Friday, September 23, 2011

Death of a friend

When someone dies following an illness, the obituary often reveals the deceased "was surrounded by family and friends." The line is an affirmation that in their final moments, when they left this life and death arrived, they were with those who loved them most. It can also provide at least a shred of comfort to the survivors during a tragic time.

Last Saturday, Janesville native Keith Wiste died at the age of 39 in Mankato. He took his own life, after battling depression for years. He left behind his devastated parents, older brothers Paul and Rob, younger sister Catherine, nieces, nephews and countless friends. Anyone who knew Keith liked him, and those who knew him well loved him. The thought of Keith being alone in his final moments is unbearable, the mental images something out of a nightmare. It rips at your guts, brings tears to your eyes and an ache to your heart.

Even in a town of 2,000 people, it's not quite true that everybody knows everybody. But everyone knew Keith and his family. Keith's dad, Ron, owned Wiste's grocery store, a renowned meat market that had been a fixture in Janesville seemingly since the time the town first appeared as a dot on a map.

Growing up, I looked up to Keith, who was three years older than me. Like small towns everywhere, sports drove life in Janesville. Keith played football, baseball and basketball. At his parents' house, Keith, his brothers and dad hosted countless basketball games at the hoop in their backyard. Every kid in town knew about the hoop at Wistes and had an open invitation to shoot anytime they wanted.

When I was younger I couldn't beat Keith or the other older kids who would one day go on to star at our local high school. But I tried. Keith graduated in 1990, a member of the first graduating class from the newly formed Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. He graduated from Southwest State University in Marshall. Over the next decade, he coached girls' and boys' basketball teams at numerous schools in southern Minnesota, staying involved in the game he'd loved since childhood. For a few years he coached at his old school, JWP, a tenure filled with difficult losses and even tougher times, but even that did little to dampen Keith's enthusiasm for a life on the sideline. Coaching was in his blood. He also umped and reffed. It wasn't just coaching - sports were in his blood.

He also owned his own successful business, Wiste's Continuous Concrete Edging; of the numerous online tributes to Keith, many include comments from customers, who remember him for his work ethic, craftsmanship and personality.

Those are just a few of the facts of Keith's life.

Keith the man? He was funny, generous, personable, outgoing, helpful, quick-witted, empathetic and owned a smile that lit up his whole face and any room he was in. He loved his nieces and nephews. He had one maneuver - a point and smile - that he executed so often and so well, a friend noted online that it was a "patented" Keith move. He was...alive.

And he suffered from depression. Keith endured a couple of debilitating bouts with the dreaded disease, but had been doing well for more than a decade, committed to taking the medications he knew helped him stay healthy. But his latest, final battle with the disease came after he had stopped taking the medicine. He reached out to his family, who, like always, rallied to his side. By the time he started back on his medication, the darkness must have been too overpowering. Suicide was the cause of death, but depression killed him, as surely as cancer and diabetes kills its victims.

His wake on Tuesday brought hundreds of people to the Janesville funeral home, situated along the old Highway 14. The people came to remember Keith and to offer comfort and support to his grieving family. Scheduled to run between 4 and 8 p.m., the wake lasted until just before 10 p.m., the line of people stretching out the door practically from the time it began until it finally ended six hours later. The people who stood in line were his friends, or knew his folks, or shopped at Wiste's, or graduated with his sister or worked with his brother or hired him for a job. So often, when a person commits suicide, their life becomes defined by the way it ended, instead of how it was lived. Those people made their way to the funeral home because Keith died, but they were really there because of the way he lived.

It's impossible to fully understand the pain that drives someone to suicide, just as it's equally difficult finding the words to describe what was lost. Anything besides "I'm so sorry for your loss" sounds inadequate. You could search the writings of prophets and poets and still never find the words that adequately explain the pain the victim felt or the hurt that crushes those left behind.

His funeral on a cool, rainy Wednesday packed the Lutheran church in Janesville. Those who crammed into the pews and balcony said goodbye to Keith and listened to the thoughtful, comforting words of pastor Larry Griffin, who attempted to explain the unexplainable. But not even the heavens can ever truly answer the question we'll never stop asking: why?

Death brings small towns together, physically and emotionally. There's comfort in numbers, or at least a bit of support. You see people you grew up with and thought you'd grow old with, before college and relationships and jobs separated you from them and your town. You gather to mourn, while regretting that it took the death of a friend to bring everyone together. At Keith's wake and funeral I talked to people I haven't seen in 15 years, sat next to folks I've barely spoken with since graduating 18 years ago. It was like an all-school reunion. If you took all the old basketball talent that gathered together you would have had an alumni team that could compete against just about anyone. Of course, we would have been missing the guy with a potent outside shot - Keith.

I last saw Keith over Christmas, when I was home from New York and attended a basketball tournament in Mankato. As I walked out of one of the gyms at Bethany, I spotted Keith near the exit, standing, watching hoops and smiling, a scene that had taken place hundreds of times in his life and one I'd seen dozens of times. I stopped to say a quick hello, how are you? Figured I'd slide out of that gym and head to another one for a different game.

Two hours later... I never left that gym and never actually budged from my spot near the doorway, next to Keith. We spoke about our lives and old times, about basketball, the games we played and the ones he coached. We laughed. We talked about our dads. We talked about our jobs and a few of our goals. We said goodbye and promised to stay in touch. Maybe catch a game the next time I was in town. The regrets about never catching that next game will surely linger, but not as long as the memories of that night and of his life.

Keith Wiste died on September 17. He was laid to rest on September 21. He was surrounded by his loving family, his friends, a town that loved him, a town that will miss him and a town that will never be the same.


More on Keith

Thursday, September 1, 2011

NBA Flashback: Benson, Breuer and more

I'm resigned to the fact I probably won't get to watch another live NBA game for about five or six months. Normally when October rolls around and the nation's sports fans are focused on the NFL or Boston or New York or one of those other cities that are home to Major League Baseball franchises that are recognized by Bud Selig but not Fox Sports, I'm gearing up for the NBA season. I'm ordering the NBA TV package. I'm scouring message boards or debating on Lakers forums about whether it really would be in the best interests of the team to trade Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol for a future first-round draft pick. I'm throwing out everything that's green - including money and recycling bins - in our household in preparation for another year of Celtics hatred.

But this year, thanks to the lockout, I'll probably do none of that. And with nothing in the present and a bleak future, I'll retreat to the past. There I'll find old NBA tapes tucked away and discover magical YouTube clips. Or, like I did tonight, I'll spend four hours watching NBA-TV and classic games from the league's past.

Tonight the network carried several "playoff gems," games that included a vintage performance from George Gervin, a Randy Breuer sighting in a Bucks-Sixers playoff game and Vinnie Johnson's unbelievable scoring binge against the Celtics in the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Ah, the NBA in the '80s. There's still nothing quite like it, even though I, unlike many others, still love the league as much today as I did back then. But now, let's roll back the videotape, pull out the history books, and in the voice of that guy who narrates the formerly omnipresent VH1 shows, let's rediscover why we loved the '80s. A potpourri of hoops from the glory days.

* The Vinnie Johnson game was amazing. He scored 22 points in the fourth quarter in Game 4, against the defending champs. This is why he was the Microwave. For the game he hit 16 of 20 from the field, most of them on tough jumpers with that odd form from that oddly shaped body.

A few months later, Vinnie's effort led to one of my favorite narration scenes in NBA history and surely the most awkward. I've written extensively on the Return to Glory video before. My campaign to have it win a retroactive Emmy remains in full effect - I'll send another letter to the committee after this blog goes up. It's all about the Lakers finally defeating the Celtics, the begoggled wonder, Worthy's dunks and Magic's passes, paired with creepy, inspiring music from the 1980s. But early on in the video, while recapping the Celtics-Pistons series, Dick Stockton describes the action by well, talking about a lot of Johnsons. I won't embed the video for fear of violating obscenity laws in 22 states. Here's the link. Go to the 5:20 to 5:52 mark. And here's the transcript:
"For Chuck Daly, Johnson was right on target. Johnson's heroics also baffled the Celtics, for it wasn't Detroit's three All-Stars who evened the series, but an unheralded, happy-shooting man named Johnson. Appropriately, the Celtics had a Johnson of their own. Dennis Johnson, another guard who sparkles in the playoff limelight. DJ's aching wrist made him miss the morning practice. But no injury could slow him down from a 30-point evening. Daly turned to his own version of Johnson."

Oh, Dick.

* That game also featured the work of Kent Benson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1977 NBA draft. That previous sentence is completely accurate, though perhaps the word featured is a bit much. But the Milwaukee Bucks really did take Benson No. 1. The former Indiana star averaged 9 points and 5 boards in his career. He also famously used his mug to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hand when the Captain's fist struck the young center's face. Benson's face should have been suspended. That's not the only time the word bust was used in connection with Benson. The next seven players taken after him had higher career scoring averages. Some of the guys taken after him? Otis Birdsong, Marques Johnson, Walter Davis, Jack Sikma, Bernard King, Cedric Maxwell and Norm Nixon. Yes, it's safe to say Benson didn't work out as well as Milwaukee's previous No. 1 overall pick - Kareem. The Bucks had a thing for overachieving Hoosiers who underachieved in the NBA. A year earlier, they took Benson's old teammate, Quinn Buckner. Somehow they avoided Scott May.

* As I mentioned on Twitter, it was odd watching the 1986 Bucks-Sixers game. The Sixers crew handled the broadcast. The analyst had a familiar voice but I couldn't place it. I finally figured it out - Doug Collins.Then I also realized why it took me so long to place him: I'd been watching for 20 minutes and not once had he mentioned he coached Michael Jordan.

* On NBA-TV it was a big night for tall white guys from the Midwest. The Bucks game also gave a glimpse at the giant Minnesotan, Randy Breuer. The Lake City legend battled under the boards against Charles Barkley. At one point, after a collision in the lane, it appeared, just for a second, that Barkley might be capable of snapping the skinny Breuer with just a bump from his ample ass. By the way, big Randy is no longer the all-time leading scorer in Lake City history. That honor now belongs to Lance Meincke. Still, Breuer did lead the school to back-to-back state titles. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of people videotaping Minnesota prep games back in the late '70s. There were people videotaping NBA games in the 1980s. And here's one of the few online clips of Breuer as Michael Jordan viciously dunks in the tall fellow's stunned face - or, if you prefer, posterizes him.

* What's America's longest-running punchline? Historians can help me out here. What's something that could get a laugh decades ago and still could today? My vote: The San Diego/LA Clippers. If it seems like you've been making fun of the Clippers forever, it's because you have. Fathers pass the jokes down to their sons who pass it on to their sons who pass it on to their sons. At some point, daughters get in on the joke. The Clippers. They've changed cities, but rarely their fortunes. And guess what? In the 1980s? They were really bad.

1989: 21-61
1988: 17-65
1987: 12-70 (!!)
1986: 32-50
1985: 31-51
1984 (San Diego) 30-52
1983: 25-57
1982: 17-65
1981: 36-46
1980: 35-47

The most frightening thing about that 1987 season is that the Clips started it 3-3. So they finished a tidy 9-67. They actually dropped from 3-3 to 3-15, lost 12 in a row. And how about this? After they won to snap the losing streak, the Clippers then lost 16 in a row. So a 1-28 stretch. They also finished the season the way you want to finish it if you're really trying to make a mark as being one of the worst teams in NBA history - they lost the final 14 games of the year. Of course, since they are the Clippers, they pulled off the Timberwolvesesque achievement of missing out on the first pick in the lottery, which turned into David Robinson. Instead they took Reggie Williams with the fourth pick. He failed to change the franchise's fortunes.

* The 1984 season ended in heartbreaking fashion - at least for Magic Johnson and 9-year-old Shawn Fury. In Game 2 of the Finals, Magic forgot how much time remained in regulation and the Lakers failed to get a shot off, while Kareem stood on the block, arm raised, waiting for a pass that never came as the Lakers waited for a title that never came. But before that, the Lakers benefited from someone forgetting about the scoreboard. In this case that player was young Dallas guard Derek Harper, who, in Game 4 of the Western semis, thought his team led the Lakers even though it was tied. The tough-to-watch footage - even for a Lakers fan it's hard to watch someone publicly shamed like this, perhaps because we now know what was down the line for Magic - is here, starting about the 3:40 mark. Yes, the Lakers won in OT. Just like the damn Celtics did a few weeks later.

And since I can't end on a downer about the Lakers and Magic, there's this: