after its selection, “Tokyo, a strong favorite in recent months, after the world-wide fanfare it received after its holding of the recent Asian Games, was given the 1964 award.”

Fred Wada: Wada, a Wakayama native, was a Japanese American who hosted the Japan swimming team when they competed at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, and was instrumental in lobbying IOC members in Latin America in support of the Tokyo bid for the 1964 Olympics.

Cancellation of the 1940 Tokyo Olympics: Tokyo was awarded the right to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but the threat of global conflict made the organization of those Games untenable, so they Olympics were cancelled in both 1940 and 1944. Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, would mention that they lost their chance to stage those Games because of “unfortunate circumstances,” implying that 1964 would be a second chance.

Avery Brundage: Brundage was a dominant president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972. And he was someone deeply familiar with Asia, particularly its art. After visiting an exhibition of Chinese art in London in 1935, he began to amass a collection of Asian art, much of which would be donated to the new wing of the Memorial Museum in San Francisco. In his speech at the opening of the new wing, Brundage professed his admiration for Asia.

We think in terms of years, Orientals think in terms of generations, or of centuries, and some Indian philosophers even think in terms of five thousand year cycles. The great religions all originated in Asia. The Chinese invented silk, paper, gunpowder, porcelain, printing, and a hundred other things, and had a well developed civilization when Europe was in the throes of the dark ages and most of America a wilderness, inhabited only by savages. (From The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage, by Heinz Schobel.)

Avery Brundage Visiting an art exhibition in Tokyo, 1958
Avery Brundage Visiting an art exhibition in Tokyo, 1958, from The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage

Supporters of the Detroit bid didn’t take kindly to what they perceived as Brundage’s outsized influence and bias for bringing the Olympics to Asia. One of the leaders of the Detroit bid, Fred Matthaei, was quoted as saying, “We got the impression the committee wanted to hold the Games on another continent.”

The editorial in the May 27, 1959 editorial page of the Detroit Times was blunter in its criticism of Brundage.

Brundage is a native Detroiter. The local delegation hoped that fact might help their campaign. It didn’t. It merely proved how little they know the egotistic Mr. Brundage. He insists piously and repeatedly that his position as president of the IOC prevents his taking sides. But he made no secret of his leaning toward Tokyo. His explanation for the about-face in principle is that Tokyo lost the 1940 games because of the war. He indicated he deemed it an accident of fate. He ignored the argument that in 1940 the Japanese were engaged in an aggressive war and, accordingly, deserve no special consideration.

Whatever the reason, the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964, thanks to that crucial vote in 1959, the Year of the Earth Pig.

Stan Cole
Stan Cole

Stanley C. Cole

Stanley Clark Cole was a three-time Olympian who competed as a member of the United States water polo team. The Dover, Delaware native was a dominant scorer on the UCLA Bruins team, and went to his first Olympics in Tokyo in 1964. Cole went on to the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, scoring six of his 11 Olympic goals on the team that won bronze at the Munich Games. Serving as an officer in the US Navy, Cole was on the ship that picked up the famed astronauts of Apollo 13. Cole passed away on July 26, 2018, at the age of 72.

 

Valentina_RastvorovaValentina Rastvorova

Valentina Rastvorova was a three-time Olympic fencer on the Soviet Union team, competing in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo from 1956 to 1964. The Odessa native won gold in team foil, as well as silver in individual foil in 1960, as well as silver in team foil in 1964. She was married to a water polo player on the 1964 Soviet Union team, Boris Grishin, which won bronze in Tokyo. Their son, Yevgeny Grishin, won gold in Moscow and bronze in Seoul as a member of the Soviet water polo team. Rastvorova died on August 24, 2018 at the ate of 85.

 

Kurt HelmudtKurt Helmudt

Kurt Helmudt, at the age of 20, was the youngest member of the Danish coxless four rowing team that won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Helmudt was an engineer shipbuilder after his rowing career. He passed away at the age of 74 on September 7, 2018.

 

Ganpatrao AndalkarGanpatrao Andalkar

Ganpatrao Andalkar represented India in two different wrestling disciplines at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: as a middleweight in Greco-Roman and as a heavyweight in Freestyle competition.

Prior to Tokyo, Andalkar had captured gold and silver medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962. Andalkar passed away on September 16, 2018 in Pune, India.

 

Győző_Kulcsár_1970Győző Kulcsár

A four-time Olympian, fencer Győző Kulcsár of Hungary passed away on September 19, 2018. He was 77. The native of Budapest competed in the individual and team épée events at the 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 Olympics, garnering a total of six medals, including four golds.

Kulcsár would go on to become the Secretary General of the Hungarian Fencing Association in 1979, as well as the head coach of the Hungarian fencing team from 1980 to 1988.

 

Joseph MacBrienJoseph MacBrien

Sailing on the Dragon Boat, Serendipity, Joseph MacBrien, 39, teamed up with fellow Canadians Ed Botterell and Lynn Watters to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the waters of Enoshima. A Toronto native, MacBrien served in the Royal Canadian Navy as an Officer Cadet, as well as on British and Australian warships in WWII. As a pilot, he also flew 66 combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean War, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. MacBrien passed away on November 18, 2018 at the age of 94.

Barkley and Wang on TNT set
Lin Wang and Charles Barkley on the TNT set

One of the best sports stories of 2018 is a story of an Odd Couple.

Gentler than the relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, more real than the bond between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, was the friendship between a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa named Lin Wang, and one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, Charles Barkley.

The story told by Wang’s daughter, a journalist named Shirley Wang, set the internet world abuzz a few weeks ago with her feel-good story of how her father was in a hotel in Sacramento in 2014 when he spied Barkley at the empty bar, and then went up to say hi. What ensued was 6 hours of drinks and dinner, and a friendship that lasted four years, much to the mystery of Shirley’s family, and the bemusement of Barkley’s jet-setting friends.

Shirley Wang tells the story eloquently in this audio report for public radio called “My Dad’s Friendship with Charles Barkley.” Wang and Barkley texted each other. Wang would get invited onto the TNT set when Barkley was broadcasting. Barkley would sign Air Jordan and Air Max sneakers for Wang, which Wang would then send to his close friends on their birthdays.

Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie
Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie

But when Barkley’s mother passed away, Wang dropped everything, got on a plane, made his way to Leeds, Alabama, and attended the funeral. Here’s how Barkley explained the scene to Shirley on the phone last year: “You know, it was obviously a very difficult time. And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’

Wang’s daughter, Shirley, had no idea who Barkley was, and humored her father who said he was friends with a big celebrity. To her, Barkley was not one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, as her father would fondly note. No, at best he was a B-List celebrity. And as she learned when she was interviewed on a Slate sports podcast, Barkley did not have the best of reputations as a player.

In his hey day, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” as he was known, the 6ft 6 (198cm) and 250 lb (113 kg) Charles Barkley was a loud-mouth, elbow-swinging, rim-shaking Mack Truck on the basketball court, who was an 11-time NBA All Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.

A member of the US men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, aka The Dream Team, he was labeled the Ugly American for elbowing a slight Angolan player in the chest for little apparent reason. “Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy,” he said flippantly after the game.

In defense of friends sitting with him at a bar, he stood up to a guy who was said to throw ice at him and his friends. Barkley chased the 20-year-old man down, picked him up and threw him through the window of the Orlando, Florida bar.  “For all I care, you can lay there and die,” Barkley was quoted as saying as he left the scene.

And in his current role as commentator on the NBA, TNT and their viewers love the unfiltered opinions and clownish antics of Charles Barkley.

Wang, on the other hand, was a quiet cheerful guy, “everybody’s suburban dad”, as his daughter would put it. But Barkley and Wang found a deep common bond, as she explained on the Slate podcast.

To me, they were kindred spirits. They had a chance encounter and they decided to act and follow through on that friendship to exchange numbers and continue talking. I don’t think a lot of people would sense that connection with other people. They wouldn’t go out of their way for other people. I think my dad could feel the gravity of a moment and he could be very convicted about what he needed to do. He felt really convicted about his feelings and his friendships so I guess that’s why he jetted off. It was confusing to us at the time. We didn’t really understand why.”

It really surprised me that he thought about our similar racialized experiences in the US. And of course they were very different. My dad came  with a visa to study for a PhD. He was already on a path set for success, or financial stability. Whereas Charley comes from a lower income family in the South of the US. It was really interesting that they made that connection. But I do think that they come from a very specific generation where that is the belief – the American dream. They can both build themselves up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Shirley Wang and Lin Wang
Shirley Wang and Lin Wang

In May of 2016, Lin Wang was diagnosed with cancer, a fact he hid for a long time from friends, including Barkley. And in June of 2018, Wang passed away. And as the guests began to settle in to the funeral taking place in Iowa City, Iowa, Shirley looked behind her. “Standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.”

Alone, slightly panicked, disoriented in a town he had never been with people at a funeral he had never met, but gracious and humble, Barkley was true to the spirit of his friendship with Wang – authentic.

In her phone interview, Shirley asked Barkley what they talked about. He replied they talked primarily about their kids, and that Wang talked about his son and daughter a lot. And Barkley, to the surprise of the world, dispensed insight into the parental mind that melted hearts:

“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing. Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.”

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?”

“You too.”

I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.