Drop Off: Column on Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 05: A basketball hoop and net are shown before a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament between the San Francisco Dons and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Orleans Arena on March 5, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Bulldogs won 88-60. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 05: A basketball hoop and net are shown before a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament between the San Francisco Dons and the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Orleans Arena on March 5, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Bulldogs won 88-60. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

I rarely watch postgame interviews live.

If I’m watching a game live on TV, I usually want to move right into the next thing after the final buzzer — give me something to eat, a way to get my body moving after sitting for two hours, or just another game to immediately sink my teeth into.

When the incredibly compelling 2016 WNBA Finals came to a close with the Sparks closing it out in Game 5 on Minnesota’s home floor, for whatever reason, I turned the volume up and locked in on Holly Rowe’s interview with Candace Parker.

The soon-to-be-named Finals MVP was crying. Why? I had two pretty good guesses. Parker, in her ninth pro season, had just clinched her first WNBA championship.

On top of that, Parker and the entire basketball community (among many others) had recently suffered a tremendous loss. Legendary coach Pat Summitt passed away in June of that summer after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s.

“This is for Pat,” Parker said twice to Rowe before stepping away.

Suddenly, I was frozen on my couch. I have zero recollection of what I did the rest of that day.

My sports fandom growing up revolved around two things: San Diego Padres games and SportsCenter. My dad and I bonded over going to those Padres games together. (The Padres had a decent run last decade. I know you don’t believe it. Just take my word on this one.)

I couldn’t ever pretend to have encyclopedic knowledge of women’s basketball — the thing I now spend the majority of my time covering. I still can’t totally make sense of how this started for me.

I did watch SportsCenter religiously, though. Sometimes even the same episode twice in one night. I just loved watching highlights and bloopers from any sport, women’s basketball included.

I didn’t know how to explain it, but I also knew I didn’t need to — Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird were just plain cool. Maybe it has something to do with being an only child, but I was totally enthralled with the storyline of the Ogwumike sisters dominating, together, at Stanford.

Between the memories of watching highlights of those four players: Parker, and coach Summitt. I love wearing long sleeves on a basketball court, and I love the color orange. Summitt is a legendary coach and Parker a transcendent talent, of course, but those two things, for whatever reason, were what drew me in the first time they popped up on the screen of my 15-inch box TV.

My immediate family isn’t all that interested in sports. The older I got, I realized they often merely tolerated them for my sake. But I’ve always enjoyed watching games — first the Padres, then the San Diego State men’s basketball team (there is only one SDSU, this is not up for debate), then Kawhi Leonard on the Spurs as they toppled LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

And from there I just began to fixate on basketball, as much of it in whatever form I could find. I coached, watched, played and read constantly. At the same time, I began to wish that I hated the sport instead. Why have this passion that I didn’t share with anyone in my family?

Well, there was one person, I was later told. I just never got to know that part of her.

13 years ago this month, my grandma’s battle with Alzheimer’s came to a close. I was 12 years old.

I had begun playing basketball at that point, but I spent most of my time in junior high playing video games in my room. I had allowed resentment to fester inside me toward my parents and allowed it to wholly consume me. We moved further north up the I-15, away from my two childhood friends. We did everything together. We rarely made plans. We just met outside after school everyday in our neighborhood and picked a sport or game to play until our parents came outside to drag us inside, long after the street lights came on.

After the move, though I was less than 15 miles away, we instantly fell out of touch. I was devastated, and angry.

That anger blinded me from understanding what was happening to someone even closer to me — what Alzheimer’s really meant, and what it was doing to my grandma.

Some of my earliest memories date back to Sunday afternoons spent with my grandparents at their house. A Padres game was usually on. We made sno-cones and played cards.

Those afternoons were the most complete I’ve ever felt in spending time with my family. I didn’t realize this until much later. I struggle to look back on those days and smile. Instead, I’m filled with regret. And burning anger, directed solely at myself.

My grandma was born in Louisville. As I later learned, she did enjoy the game of basketball. That’s about all I know on that front.

What I do know is that my grandma never had it easy. Polio robbed her of the use of her legs for the overwhelming majority of her adult life. Yet from the time spent with her that I can remember, I cannot even picture her doing anything other than smiling or laughing.

After her funeral, I was told exactly why. One of her longtime church friends that had seen me every Sunday since I was an infant said, “You know Ben, I’ll always remember how happy she was when you were born. All she wanted was to be a grandmother.”

That crushed me. I had no idea how to appreciate or process those words. All that anger I felt towards other people hardened me to the point where I wasn’t who I should have been for my grandma as her mind slowly deteriorated.

I only thought it fair to redirect all that anger back at myself. How did I not understand sooner? The woman I always knew to be so vivid and full of life amid the circumstances she was dealt had set the example for me on how to make the most of each day. And I ignored it, choosing instead to feel sorry for myself knowing full-well how much it paled in comparison to the things so many other people, her included, have to go through.

I failed to make the most of the time I did have with my grandma while she was still here. I can’t buy back moments with her in that kitchen making boysenberry sno-cones, in that living room playing cards with the Padres game on, in random gyms watching basketball games I imagine we would have attended together had she not passed away so soon. I can take action, though, to live my life for her. I’m so incredibly thankful for Parker’s ever-so-brief moment on camera, which triggered the thought that now drives me.

I’ll never make her proud hating myself for what I wish I had done with her. The only response now is to actively do as much as I can for her.

And largely speaking, that is what has led me to where I am now — watching an absurd amount of basketball, spending gobs of time catching up on podcasts driving from San Diego to Staples Center and back home again, doing none of the things I went to college for.

What would it have been like to watch Louisville and Kentucky play each other on the hardwood every year? Would we have rooted for the same team or chosen opposites? Which pro team would we root for? Would she have enjoyed the college or pro game more, or loved them both the same?

I’ll never know the answers to those questions. We won’t get to take in this WNBA season together, wondering if the Sparks and Lynx will find a way to meet again in a Game 5 with everything on the line. We won’t watch Taurasi stick threes in people’s faces until she’s 60 (presumably), the Ogwumike sisters matchup inside with a title on the line (maybe), or Parker thread the needle night after night on passes nobody else in the building even saw a window for (definitely).

I’ve spent most of the last 13 years wishing I had somebody else in my family to share my passion for this game with. I allowed myself to be paralyzed by regret and humiliation that I refused to share with others. Those eight words from Parker shook me and reminded me: that person has been there all this time.

Yes, my grandma is gone. But I hold the choice to continue to bring her with me everywhere I go. So with every basketball opportunity that comes my way now, I will continue to do just that, for her.

Next: Thursday Drop Off: Previewing 3 Thursday games

I’ll be donating 100% of my earnings this month to the Alzheimer’s Association. If you can manage, please consider a donation as well, which can be completed through their website