How March Madness and a Gonzaga Bulldog Rescued “Mr. Basketball”

May 5th, 2015

dad with zag card and navy hat

To his friends, family and hometown coaches, he is known as “Mr. Basketball.”

My soon to be 80-year-old father, Ronald Walsh, lives for hoops. His local PelhamHigh School boy’s team calls him their #1 fan, despite the fact he has no relation on the bench. And nothing ─ snow, sleet, fog ─ stops him from getting to his Nashua High North granddaughter’s games

A devoted college basketball fan, he spends untold hours researching, plotting, calculating who will make it to the Final Four each year. And when March Madness begins, he watches every single game, cheering, cursing, and noting the players’ strategies and skills.

But this March, ‘The Big Dance’ meant a lot more to my father.

The buzzer-beating baskets and Kevin Pangos ─ the Gonzaga senior point guard known as ‘The General’ ─ gave my dad hope during one of the toughest and most debilitating times in his life.

Months before March Madness, my dad began falling. His arms and legs grew weaker. Within hours after an emergency trip home from his Florida vacation, an ambulance rushed my father to St. JosephHospital. A day later, he underwent surgery to correct the C 4 and 5 discs that protruded into his spine and rendered him nearly cripple.

On March 27, after a seven-hour operation on both sides of his neck, he sat in his hospital bed with a large neck brace and an IV for pain medication. “What channel is Gonzaga on?” he asked, his voice raspy and weak.

My Uncle Bill and I were stunned he even knew what day it was. Once we got the game on, my dad began to relax, to forget about his uncomfortable neck brace, his sore throat, and the fear that he would never recover.

“See No. 4?” he asked my uncle and me, his eyes following Pangos as the Gonzaga guard brought the ball down the court. “He’s like the coach out there. He leads the team.”

My father watched as Pangos directed a play, passed the ball and assisted in a basket.

“He doesn’t care about getting points,” my dad continued. “He cares about the team.”

Kevin Joseph Pangos grew up in a small town in Ontario, and like many Canadian kids, he played hockey. But his family had more passion for hoops.

Beneath the light of a streetlamp, Pangos practiced year round and late into the night. His parents had to set a curfew so their son’s dribbling and backboard clang wouldn’t keep the neighbors awake.

This year, Pangos led the Spokane, Wash. Bulldogs to a 29-1 season, and his selfless leadership epitomized my father’s basketball mantra. “There is no “I” in team,” my dad often preached to me and my five sisters.

A man who considers “Hoosiers” the best movie ever made, my father learned to love the game as a kid on the hardscrabble Brooklyn, NY basketball courts and in later years with his fellow Navy sailors. He went on to coach our hometown Catholic Youth boy’s team and my twin sisters’ summer league. My dad didn’t tolerate ball hogs or glory hounds. It was all about the team.

So on this night as Pangos passed rather than shot the ball, as the ‘General’ led his team to victory against UCLA, my father cheered No. 4 on.

“This kid is something else,” he told my uncle and me. “He’s my favorite point guard of all time.”

I nodded, wiping away tears and silently thanking Pangos for comforting dad that night and during the previous games when my father struggled to walk in Florida.

On Sunday, March 29, Pangos and Gonzaga distracted dad one more time as my father wrestled with his pain and a bad bout of physical therapy. Quietly, he watched the game he loved and a player who understood there is no “I” in team.

Though Gonzaga lost to Duke that night and didn’t make it to the Final Four, Pangos will forever remain one of my dad’s heroes.

And I will never forget how #4 eased some of my father’s discomfort, frustration and fear during a cold March in 2015.

Post Script: In mid April, after receiving a note from our family about my father’s difficult surgery, Pangos sent ‘Mr. Basketball’ a card.  “I want to thank you for your incredible support throughout the past couple months. Even through such a difficult time in your life, you still managed to watch our games and I really appreciate that! I hope your health continues to get better,” Pangos wrote, closing with, “All my best, Kevin Pangos ‘The General.’ ” Stunned that his favorite point guard took time to write him a note, my dad marveled, “What a class act.”

SAMMY IN THE SKY. Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Jamie Wyeth. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.