A few hours before the Pacers played at Toronto on March 26, I visited one of Canada’s main tourist attractions, the CN Tower. It was my first time traveling outside of the United States, and although I was there for work, I needed to do something for myself — and for my family.
So, when I got inside and took the elevator to the top, I asked a stranger to snap a photo of me so I could send it in a group chat I share with my mama, dad and twin sister. The CN Tower has 147 floors, making it the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and as I explained that to my family in the text that accompanied my photo, I jokingly told them, “So in other words, I’m on top of the world!”
And that’s exactly how I would describe my rookie season with the Pacers, a perpetual feeling of being on top of the world. Of course, the campaign was rough from the Pacers’ standpoint, and I’d be lying if I said it was always a blast covering a team that went 25-57.
But for the most part, it was awesome — especially considering how fast my life changed.
I keep getting these Facebook memories, reminding me that one year ago I was covering high school sports in Northwest Indiana, also known as the Region. Now, those same Region kids I interviewed were freaking out because this season I had the chance to ask questions of two of the greatest basketball players ever, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
It’s been a blessing and a dream come true to cross paths with living legends while covering the Pacers for IndyStar, but to me the real blessing — as always — is in the stories. Despite an underwhelming season, I’ve had the chance to share incredible stories about incredible people.
Like the time Pacers rookie Chris Duarte helped his best friend propose to his girlfriend during a game against the Lakers, and then stunned LeBron James and Co. with a last-second corner 3. After that game, since it was just before Thanksgiving, I asked Duarte what he was thankful for, and he proceeded to give one of the most heartfelt responses I’ve ever heard.
“I’m thankful for a lot,” Duarte said. ” … Thankful for my family, having a little boy, having another girl on the way. Thankful for being here in the NBA playing against Lebron James and (Carmelo Anthony), players that I used to watch when I started playing basketball. … I’m thankful for my friends that just got proposed. … I just posted a picture on (my Instagram story), and it was me when I was like 13 years old, when I started playing basketball, and I said that every time I look back and see how far I’ve come, it’s unbelievable.
“A kid from the DR, coming from not having anything to now having a good job, being here playing the game that I love, having a family, it’s a lot. I’m thankful for that.”
More Pacers coverage: A big shot, a big assist and a night Pacers rookie Chris Duarte will never forget
Don’t bet against him: Pacers Ahmad Caver’s first NBA points cost some bettors a lot of money
There was also the time when the Pacers signed Ahmad Caver to a 10-day COVID-19 contract, and he scored his first NBA points against the Nets. His late-game layup fulfilled a lifelong dream, but since he ruined the point spread, countless bettors flooded his social media afterward with hateful comments. I’ll never forget talking to Caver about that on the last day of his 10-day deal and hearing him explain everything it took for him to score that layup — from moving out at 14 and living with former All-Star Jerry Stackhouse to not having a Division-I scholarship offer after high school to eventually sharing the court with future Hall of Famers.
“Everybody don’t get that opportunity to score in the NBA, especially when you got (Kevin Durant) and James Harden on the floor,” Caver said. “So of course that’s gonna be something I remember for a lifetime.”
Of all the stories I wrote, though, the one that I believe defined my rookie Pacers season more than any other is the long-form piece I did on Keifer Sykes. The undrafted 28-year-old rookie was the first NBA player to truly open up to me and give me a shot to tell his story in totality. It took months for me to put it together: hundreds of questions, several hours of interviewing and a few times when I locked myself in my hotel room on the road to make sure I gave the story the proper attention, only leaving to go get food.
Sykes was waived with two games left in the season, but judging by his past, the 5-foot-11 guard had won the moment he checked into an NBA game. By all accounts, he wasn’t supposed to make it that far anyway: growing up in inner-city Chicago, fathering his first child at 16, losing his own father to a heart attack after his freshman year of college, going overseas and not being paid when his Italian team went bankrupt — yet still chasing what many called an impossible dream and finally turning it into reality.
“That’s the hero’s journey,” Sykes said. “Because a lot of people don’t even know the half of what it took for me to be here. From grade school to now, I really paid the cost. But that’s what it takes to be a superhero for my family, a superhero in my community and a good basketball player. … I remember being cut by the Pacers (before the season) and having to tell my son that I got cut, feeling like I just got cut in front of everybody, and I still had to do a seventh- and eighth-grade camp the next day. You gotta be a hero to do that, to stand up in front of these kids and let them know like, ‘I got cut from the NBA yesterday, but I’mma keep pushing and try to make it,’ and then come back later and show them that I made it.”
That quote will stick with me, especially the last line, because in some ways I view my journey through the same lens.
When I started sportswriting as a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, my first beat was men’s gymnastics. I wasn’t getting paid and, in fact, I would write stories in between classes and my job as a dish washer at the university’s main dining hall. I remember those who laughed and told me I was wasting my time chasing a career in a dying industry.
I wonder what they have to say now?
Before the Pacers wrapped up their season with a two-game road trip to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, I was asked to participate on a journalism panel at my alma mater and share advice with current students. I could’ve joined the panel over Zoom, but I decided to make the two-hour drive to my former college the night before I had to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Philly because in the words of Sykes, I had to “come back later and show them that I made it.”
I was in Urbana-Champaign for only three hours, which is about the same time I slept that night before heading to the airport to close out my first NBA season. It was a long day, and there were a lot of long days during my rookie campaign, filled with triumphs and pitfalls, achievements and mistakes, but I tried my best to embrace it all and grow.
During my quick trip back to the University of Illinois, all of the panelists were asked to explain their “why.” Why we do what we do? And additionally, who do we do it for?
My answers were twofold:
I chose to be a sportswriter because I want people to remember that athletes are still human and much more than the sports they play — as evidenced by my stories about Chris Duarte, Ahmad Caver, Keifer Sykes and others — and by peeling back the curtain, maybe it’ll actually make a difference.
And then on a personal level, I do this for my family and everyone else who believed in a skinny Black kid from Romeoville, Illinois. I didn’t reach the NBA or land a job covering the Pacers all on my own. I had a great deal of help, and, particularly for my rookie season, a ton of new readers — even the IU fans — who made standing on the court at Gainbridge Fieldhouse every few days feel like I was on the top floor of the CN Tower.
Or, as I once told my family, “on top of the world.”
Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.