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Let them keep giving to you
Part one in the Basketball Feelings annual Feeling Of The Year retrospective, on grief, by Jonny Auping.
December was the first month in which I didn’t think about my last real conversation with Jonathan Tjarks every single day. Holiday obligations brought an additional running mental checklist of responsibilities and gratitudes to distract me from what feels like inescapable, meandering introspection. I probably thought about it something like 23 days in December.
Until late fall, I’d felt robbed by that conversation, wanting something more, something in-person; a chance to say goodbye in a way that summed up 10 years of friendship and a year and a half of uncertain, uncharted support of someone going through terminal illness.
I came to see some of those final texts to represent what I knew about Jon. He was telling me about watching Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart from the hospital.
“I’ve caught some WNBA playoffs…The Storm are my team…I like watching Bird + Stewart…They just know how to play at a super high level.”
He’d described his grueling recent stint in the hospital, including spinal surgery, as “crazy!” and expressed that he wanted to see me but that he needed some more time to get settled back home. His wife, Melissa, had already told me what he was leaving out, that his return was for hospice. He was gone soon after those texts.
I’d talked about everything with Jon; death, religion, family, conspiracy theories, media gossip, marriage, money. So, the WNBA conference semi-finals seemed like a relatively trivial point to wrap up all these talks. But it’s more true to Jon and more special to me than anything we could pretend represents closure.
“They just know how to play at a super high level” might not sound like nuanced analysis to anyone who has read Jon’s writing, but anyone who has talked to him about basketball can hear that text. Jon was one of the few basketball fans whose excuse for not following the WNBA was legitimate: He simply could not watch anymore basketball and still have time to occasionally go outside with his family. But put it in front of him and it activated his brain. Rarely could he watch supremely talented players with fresh eyes.
Jon’s hardest moments and eventual passing came during the NBA offseason. He saw a champion crowned, a dynasty again solidified. But there was still basketball to watch, the most familiar and low stakes comfort and distraction from the unknown, the pessimism, even the exhausting optimism. He just wanted to process it and then acknowledge it, like I’d seen him do so many times — at the coffee shop we wrote from together for years, during drinks and meals (put him and Bobby Karalla in a room together and you’d see gleeful basketball nerdom that cannot truly manifest on a podcast) — like so many others have experienced with him.
The Breanna Stewart/Dirk Nowitzki comparison was unavoidable; her transition three-point shot is almost identical. The way Stewie spaces the floor makes basketball more simple, not more complicated. There’s something symmetric about his obsession with floor spacers; Jon advanced the game of basketball by making it simpler with his writing.
And Jon could watch 40-year-old Sue Bird and instantly see how great 29-year-old Sue Bird must have been. The economy of movement and the urgency of small decisions. Bird truly doesn’t believe that there is more margin of error for an entry pass than there is for a three-point shot (even though, technically, there is). To Bird, executing anything on the basketball court less than perfectly is to lose an advantage, and to lose an advantage is to be at a disadvantage. Jon absolutely loved that shit, and he recognized so quickly the basketball players he trusted. Not so that he could make trite analogies about them or make it about a testament to their character or mental strength; he simply loved witnessing it play out.
The only other writer I’ve ever seen so expertly navigate a subject without ego as a motivating factor is my fiancee, Natalie Weiner, when she writes about music. More than just appreciation for basketball and music, it’s like they felt they’d already been given to by their subjects. What they are contributing is enjoyable for them, sure, but there’s a sense of obligation. They’re just giving back, trying to translate for others what is so naturally and deeply felt by them. Many future Ringer articles were brainstormed to me in a Starbucks (“What do you think about this?”), and when he pulled up a play on his laptop and explained what a player was doing and why it worked, I’d see the same thing in Jon as when a musician does something that so perfectly lined up their intention with their talent and I’d turn to see Natalie crying. They felt why it was special, and we, the reasoning seemed, deserved a shot at feeling it too.
(Ironically, Jon would not have texted me about Bird and Stewart if not for Natalie, who also covers women’s basketball. As I've drifted further and further from writing about the NBA professionally, Jon knew the WNBA was taking a larger share of my basketball watching. During an unfathomably difficult and limited time for him, he wanted the conversation to relate to me. He texted me every time he read and liked something Natalie wrote. I remember standing up near the altar with Jon when he married Melissa. Knowing he won’t be there when I marry Natalie is only made tolerable by the reminder that he was there the night we got engaged, already eating a burger before we even showed up. Jon loved Natalie before he knew her because I loved her, and he couldn’t love with any less than his whole heart).
Having lost a number of friends at young ages, I’ve realized you can give yourself to their family, but you can’t give to the deceased anymore. If you want to grieve you have to let them keep giving to you, even if it feels selfish. I never consumed Jon’s writing in order to think about the discourse. It was always a guide to enjoying something that needn’t be in your life if not for enjoyment. The guide won’t keep producing new renditions, so it’s on me to enjoy basketball for what it is, to mimic him in that way as much as I can.
Luka Doncic’s 60-point triple double occurred while Jon’s son, Jackson, was in the building for his first Mavericks’ game. With 33 seconds left and the Mavericks down nine points, Melissa said a prayer and told Jon that they were watching with him until the end. You don’t have to believe in one thing or another to rewatch Doncic’s intentionally missed free throw bounce back into his hands before he tied the game with the knowledge of that prayer and get goose bumps. I just did it and started crying.
Jon would have cherished the mastery of that game. He could explain anything on the basketball court, make you realize you were seeing it the whole time. But he most enjoyed watching the things that didn’t require any expertise, they were plainly incredible to you and I. He just wanted to see basketball at a high level.