“Hopefully, it’s the right time. I don’t know there ever is a right time.”
- Kevin McHale, 2012
Some things burn when typed. Some events cannot be probed because they prove tacit; they are overt and catch fire when quarried. Sometimes your ear’s scald when you’re told these narratives. This story is built upon a grief so melancholy it corroded these words with every punch and click of my keyboard. It didn’t want to be written. But this story is also one of compassion, of warmth, and of an unremitting love for basketball.
Kevin McHale was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 after three championships and seven all-star games with his only team, the Boston Celtics. The third overall pick in the 1980 NBA Draft, McHale transcended the power forward position with agility and long-armed presence on both ends of the floor. His first year on the team, the Celtics had the best record in the league. McHale was a part of the league’s best ever frontline (Bird, McHale, Parish) and also ranks 13th in best career field goal percentage. Since transitioning to the coaching side of the sport, McHale has been at the helm of both the Minnesota Timberwolves (2004-05, 2008-09) and Houston Rockets (2011-present).
McHale returned to the Houston Rockets last Tuesday, a week removed of his 86-year-old mother’s death. When his team took the floor Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls, he appeared tranquil, meticulous, and even managed to muster a smile after his team put away the opposition late. The press conference that followed resolved to not converse the humanity of the situation, because what can you really ask someone who has grown acclimatized to suffering? Nothing.
He buried his 23-year-old daughter, Alexandra “Sasha” McHale, 13 months ago – 29 days before Christmas. She had been hospitalized for two weeks preceding her death, bravely endeavoring to combat lupus – a systemic autoimmune disease that infiltrates the body’s cells and tissues until your organs concede. It has plagued Seal, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, Flannery O’Connor, and millions of others. It can be agonizing, and although it’s been around for centuries – in rare cases – it can be incurable.
Sasha McHale learned the game of basketball outside her parent’s home in Minnesota. Despite a taxing commitment, Kevin maintained a close relationship with Sasha. She donned his jersey No. 32 when she won a state championship her senior year. Her teammate called her, “just like her dad,” and a part of “a very close family.” Sasha was a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth on a study abroad trip to Australia when she became sick. It was an anomaly, a malfunction that everyone thought was bound to debug itself – at the very least – because of how atypical it felt.
After her condition worsened, Kevin took a leave of absence from the Rockets and spent the final three weeks of his daughter’s life by her side. Her last tweet read, “Let’s go Rockets.” The country mourned with McHale and he felt what he had provided time and time again, support. A week after her passing, McHale brought himself back to the Toyota Center, and, “felt bad that he had to leave this young team, which was trying to fit new pieces together,” because that is who McHale’s known to be; a coach that refuses to stop giving.
The Boston legend returned to the court Dec. 15, 2012, in a game where, naturally, the Celtics were in town to visit Houston. To call it emotional wouldn’t quite encapsulate what fans beheld that evening. Kevin Garnett, the man who McHale – the then VP of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves – drafted in the first round of the 1995 NBA Draft, embraced McHale after the game as a majority of those on the floor did that night. You couldn’t empathize because you couldn’t move; you didn’t want to. All you could do was attempt to swallow the tears amassing in every person’s throat, station your jaw atop your quivering palms, and just sit in the seconds that sounded like the most harrowing silence you’d ever heard.
McHale’s season continued to feel that way, even though each day pulled him farther from that hospital bed, that funeral, that first thought that found enough wind to find his lighthouse; a basketball court. Houston played for him that year, losing a tough series 2-4 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a palpable transformation of a latent team, a development kindled by concern and support.
Two weeks ago, McHale left the team to give respects to the woman who first drove him to a basketball practice. He spent three games away from the team to spend time with family and bury his mother, Josephine. Striking again before the holiday season, Kevin McHale’s past year could’ve been paved by despair, but his relationship to his family and sport has kept him buoyant. He has kept himself afloat.
Kevin McHale continues to find benevolence atop the hardwood in a sport that treats compassion like a thumbnail. He resolves to develop his team because he knows fading into a home that will now always feel foreign will mean the sadness had won. He carries the emotional cross because that is all he can do; endure.
This year marks McHale’s third year with the Houston Rockets; they’ve improved each season. Sitting second in the Southwest Division at 17-9, the Rockets likely will make the NBA Playoffs in 2014. They will likely run into problems in the torrent Western Conference, and aren’t predicted by many to make a run at the championship. There’s no denying they have the strongest coach though, a man who found a way to the surface when anyone else would’ve sunk. McHale’s recent story is a product of the most awful circumstances, but it shows all of us the complex yet intrinsic relationships fostered by sports, and their ability to transcend us from the struggles of our daily existence.
“Everywhere we go, somebody comes up to him to give him a big hug,” Rockets assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, a former Wolves and current Rockets assistant said. “Over the last 33 years or so, his touch has been felt all over the NBA. It’s hard to find people who don’t like Kevin McHale, who weren’t touched by him in some way.”