I debated when, where, and how to express my feelings about what happened to my friend, Ben In my work, when a physician passes away, we sympathize and mourn, but we traditionally don’t do anything differently from one physician to another. Partly out of respect and partly because physicians are so naturally accomplished that we would spend countless hours trying to equalize each memorial that we give. So, we traditionally put faces in a slide show at our annual President’s Gala. But, I’m asking for forgiveness on this one. This one goes beyond work.
I’ve known Ben since we were 10 years old when his family moved to my small town from Indiana. We grew apart over the years, then reconnected in Memphis, and found that we have a lot of mutual friends. So many that I would send memories and inside jokes his way via another physician or healthcare colleague. Busy work and family lives kept us from getting together as much as we would’ve liked. I went through my phone and found that I had invited him to a Grizzlies game with me a few years ago, but he couldn’t make it. I think we had dinner with some high school teammates once, and I ran into him at a barber shop where we told an equal number truths and lies about each other to the barber, leaving the barber wondering what was wrong with both of us.
If you’ve read or watched all of the positive stories about Ben, let me assure you: it’s all true. Part of the reason I’ve hesitated to write about him or his family is that the stories read as cliches. But they are indeed true, as cliches often are.
Here are some things I vividly remember…
He Was An Amazing Teammate
We were raised in a small town called Savannah, Tennessee. Everybody knows everybody. I think it was fourth grade when I met him. By then, you kinda know everyone in your school, so when this giant (I think he grew to be 6’7″, I’m 5’9″ on my tiptoes) showed up, I had never seen anyone that tall (maybe except for some Disney World park character). He had braces, too, which was a little earlier than usual in life and maybe the first time I had seen someone with rubber bands in their mouth. I knew he had rubber bands in his mouth because he was always smiling and laughing. I think he already had glasses by then, as well. I remember thinking, “this guy has a lot going on”.
Then we stepped on the basketball court together, and eight years of bonding through the sport of basketball began.
And when I say through the sport of basketball, I mean that’s nearly all we did together. Probably every week from age 10 to 18. We had practices and games as teammates. When practice was over, we were planning for whether we would play at the gym with our other basketball-loving friends, or at his house with the neighbors. There were lots of high-fives, a couple of awkward hugs, and at least one occasion where we both swung and missed at each other (that was followed by one of those awkward hugs).
There were a lot of times where he took pity on me and chose me as his teammate in pickup games. And there were other times where we naturally were teamed up because he was the tallest (best) and I was the shortest. When others didn’t know me, we used that to our advantage. He know where and how to get me the ball, so that I could score 2 out of the 20 points we needed. That’s a slight embellishment, but the point is that as dominant as he could be, he would always get his teammates involved in every game we played, big and small.
He and another one of our teammates received scholarship offers to play Division I college basketball. That was no small feat in a town of 7,000 people. Our entire town, and especially his classmates, were so proud of him. With all of those accolades, he was still a great and encouraging teammate. He often consoled me about my lack of playing time, and then we would joke that if he had my vertical leap, he would be able to go straight to the NBA.
His Intelligence was Evident at a Young Age
Equally as evident as his height was when he moved to Tennessee was his intelligence. I am competitive by nature, so the second thing I noticed about him was his ability to turn work in as accurately and quickly as me. He soon rose to the top of the class in GPA. He would concede that I was better at math, but he was smarter at everything else. That was definitely evidenced in science, made obvious by his medical achievements.
Once again, he proved to be a good teammate. There was some sort of gifted program at school that I seemed to always on the outside looking in to. They were in a competition where it was made evident that no one could compute math as quickly as the competition required. Ben and two other classmates advocated to bring me in as a free agent because of my ability to quickly compute math in my head.
His intelligence continued to be on full display throughout high school. I wasn’t surprised a few years later when I learned he was going to medical school.
He was a Constant Comedian
My goodness, he was always cracking jokes and saying or doing funny things. He would tell jokes that hurt your stomach, but then he would tell dry and inside jokes that were arguably too witty for a junior high or high school kid. And he would supplement them with this loud, nerdy laugh. He would begin his laugh with a laudable deep breath in and then his head would tremble as if he was trying to prevent his whole body from showing his laughter. I got to hear that same laugh once again at the barber shop a few years back.
I remember walking around his neighborhood with other friends making jokes, teasing each other about which girl we were going to pursue, and probably arguing over who was funnier, smarter, faster, and better looking.
I Learned a Lot About Love and Generosity from his Family
I do want to share some insight regarding his family. Imagine all of those things about Ben I said earlier and multiply them by four (three siblings) and add two (parents). They all moved to our community around 1990. They were all tall, loud, and carried accents that might as well have been from Mars. What amazed me was how social they were right off the bat. And they were extremely nice, so much so that I thought it was strange at first. I was essentially an only child by then, so it was just a departure from my norm. Because of all their positive vibes and the fact that they had kids in four different grades in our school, they became instantly popular and liked.
My best friend moved from across the street to be next door neighbors with the Mauck’s, so that led to me spending all of the extra time with them.
They don’t remember this, but I learned to play the game of spades at their house. I had no idea what it was. Once again, Ben became a great teammate. He took me in, showed me how to play, and was patient and laughing as we lost the first several hands and I kept wondering where these yankees had gotten this game from. This was but one small example of their family constantly inviting me to their home, letting me play basketball in their driveway, and display an even better version of southern hospitality than those of us raised in the south.
For our relationship, it all went back to basketball, even as it pertains to love. After my own house and school gyms, I probably shot on the two goals between the Mauck’s and my best friend’s house more than any other place. We played intense and silly games with the neighborhood kids. Often, the siblings would be out there together. They would ultimately decide who was going to take their short friend on the team, and then those sibling rivalries would ensue. It worked out for me, because they all rooted for me at one time or another. It was amazing to me to watch his older brother and sister mentor Ben and show him love after some number of us got upset about a foul, missed shot, or other perceived slight at the hands of the older kids. It was on that driveway that I learned and honed the ability to compete like a mad man, yet show love and compassion for those I was battling with.
My last memory that I’ll share is the evening that my basketball career ended, coincidentally in Memphis where Ben and I both started our families.
Our team had played together for a long time and took eight seniors into our final season. Expectations were high with the experience and two D1 prospects to boot. We knew we would have to get through our foes in Jackson and Memphis to reach our state tournament dreams.
Unfortunately, we came up short and lost in disappointing fashion. Ben took it especially hard and was the first person I noticed to be in tears in the locker room. We all sat there and cried a while, hugging each other and the coaches. I don’t think we wanted to leave that locker room because we knew that was it officially over when we did. I remember going out just before Ben, and seeing his parents first. They had greeted, and continued to greet, every player as they exited the locker. His mother hugged me. We all wept together. I have thought about that moment a lot over the years, and it has particularly influenced me as I’ve coached the children of others. Every extra bit of love we can show to each other (children especially) is worth every extra second it takes to share it.
I’ll continue to celebrate and honor him the rest of my days. All my love to his family and all those impacted.