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April 13, 2016

Almost Sweet Home Chicago

Almost Sweet Home Chicago

WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – I remember my exiting drive down Lake Shore Drive back in 1999. It was a fall day, just after rush hour – maybe 9 or 10 a.m. My mother and I were packed into my Honda Rav-4. She had just been diagnosed with pre-senile dementia – otherwise known as early Alzheimer’s. As if that wasn’t enough, my father had just told her that he was leaving her, too. Yet what was more important than her personal crisis was making sure she got out to Evanston to see her daughter and help her move back home. She missed me, of course, with all of her kids out of the house. And she knew she needed someone to make her feel slightly less devastated. She needed someone who would not back down or give into her horrible predicament.

After she arrived, my mother went to a few of my final basketball games with the Chicago Challengers. I remember she watched me take my final dance class where my partner, a heart surgeon, said he was strong enough to throw me. I didn’t believe him. I should have trusted my gut. He threw me all right. Flat on my back. My mother looked at me with her hand over her mouth, afraid to move. I writhed out from under him, having pulled him over with me, and I jumped back up. We had a long road ahead. There was no time to stay down.

We said goodbye to my roommate, Dee Perrelli, who was the ex-wife of my college coach and my former roommate for many years. We loaded up the car and we took The Drive, which was so much more fun with all its bends, lights and views than the interstate. I jacked up the music as we left my favorite skyline behind us. When you have a mountain ahead of you to climb, you don’t stop and reflect. You don’t get nostalgic or sentimental or teary-eyed, especially when you have no idea what the future will hold. You just focus on the road one mile at a time. You pretend like you’re pumped for a nearly 16-hour trip home. And you drive and hope you will find your way.

The odd thing is that I didn’t remember this drive until three years ago when I went to Northwestern for a visit. I was in a rental car heading up to Evanston, and I had the city on my left. The city was all lit up at night – still as beautiful, exciting and manageable as I remembered it. I broke down in tears as I remembered my mother on that drive back to my hometown, when I knew I was leaving what was my favorite city, and all it offered behind.

When a parent or student tells me that they are interested in Northwestern, the first thing I always say how great it is to be so close to Chicago. Maybe the big city meant more to me because I grew up in a small village called Wynantskill, New York. Yet even after all these years, even as I pledge my allegiance to New York City for as long as I can bear it, I look at Chicago and miss it. I say that Harlem is my favorite neighborhood ever and that is the truth. Yet New York City can often beat up the soul as often as it can lift it. If life had turned in another direction or my mother had her health—and if I actually had family within an hour or two—I would have stayed in the Windy City and set up shop. I remember not thinking about much more than getting by month to month, so it’s hard to say.

I am aware of the racism, segregation, inequity and tough times, especially with the police department as of late. I know the wind can cut you like a knife over and over in the thick of those ugly winters that test your toughness. But I miss all the fun I had roaming around that city from my first trip to interview a gang member in Little Mexico, to the Midnight Basketball League stop, to all the summer league games I played at DePaul and on the South Side. I miss piling a bunch of players in my car and trying to hold my own on the South Side. I miss the trip home, when I dropped my muffler on the North Side and prayed we would get back to Evanston. (We didn’t. A teammate made me stop the car and she hustled a coat hanger from someone and tied the muffler up.) I miss going to the United Center with Marcel Kerr, a good friend, who earned a few tickets. He got up at halftime and went down to participate in the dunk competition, which he won. He came back up to our nosebleed seats and said they were going to ship his winnings to him – a brand-new TV. I miss running around the West Side of Chicago following the life and times of a near seven-foot kid named Kevin Garnett so I could write a story on him, and later help Sports Illustrated write a story on him because they knew that I knew his network of friends and contacts right before he entered the draft. I miss Soldier Field where I watched my cousin play against the Bears in the same place where the USA Women’s Soccer Team blazed a path for girls and women just like me. I loved visiting the East Bank Club on a free guest pass, or going to the museums downtown. It was always incredible for me to visit my friend and NU alum Howard Tullman, and see his latest business venture or the latest addition to his awesome art collection.

I look back now and get why so many Northwestern graduates stay and make a life in or near this manageable city. I don’t know how it was supposed to turn out or ‘what if?’ Yet I am still grateful. Chicago was good for me and to me. It gave me a place to grow, wander and dream. Right place, right time, and then I had to say good-bye.