ORLANDO, Fla. — Today is family day at Disney and normally that would be a typical day, with parents towing kids and vice versa to rides and restaurants and taking pictures with life-sized cartoon characters.
But of course these aren’t normal times, and “family day” here means players will finally be reunited with their significant others and kids for the first time since arriving at this basketball campus months ago. After serving time in quarantine, those family members will be released into the arms of the player they came to see.
The mood of the players should improve drastically. Paul George mentioned his troubling mental health and how being away from his family played a part in that. I’ll be happy for him, and for all the players, but understand I said “players” because they’re the only ones enjoying this privilege.
For the rest of us, meaning coaches, health testers, referees, administrators, general managers, technicians, security and yes, the media, we won’t get that long-awaited embrace. Today is just another day for several hundred people inside the ecosystem. I’m reminded of the movie “Gladiator” where Maximus, after helping to save Rome, just wants to be freed from military duty so he can return to the countryside to his wife and son.
I definitely get it. The players are the show, the reason we’re here, and their presence at Disney was dependent on seeing family once September approached. Besides, if that perk was extended to everyone, the campus couldn’t support the enormity.
That doesn’t mean I don’t miss my family after 55 straight days and a ritual that finally came to an end: Seeing my daughter off to school.
It began years ago with a short walk from home to pre-K, hand in hand, a nervous father and an unsure toddler, ready to enter an unknown world. She was excited at first with the idea of spending a day with other kids, but once she realized I was going home and she was staying in class, she became frightened, ran toward me and wouldn’t let go of my leg. Parents can relate. That was a “moment” you never forget. The next year, same thing, although the leg-clinging wasn’t as firm. The following year, she just waved good-bye.
I always took pictures of every “first day,” all the way to high school, when she became slightly embarrassed because teenagers are like that, but traditions are traditions and so she had to strike the pose while her friends watched and giggled.
And then, the big one: College drop-off day. To prepare, I wrote her a letter, described how much her childhood meant to us parents, how proud we were that she made it this far, gave her advice on how to navigate college, told her to find herself. Then after that teary hug goodbye, I handed her that letter and drove away.
For the next two autumns — she would graduate from Baylor University in three years — I did the drop-off thing just to help with boxes and luggage and the move-in process. Last year, same thing, only at the University of Georgia, where she started graduate work.
Last week, as she began her final year of the grad program and final year in school, her father was in Orlando interviewing basketball players who would soon be reunited with their kids.
I’m sure Victoria understands; she dealt with my frequent absences much of her life, although I didn’t miss many of her track meets and did watch her become All-America in the sport.
But we didn’t finish what we started, a ritual that bonds a family and creates everlasting memories, a tradition that didn’t end quite right. There will never be another first day of school for us. But we will see each other soon. And because she’s now almost six feet tall, the hug won’t involve a leg.
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