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April 27, 2016

Have a Back

Have a Back

WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – Heather Parker, a former NU teammate, dropped me a FB message saying she’d like to catch up. I haven’t talked to Heather in years, so I was eager to re-connect. I had a feeling she had some bad news, and was praying it was not utterly devastating news. After some small talk, she said that a former high school coach, who had supported us, was ill with cancer and it did not look good. We talked about the coach and all the ways he connected us and how we connected with each other. I played with Heather for three years at NU. At 6’5”, Heather Ertel had great hands and ran the floor well. Rumor was that in high school, Heather won the state championship in more than one swimming event barely getting her hair wet. She got out of the pool at the end of the final event, put on her basketball shoes and went to play basketball.

Heather didn’t like scoring as much as she liked passing and defending. I remember being happy when she was out there on the floor with us – as a long, tall body on D and someone who knew what it meant to be a great teammate, even if she didn’t get as much playing time as everyone else. Even when I was an emotional wreck after losses – including the time we lost to Michigan State on my missed free throw – Heather always seemed to show support and compassion even as I acted, in retrospect, so selfishly. Losing hurt me so badly that I often mishandled it with too much emotion. It’s something I wish I could have found a better way to process without so much outward emotion and unforgiving inner torment.

We beat Georgia Tech at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1993. I remember Heather playing so well, and I was happy to see her smile out there. It’s not always fun when you have no idea game-to-game if you’re going to see the floor or not. Heather not only made the most of it, and always rooted us on, but she also had a wry sense of humor. She also had an obsession with Prince. We loved her all the more for it.

The more we talked, the more I remembered how much fun we had playing after college in the South Side’s Pro Am tournament, and in pick-up games and tournaments. I remember a game down in the city when a prolific point guard kept getting cheap shots in on Heather at the high post where she’d sag on the help side and just dig into Heather with her elbow or foul her when she caught the ball. Heather was clearly upset and taken aback. It was hard for me to see it all because I had my back to her, but I knew something was off. Heather was no wimp. The annoying player was a beautiful blonde South Sider with game, yet she also had a dirty streak of cheap shots. I started paying more attention when I could, and I didn’t like her jabs at Heather’s low back, and the satisfied look on the player’s face.

On one of the next plays, the blonde got a steal and I was the only one back to defend her. I let her get a little ahead of me, then I went up as she stretched out to score and I hit her with a solid and honest foul. I knew how to foul with control. I knew she was going to flop. She did. Yes, I fouled her, but no, I did not try to hurt her.

She hit the deck and I went right toward her. I reached out my hand to help her up. She would not take it. I said to her quietly before the rest could reach us, “If you dish it, you’d better be able to take it.”

I have no problem admitting now what I did. What she was doing had to stop and it seemed to be the only way to get her to knock it off.

I can’t say that she stopped entirely, but I do recall that no one walked off or ended up in a fight, which leads me to believe that justice was served, and we moved on. I don’t care what that player thought of me. The truth comes out on the court, and we both had been very honest. After all those years of supporting me, even when I was an emotional wreck, what mattered to me most during that pick-up game was making sure Heather knew I had her back.