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Farewell to a Championship 2019 — and a beloved family member

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Josh Kern reflects on how the passing of his father and the Raptors winning a title made 2019 bittersweet

New Orleans Pelicans v Toronto Raptors Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

When I look back at 2019, I know there will be two things I remember most: The Raptors, and my Dad.

The Raptors, obviously, won the NBA championship. Sadly, my Dad Ralph passed away unexpectedly in October.

My Dad was a sports fan, but basketball was probably about fourth on his list of favourites, behind soccer, baseball, and football. Maybe even fifth behind hockey? But he always supported my love of hoops, and he knew how much I loved the Raptors, always following them closely enough that we could have a good conversation about them when we got together. And he certainly knew how special this year was to me.

Unfortunately it was a pretty rough year for my Dad. He had what was supposed to be a relatively minor hernia surgery back in February — but there were some complications, there was greater damage than they thought, and so the surgery ended up being much more invasive. He had to stay in hospital for a couple of weeks, and even after he got home, it took him months to recover. He could barely eat, suffered extreme bouts of depression, and wasn’t himself at all.

But he did recover, and finally, towards the end of August, started becoming himself again. By mid-October, he was pretty much back to normal (just skinnier!) and was packing for a Caribbean cruise when he suffered a massive heart attack.

I don’t know how one judges what’s a good or bad time to die, but right after emerging from a long recovery process, and right before you go on vacation, has to be among the worst.

Clearly the Raptors winning the title and my Dad passing away will define my year. But they’re also inextricably linked in more literal ways.

Back in February, the day my Dad went in to the hospital for that surgery was the day of DeMar DeRozan’s homecoming game. I knew a couple weeks in advance, but, he was staying overnight there either way, so if all was well, I though I might still be able to get to the game (at that point in the season, there was no home game I wanted to go to more). Because of those complications I mentioned, he didn’t get out of surgery until about 5:30 p.m. and out of the recovery room until about 11:30. So I missed the game completely, and only caught up when I got home at 1:30 in the morning.

Hell of a game to miss, and to be linked to the start of such a rough summer for my Dad.

Speaking of missing games, I didn’t get to take my Dad to a playoff game for the first time in three years. He just wasn’t up to it at that point. (Unfortunately the last game we attended together was Game 1 against the Cavs in 2018. Yikes.)

The last time I spoke to my Dad — and it’s 2019, so by “speaking” I mean texting — was October 22, opening night. My wife Kathy and I were at the game, and we’d just arrived in our seats (mega early to catch the festivities); he texted me, telling us to have a good time. I texted a “thanks” back and said I’d text him about getting together on the weekend.

On Thursday afternoon, I texted him suggesting we get together Saturday night, have dinner at the pub and then watch the Raptors-Bulls game. He was leaving for his cruise on Monday, so I wanted to see him before he left. I didn’t hear back from him, and after repeated text and calls on Friday, I figured I’d better head over after work. Thankfully, Kathy came with me, so I wasn't alone when we found him. He’d been gone for some time.

The next two weeks were a whirlwind, with the funeral and family and figuring out next steps. I barely even registered what was happening with the Raptors, although I somehow only missed one Five Thoughts column.

I didn’t give that Pelicans game much thought again until I watched the Open Gym episode that recapped the opening night ceremonies. That’s when it hit me that that night was the last time we spoke, and I broke down — probably cried harder than I did at the funeral. That game, such an incredibly happy and joyous occasion, is now permanently joined with that memory of my final exchange with my Dad.

I think that’s a good thing. For whatever the reasons are that sports matter, the Raptors matter to me. My Dad knew that. He knew how happy I was, how happy my team made me this year, how grateful and lucky I was to be there, that night, to see them get their rings and raise that banner. He was happy for me. Our final exchange wasn’t some banal “can you pick up milk for me” conversation, or, thank goodness, something spoken out of frustration or anger, which would haunt me.

It was just a simple text exchange, but it was part of a moment of pure happiness and joy.

I think when a parent dies, we, as their children, sometimes lament about what they didn’t have a chance to do or wish they could have done this or that. And I’m not a parent, but I think we have to remember that for many parents, all they really want is to see their kids grow up happy and healthy. Even when we become adults, I have to imagine that urge or desire to take care of us is still in them.

My Dad was really happy for me that the Raptors won, that I got to be at the playoff games, that I got to be at the parade, and ring night, because he knew how much it meant to me. He was happy that, as a member of the HQ team, I got to be a part of it in some small way, that I got to contribute. He knows how much this means to me, and he was proud of my work. (At one point he said I should be writing for the Globe, which I have to think says less about my work and more about their current Raptors columnist.)

We can dismiss sports as kid stuff and roll our eyes when people get too fired up about it or question why we bother when our team loses or when the ugly business side rears its head... but if it still brings us joy, and our joy makes others happy for us, then there really isn’t a question of why sports matters, is there?

So as we close out one year and start again, I have to say “thanks” to the Raptors for bringing me that joy in 2019. My Dad is gone, but he passed knowing that I was healthy and happy, and that makes it a little less painful as I head into 2020 without him.