Death is the hardest thing we, as human beings, will face in our lives. It seems pretty cut and dry. Adversity will come in many forms, but none quite like the passing of a loved one. The finality of death goes unmatched. It is ultimate loss.
This probably goes without saying. Funerals just aren't very popular. If we could choose, we'd avoid them like the plague. Obviously, someone has died. Now, somehow, after a week of overwhelming shock and sadness, we're supposed to collect ourselves enough to say goodbye to this person who has made an impact in our lives in some form or another. It seems excessive.
This past month, for Kansas basketball player, Thomas Robinson, it has been a gloom reality. Luckily, he has coach Bill Self on his side.
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About fifteen years ago or so, a good friend and colleague of my mother's lost her husband tragically. She had two young children at the time, and only a few of her closest friends, including my mom, to help her deal with the pain of her sudden loss.
I was around nine or ten-years old then, so the memory is a bit foggy. But I remember the importance of my mother being there as her friend grieved (she stayed with her all week), and the importance of her supporting cast's presence at the funeral.
I reference that experience because Self has been publicly ridiculed this week for his decision to "force" the KU basketball team to attend Robinson's mother, Lisa's funeral.* I couldn't disagree with this notion more.
*"We all hurt for Thomas and his young sister. But people die, are born, get sick, get arrested…but life goes on. If KU loses three in a row, you’re going to see some real pain, suffering and anguish at Allen Fieldhouse – and not one of those many tears will be for T-Rob’s mom." - Greg Hall, KCConfidential.com
Hall, in two separate columns at KCC, wrote about his concern for Self "forcing" the rest of the team to attend the funeral and how they'd respond on the court the rest of the season. Shame on you, Greg. SHAME. ON. YOU.
By now you've probably heard about what the 19-year old Thomas is going through. In less than a month's time, he's lost both his grandparents and his mother. His seven-year old sister, Jayla was the one who made the call to Thomas to inform him of their mom's passing. With no father in the picture, Thomas is suddenly the only person close to a parental-guardian Jayla has left.
Upon hearing the news, Thomas convinced Self to let him stay with the team and play the day after Lisa's death. The game would result in a home-loss — the first loss of the season for the team and the first loss at home for the Jayhawks in four years.
Afterward, Self, realizing his error in judgment, announced that Thomas would be leaving the team to handle funeral arrangements. We then learned the NCAA had granted the university permission to pay for all of the funeral expenses, including flying Thomas' teammates to Washington, D.C. Thursday for the service.
Self made the right call. It's silly to think Thomas' teammates haven't been riding this month-long emotional rollercoaster along with him. In choosing to have the entire team attend the funeral, the coach allowed Thomas to have his closest peers alongside him as he searched for the courage to accept life without his mother, all-the-while helping his brothers-in-arms find a sense of closure, as well.
Really, it was Self's duty to allow for this. College coaches go through a ridiculous recruiting process to convince families (sometimes just mothers) to send their young and gifted child to them for four years so their programs will win more games. In return, these coaches promise to do everything in their power to ensure the boy who left home for college will return a man.
These coaches are fathers away-from-home. Self realizes this better than anyone.
Upon his return to the team Friday, Kansas released a thank-you letter Thomas wrote to the fans. Saturday, in the team's first game since the funeral, the Jayhawks soared at Allen Fieldhouse, blowing-out rival Kansas State. The fans came equipped with signs to express their support for Thomas. By the time it was over, there had been a standing-ovation — not just for the recognition of courage and triumph off the court but because of the exceptional play on it.
With Coach Self at Thomas' side, we can rest assured his future is bright. "It's beyond words, how I feel and the love that I have for Kansas University," Thomas would say after the game.
Life's lessons don't always come easy. Thomas and his teammates are coming to grips with this fact as we speak. The essential support and guidance Self has helped provide them can't go unrecognized.