Here in this heightened stage of alert where the welfare and health of children have never been greater, you can tell how swollen the issue is by the size of the lump in Kevin McHale’s throat.
It’s been a month since his dear daughter Sasha left too early, ripping apart his world in the process, and now here comes the horror of Connecticut to connect him to those grieving families in a roundabout way, one tragedy followed by another, a left-right sucker punch to the heart.
A Hall of Fame player equally famous for having a personality to match is missing a segment of his soul. That is evident anytime someone asks about the death of children, a topic no one can avoid nowadays, and McHale’s eyes immediate find the floor while he respectfully whispers, as he did Monday: “Let’s talk about basketball.”
So you can understand why the most touching image of the NBA in 2012 won’t be LeBron James finally clutching his precious championship trophy, or Jeremy Lin being smothered by the bosom of New York. Did you see how McHale squeezed Kevin Garnett the other day and simply would not … let … go?
Six years ago in Minnesota there was a frost between the two, with Garnett blaming McHale for mismanaging the Wolves and denying him a title. But such tiny insignificance was absent when McHale, now coach of the Rockets, and Garnett, now a champion with the Celtics, slowly made their way toward each other after the game last week in Houston when the Celtics paid a visit.
At first, it was a sympathetic hug, which rapidly turned into a two-man therapy session. Not only did McHale wrap his arms around Garnett, he locked his thumbs together behind Garnett’s back and applied a vice grip. The two whispered in each other’s ear and suddenly the tears were too strong for McHale to suppress. He started shaking and broke down, as only a father who lost a 23-year-old daughter could.
Watching was his best friend, Danny Ainge, the Celtics director of basketball operations and a constant pillow next to McHale during Sasha’s losing battle with complications from lupus.
“What’s interesting is I don’t know if they’ve had any interaction at all since KG left Minnesota,” said Ainge. “It was great two see these two men show that there was something bigger than basketball. I was touched by the depth of that embrace and the heartfelt appreciation of one another. I was in tears.”
The last time McHale cried and hugged anyone that tightly, Ainge suspects, was Sasha during her final days. McHale left the Rockets back on November 10 after getting the call he dreaded ever since Sasha’s condition worsened earlier this fall. She was dying and needed her father. He didn’t return to the bench until Dec. 8, weeks after her death. When his daughter was born while McHale was winding down his playing career, he told Celtics teammates her name was Alexandra. The team’s longtime massage therapist was from Russia, and after overhearing this, Vladimir Shulman told McHale: “If you love her, you will call her Sasha.”
Her death, while not sudden, was unexpected. The disease is rarely fatal, according to medical experts. The cruel irony is that McHale can’t join the rest of us who are pulling our young children a bit closer after being shocked and saddened by the shooting deaths of elementary kids in Newtown.
For the most part, McHale was out of touch while away at the family home in Minnesota and at her hospital bedside. He didn’t speak to many people, with Ainge one of the exceptions. The two bonded tightly as teammates on those great Celtic teams in the ‘80s and during that time, they began to expand their families. In that competition, there was no contest. Ainge had six and now he’s a grandfather times 11. Their wives and kids grew up with each other, knew each other and therefore Ainge was afforded a peek into the McHale household, where Sasha stood.
“She had a great temperament,” Ainge said. “She was looked up to by her siblings and by her mom and dad for comfort. She was everyone’s favorite person in the family.”
While McHale was in Minnesota preparing to bury his daughter, the front door opened and in popped the entire Rockets team. One by one, the players and coaches gave him a Garnett hug. Unbeknownst to McHale, the team charter made a detour on the way to Memphis for a road game and surprised the coach the morning of the funeral. McHale didn’t know what to do or say. He did, however, know how to cry.
In McHale’s first game since his daughter’s passing, the Mavericks lined up and welcomed him back, and that’s the thing about kids. They have unifying powers unlike any other. They’re the ultimate ice-breakers, conversation starters and bonding agent. They shatter barriers and when tragedy hits, shatter lives as well. Even the most difficult and grumpiest people will cheerfully let you into their world for as long as you want if you ask about their kids. Wallets exist because of a need of a place to tuck their photos.
And so the NBA, to this day, continues to gather around McHale much the way the country is tying a ribbon around Newtown. We can’t relate but we can feel. We don’t experience that kind of pain but it hurts just the same.
“The world is small,” said Ainge. “It’s almost like a village where everyone calls home. I don’t know what the families are going through because I haven’t been there, but I do have kids so I can imagine how challenging it must be. You never overcome, you never fill that hole. You just move on.”
At first Ainge thought McHale would sit out the season. Then Ainge realized he underestimated the therapeutic powers of normalcy and being among people and in an atmosphere that can serve to soothe.
“Kevin and his wife Lynn are strong people and will be shining examples to others,” said Ainge. “They may not see that through their heartbreak right now but I believe eventually they will, and they need to be, for their family and other families going through this.”
McHale and the Rockets paid a visit to New York, not far away from Newtown, to play the Knicks in a game famous for Jeremy Lin’s return to the place that made him a folk hero. The real dramatic comeback, though, was by a coach hauling around a heavy heart and was too choked up to reveal how much it weighed.