- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
By the autumn of 1991 Hack was a junior at UCLA, and he had brought his Lakers fandom with him to Westwood. One day, in art history class, he was surprised by the professor: "Is Damon Hack here?" Hack stood up. "I have a note for you," the professor said. Hack walked to the front of the lecture hall and was given a message from the office of the assistant dean: Meet your father at the Bruin Bear.
Hack walked downhill toward the student store, his mind racing. Was someone hurt? His grandfather had not been well. Hack clearly remembers seeing his father in the sunshine—white dress shirt, dark slacks, matching tie and suspenders—standing by the Bear. Hack gave him a hug and waited.
"Son," his father said, "Magic has HIV. He's retiring today."
The words had barely registered, and they were already walking toward UCLA's Parking Lot 6. Hack was dizzy. When they reached their car, he tried to swallow the lump in his throat but couldn't. He opened the passenger door, fell in and started to cry. His father drove the five minutes to Hack's apartment, where his roommates were already in front of the TV. They watched the reports in silence for an hour, then his father went back to work.
Magic would make memorable comebacks—in the 1992 All-Star Game, in the Olympics and even with the Lakers—and Hack would watch them all. But when he thought about charting Magic's stats he stopped short, and his memory of that day and all that Magic had meant to him became a memory of his father.
THE GRACE AND EVEN the imagination of great athletes are built on courage. Consider the comeback of Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo during the 2011 NBA playoffs. Trailing 0--2 in the second round against the favored Heat, the pestering Rondo chased a loose ball and became entangled with Miami guard Dwyane Wade, who flung Rondo off his back. As Rondo tried to break his fall, he appeared to break his left elbow instead. He was helped to the locker room in agony, but within minutes he was back with the dislocated elbow wrapped in a sleeve. When the horn sounded again, Rondo was the first Celtic out of his team's huddle, walking past midcourt alone, because he wanted the Heat players to see that they couldn't knock him out and he was going to make them pay. Which he did by leading the Celtics to a win playing with one arm. "I'm never searching for heroism in sports, but courage is a crucial part of the game," says SI senior writer Ian Thomsen, who covers the NBA, "especially in this big-money era when so many players appear to be coddled. When you see someone like Rondo push himself to return when he could very easily have gone to the hospital, it says something about why he plays, and money isn't the whole story."
There are many stories, and many are small and personal, but all are beckoning and sometimes looming at the same time because of what they tell us about the inevitable. Jill Costello, who learned she had stage IV lung cancer the summer before her senior year at Cal, continued to train with the rowing team and coxed the first varsity eight at the 2010 NCAA nationals, where the Bears placed second overall. A month later Costello was dead. Imagine steering a boat, guiding it in a straight line and demanding the best from your rowers, all while suffering the side effects of chemotherapy. Costello had feet so swollen that she could hardly walk, and constant nausea, yet there she was in the sun, rain and cold. "It wasn't a sports story," says senior writer Chris Ballard, who wrote it. "It was a story about the human spirit."
Bette Marston, an assistant producer at SI.com, was assigned to fact-check the piece because she had been a club-level rower at Northwestern. "As I made those tough phone calls to Costello's parents, coaches and teammates," she says, "it hit me that their values were exactly the same as mine, and that was—is—who I am."
I WAS IN THE WATER CUBE in Beijing for the 2008 men's 4 × 100-meter freestyle relay. Probably only swimming fans were aware of Jason Lezak of the U.S. before the final leg of that race. Leading up to it, France's Alain Bernard, 25, had boasted like a rooster that the French would "smash" the Americans, and being the reigning world-record holder in the 100 free, he was credible as well as annoying.