Struggle, worry, and Victor Wembanyama

A year’s worth of Wembymania through the eyes of a Texan’s life.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs

It was a muggy, early summer morning. Warm out, but not yet unbearably hot as the sun had a few more hours before it would rise. It was 48 hours after Father’s Day in June 2023. A little after four in the morning, I was groggy, and I was driving. He was in the back seat with his mom. The ride was mostly silent. I didn’t turn the radio on, so I was left with only my thoughts. And I couldn’t shake the terrible feeling that in just a few hours I would be responsible for the death of my youngest son.

Cash was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, which essentially means two of the valves in his heart are formed together, causing the heart to have to work harder to pump, which causes the valve to slowly grow to the point where it must be repaired or replaced. We’d learned about his condition when he was just a baby and had been monitoring it with annual check-ups. The valve remained stable for the first ten years or so but in November of 2022 the doctors advised us that it was beginning to enlarge to dangerous levels and surgery would be necessary. So, we scheduled it for June 20th, 2023.

He was in surgery for almost eight hours, lying on a table with his chest open, his heart exposed to the world and all the good and the bad floating through the ether. The head nurse would call my wife and me every hour to give us an update, which seems like a good idea until it’s been an hour and a minute, then an hour and five minutes, then an hour and ten minutes and no call comes in. What’s wrong? Why hasn’t she called? But then the calls weren’t any comfort either; to hear that your baby boy is still lying there with his heart out in the open is not a pleasant update.

We’d move rooms about every hour. We sat in the garden for a while. Spent quite a bit of time in the chapel. Then into another waiting room. It was such an odd feeling. Yes, surgery was necessary, but did we have to do it on this day? We voluntarily put him on that operating table. I was responsible for putting him there. The fear was almost unbearable. I’ve never felt so helpless. It was by far the most stressful day of my life. But by the Grace of God, the miracle of modern medicine, and a surgeon’s steady hand, the procedure was a success.

Our family’s relationship with Victor Wembanyama had began in May, when Cash, his brother Cade and I stood in front of the TV during the NBA Draft lottery. We jumped and hugged and yelled and danced in disbelief as the number one pick fell to the Spurs. That’s when we decided that we’d have a little party on draft night, just the three of us, in the hospital as he recovered from surgery. It didn’t work as well as we’d hoped since Cash was in quite a bit of pain, but we watched Victor in his sleek green suit and million-dollar smile stroll to the podium when selected first by the San Antonio Spurs. It was a joyous moment in an otherwise traumatic time.

In July we went to Las Vegas to see Victor at NBA Summer League. It’s amazing how quickly kids can bounce back from major surgery, and his doctor said the trip would be fine so we took full advantage. We made reservations at the Vdara, where the Spurs usually stay, but didn’t realize with Victor it was an entirely different world. The Spurs were now staying at the Waldorf Astoria, with beefed up security and minimal fan access. Our first morning in Vegas, we walked over to the Waldorf and were promptly kicked out. We missed seeing him play but had great seats for the Spurs third game and got to see him in person as he watched the game from the bench in a baseball cap.

In October, we saw Victor play in person for the first time during a preseason game against the Heat. I wrote about some of the little things I noticed that night, but most memorable was his dunk over Thomas Bryant and the look Bryant gave to the Heat bench when some alien appeared out of nowhere and dunked over him. Pure joy.

Then there was the double block on Jabari Smith on October 27th. And two wins over the Suns. Unadulterated joy. Every night we’d see something happen on the basketball court that no one had ever seen before. And on a good night we’d see three or four of those things. And on legendary nights he would take your breath away.

In December I turned 50. The welcome celebrations with family and friends also came with the entirely unwelcome early morning and late-night self-evaluations of my place in life. Things I should’ve done but didn’t. Mistakes, missed opportunities, and measuring myself against some imaginary, much better version of me. One that was never frustrated or made a mistake. It was as if fifty years of fear decided to pour out of me all at once. Sorrowful thoughts that I couldn’t escape engulfed my days and the dread of my children getting older and not needing me anymore was breathtaking — and not the good, Victor step-back three sort of breathtaking. My daughter Claire, had twice torn her ACL while playing at Trinity University. With the Tigers in the tournament in early 2023, she suffered her third as the Tigers played in the Sweet 16. I’m convinced to this day that Trinity would’ve won the DIII National Championship if she had been healthy.

On top of all this, my small business was struggling. I couldn’t get anything to work no matter how hard I tried. I’d wake up in a cold sweat fearing complete failure, convinced I was letting my employees down. It was maddening.

But there were always those few hours of escape when the Spurs and Victor would play. He destroyed Sengun on December 11th. There was the fingerrolldunk over Derrick White on New Year’s Eve. Then the breakout game against Milwaukee. A behind the back dunk over Dame and a block on Giannis in crunch time. Sweet, sweet escape. Sham God. A triple double with ten blocks against the Raptors. And things seemed to be brightening. It sounds silly, but its almost as if this 20-year-old French kid showed me how things could be. His otherworldly talents proved that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility and that there’s always something just over the horizon where a legendary night might be waiting for all of us.

The 1948 film The Naked City has the well-worn famous closing line “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” Jay-Z used the line in one of his songs. My story, my struggles, our struggles, aren’t any more dire or spectacular than my neighbor’s, but they are my own. These have been traumatizing times with all of us building scar tissue from our own worries and struggles and all against the backdrop of a pandemic that took millions of lives from us. It’s a testament to the human spirit that we’re able to trudge along. And that spirit is fed by the joy we find in some of the smallest things. And that is what I’m thankful for.

I was at the game with my family on February 29th when the Spurs beat the Thunder and Victor sealed the win and the Rookie of the Year award with a block against Chet Holmgren late in the game. It was euphoric. Then there was the 40/20 game against the Knicks. Tears and goosebumps.

Things continued to get better. I began to find my footing as I stared down this new phase in my life. The fear subsided. I’m convinced that everything is going to be okay now. As is our custom, we gathered around the TV to watch Victor and the Spurs play the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, which turned out to be Victor’s final game of the season. The Nuggets were fully healthy and needed the win to secure the #1 seed, while the Spurs were severely shorthanded,. Victor was visibly frustrated in the first half as the Nuggets’ big bodies pushed him around. But something magical happened in the second half. Victor scored 17 points in three minutes late in the third quarter and the Spurs stole a win when Jokic missed a shot and Tre Jones grabbed the rebound and passed ahead to Devonte Graham who euro-stepped around Jamal Murray and sank a floater with less than a second left and my sons and I jumped and hugged and yelled and danced in disbelief.

The joy of those moments can carry us through the most difficult times. In the last twelve months I was in legitimate danger of losing my youngest son, but I didn’t. I turned 50 and a wave of worry fell over me because I realized there are so many things in this life that I cannot control, but it’s ok. In a town accustomed to excellence, a lanky young man from France arrived to carry out our long tradition of being exceptional. He’s here to help us enjoy many more of those joyful escapes — to show us what is possible, what we can become, and that we don’t always have to worry. For that, I say: thank you, Victor.

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