Sixers Mo Cheeks deflected a Lakers pass, and the ball fortuitously bounced into the hands of Sixers forward Dr. J, who picked it up and dribbled down the left side, where only one Lakers' defender was between Dr. J and the basket. The defender was wiry 6’5” Michael Cooper, arguably the top defensive player in basketball. Dr. J took off from a significant distance from the basket and seem to elevate in slow motion, his giant afro blowing as if helped by a theatrical wind machine. Dr. J cupped the ball into the fold of his wrist and forearm, rocking the ball back and forth before he wind-milled the ball around behind his head and dunked over Cooper who cowered down below. Many consider this to be the greatest in-game dunk of all time, and it was christened the "Rock the Baby" slam-dunk by Chick Hearn, the legendary Lakers broadcaster...
...seeing the younger, friendlier, healthier faces of staff at the central nurses station was a welcome relief and Maureen was particularly pleasant, and nice to look at too. I did not know whether or not Maureen was a nurse as she never came to my room to take my temperature or check my vitals like others did. She wore the same apparel that the nurses did except she was set apart by the fact that she wore a blue vest or smock over her white uniform. I surmised that Maureen was some kind of nurse supervisor.
So, I was surprised when Maureen stuck her head in my room... Maureen told me about a new patient on the ward. He was a 18-year old African-American named Ricky. I perked up; ...I immediately agreed to speak with Ricky. I jumped at the chance to contribute; I didn’t hesitate in wanting to support a young brother. Plus, at 18 he was the only person on the Neuro Ward close to my age
...my excitement was immediately quelled however. Maureen said Ricky was brought to Long Island Jewish Hospital after suddenly and inexplicably losing sensation in his lower extremities. Spontaneous paralysis. Maureen told me that Ricky was quite despondent, and she wondered if I would be willing to go down to his room and chat with him. I immediately agreed to speak with Ricky.
...Maureen walked me down to Ricky’s room. Ricky was in a wheelchair and was staring out the window. Though I am sure he heard us enter the room, he did not turn his head to look at us. “Ricky, I want you to meet Paul”, Maureen said.
“What’s happening man?” I said. Ricky didn’t speak but he acknowledged me with a nod of his head.
Though he was sitting, I could tell he was quite tall. In fact the wheelchair seemed too small and it looked like he was folded into sections to sit in it. He was like a life-sized origami. My guess is he was around six feet six inches tall. He was very slim and had a huge Afro. With Ricky seemingly stuffed into the undersized chair, his slight build, and flowing fro, his head looked too big for his body. I imagined myself in Ricky’s predicament when I was 18. Although not as tall as Ricky appeared he kind of reminded
me of me at 18.
Initially it was very difficult to draw Ricky into conversation. None of my questions or statements were of a sensitive nature; I knew not to ask Ricky anything about his medical situation. Yet, my attempts at conversation starters were all met by one-word responses, and Ricky barely turned his head from the window to look at me.
..after about ten minutes of verbally dancing around, it was Ricky who broke the ice. “Why you here?” Ricky asked. I assumed, or at least I hoped that what Ricky was asking me was why was I in the hospital, as opposed to what the fuck was I doing in his room.
...Ricky asked me, “You got cancer or something?”
“Yea, something like that.” I said.
“You dying?” Ricky asked.
I smiled. Ricky was naively insensitive, but I didn’t mind. First of all, he meant no harm and, it wasn’t really a touchy subject with me because I knew I was not dying of cancer. Secondly, it seemed like the start of a conversation.
“Nah, I’ll be alright... Where you from?” I asked.
“Roosevelt,” Ricky said.
“Ah, home of Dr. J,” I said.
“Yea, he went to my high school.” Ricky proudly exclaimed. I think I found a breakthrough.
“With your fro, you remind me of Dr. J. You play ball?” Oops; the moment the words left my mouth, I wished I could take them back. How could I be so stupid to ask that of someone who just lost his ability to walk. Ricky turned back toward the window, and looked down. I felt as if I momentarily had him, and then I lost him.
So I just started talking about Dr. J. I told him I live close to Philly and regularly go check out Dr. J’s 76ers home games, and get to see all of Dr. J’s games on television. I was able to recount numerous Dr. J Sixer’s highlights, many of which I had seen live, such as the “Rock the Baby” dunk. I was able to talk about the “Rock the Baby” play in vivid detail. Of course, every basketball fan had seen the play over and over again on television, but I was able to convey extra little details like the crowd response. The more animated I became in sharing Dr. J highlights with Ricky, the more I sensed I was once again reaching him. Ricky was now making eye contact with me instead of staring out the window. I had his attention as I regaled him with Dr. J anecdotes.
When he was wasn’t wreaking havoc on my Lakers, I loved watching Dr. J soar through the air with his huge, seemingly windblown afro, against other teams. Especially the hated Boston Celtics. I shared with Ricky details of Dr. J’s epic battles with Boston’s Larry Bird who, though I despised him because he played for the Celtics and presented so much difficulty for my Lakers, was arguably the best player in basketball. Bird was so good that he got under the skin of other players, including Dr. J one night, the only time I ever saw Dr. J lose his temper and get into a physical altercation with another player.
I told Ricky that the jazz-funk saxophone great Grover Washington, Jr., who often performed the Star Spangled Banner before Sixer games, and always when the Lakers came to town, recorded a homage to Dr. J called “Let It Flow (for Dr. J)”. During timeouts videos of Dr. J highlights would be shown on the scoreboard, set to the music of Let It Flow.
By this time Ricky was mesmerized by my Dr. J stories. He finally opened up to me somewhat—although he did not mention his medical predicament. He volunteered that he did play basketball, and yes, homeboy Dr. J was his favorite player. He had never seen him play live; in fact, Ricky had never been to a professional basketball game. He clearly enjoyed hearing about the games from me.
It was good speaking with Ricky. I felt I was able to get his mind off his situation, and I took great pleasure in the fact that in a small, temporary way I made a difference in a young Black man's life...I would have spent more time with him but Maureen stuck her head in the room to let me know that I had an appointment...
It was the last words I would ever say to Ricky.
Dr. Paul Thornton is currently a university administrator. In the past he has been a professor, small business owner, and corporate executive.