A couple of basketball superstars, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, helped me to endure the loneliness and boredom of my hospital stay, and particularly helped minimize the anxiety I felt leading up to my operation. I fantasize about one day meeting Magic or Kareem and sharing with them the role they played in that episode of my life. I especially long to share the anecdote about the time in the hospital I dropped to my knees in prayer...praying for the Lakers to win Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Celtics so I could know before I went under the knife that the Lakers were the champs!
Two other sports superstars, would similarly figure in a memorable way in my convalescence from my operation: Muhammad Ali, former Heavyweight Champion of the world, and Dwight (Dr. K) Gooden, who in 1985 was in the midst of one of the most dominant single season performances by a pitcher in Major League Baseball history. The common link connecting me with both of these athletes was my brother Calvin.
As mentioned, Calvin had a personal and professional association with Muhammad Ali. Calvin had a business relationship with Ali’s manager and met Ali through that connection. One day Calvin called me from Vegas, ostensibly to check in on me and see how I was progressing... Dorey answered and handed me the phone, “Calvin is on the phone.”
“Yo man,” I said.
“How are you feeling?” The voice on the other end was very soft-spoken, deliberate, and somewhat halting. It was not Calvin but was very familiar sounding. “This is Muhammad Ali.”
I damn near fell out of my chair. My mind was racing trying to determine what I should say to arguably the most well-known man in the world. If I was standing, I’m sure my knees would be knocking. I responded, “Hi.” How profound!
For the next few minutes I listened intently as Muhammad Ali spoke. To be honest, I could barely make out what he said. Although in 1985 Ali looked vibrant and healthy—still “pretty” as he would so often refer to himself whenever a microphone was stuck in his face—there is no question he was already starting to noticeably deteriorate in terms of verbalization; despite the fact that he was cognitively sharp. Ali was so softspoken and difficult to hear his every word, that I wasn’t sure when he was about to conclude. I sensed he was coming to the end of his comments by a subtle change in his inflection.
So, my mind started racing with how I should articulate my honor, gratitude and sincere appreciation to Ali for calling me and wishing me well. Then he said something that I will hold onto for the rest of my life; it was the only thing I can quote verbatim from his difficult to comprehend, very soft-spoken, slightly slurred words.
“I will pray for you..."
Calvin did not know Dwight Gooden personally. However, in the summer of 1985, every New York Mets fan lived vicariously through him. He was known to them as Dr. K; in baseball strikeouts are signified by the letter K. Dwight Gooden was the most prolific strikeout artist in baseball, having led the league in strikeouts the prior year when he won the National League Rookie of the Year, and among the league leaders in the current year.
1985 was shaping up to be a magical season for Gooden and the New York Mets. The New York Mets were competitive for a post-season berth in the National League playoffs, and at only 20-years old Dwight Gooden’s individual statistics were considered among the best single seasons of all time. Coupled with his previous season Dwight Gooden was on numerous magazine covers and there were already murmurs about a Hall of Fame career. Each New York Met home game where Gooden was the pitcher became an event at Shea Stadium. All over the stadium fans would mark each strikeout by hoisting a large white placard marked by the letter K. It was easily considered the hottest ticket in town.
So, after a brutally difficult couple of months during which my emotions went from post-op optimistic to resignation and then despair about the slow pace of my recovery and future career prospects, Calvin had gotten us tickets to the August 20th game at Shea Stadium to see Dr. K pitch against the San Francisco Giants. It was a special trip as it was my first opportunity in public for an event not at the hospital or a doctor’s office. Well not at a medical doctor’s office—I was about to venture to Shea Stadium to see Dr. K operate!
It was perhaps Dr. K’s most domineering performance of a dominant season. He struck out 16 batters and gave up seven hits in a complete game shutout that pushed his record to an otherworldly 19-3. So the giant placards with the letter K on them seemingly blanketed Shea. Calvin and I knew we were observing history in the making. Five days later Dwight Gooden would become the youngest player ever to win 20 games—he was not quite 21 years old. For that magical 1985 season, the 24-4 Gooden would be the unanimous choice for the National League Cy Young Award, which is given to the league’s best pitcher, and he would lead all of baseball in victories, earned run average, and strikeouts.
It was just Calvin and me, with my cane and my New York Mets baseball cap obscuring the still fresh scar on my head. For the first time in months, I was able to completely forget about my circumstances. It felt good with the August sun beaming down on me. I got to bond with my kid brother for whom most of my early childhood involved beating him up, and then during our teen years, Calvin siccing the family dogs on me.
Now he was playing the role of big brother; much better than I had ever done. I was appreciative of what he was doing for me and admired him for all he had been able to accomplish with his life. I felt as sentimental about Calvin that day as I did back on his birthday when he and John came to the hospital to see me, and I briefly pondered if I would see another birthday of his.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.