Strength in Numbers
An unlikely sports obsession would unite Jackie Ashton and her best friend across 2,500 miles and one devastating diagnosis.
IT’S BASKETBALL SEASON. Here in the Bay Area, home of the Golden State Warriors—winner of three of the last four NBA Finals—it is impossible to escape Warriors fever. Believe me, I’ve tried. Most Warriors fans find the team to be a source of pure happiness. But my feelings are conflicted: one part joy, another part anguish.
When I see a blue-and-yellow Golden State Warriors flag waving in the wind outside a restaurant, I become dizzy with sadness. If I turn on the TV, I know I’ll see the ad where Klay Thompson swishes three-pointers while touting the benefits of a postworkout glass of chocolate milk. A few seconds later, I’ll have to dart into the pantry to weep.
But I wasn’t always flinging myself into closets to sob during Warriors games.
Some people fall in love with their passion slowly. Others, like me, watch the Warriors’ 2015 NBA Finals victory with their 7-year-old and become hooked on their home team, all at once and forever. As I sat there with my son that night, I was mesmerized. Who was this dream team?
At the start of the 2016 season, I went all in. I bought flags for my car, temporary tattoos to wear during games. Over the course of the season, my obsession deepened: I watched replays on Instagram, stayed up past midnight listening to postgame interviews. The Warriors became my religion; Dub Nation, my church. Me, the woman who, as a child, recoiled at the sound of games on television.
“When did you become such a huge sports fan?” my closest friend, Emily, asked me from Atlanta over text. She had a point. She was the athlete, not me. At 8 years old, she had been a top-ranking tennis player in Georgia, where we met in kindergarten. She had earned a full athletic scholarship to the University of Virginia, where we were roommates all four years. For 35 years, our friendship had been like the morning sun: steady and consistent.
I told Emily the Warriors symbolized everything a person should do in life—show up, work hard, and take care of your team. I described head coach Steve Kerr’s team slogan, “Strength in numbers.” A rallying cry: We’re in this together. Each number had a story.
5: the players on the court, obviously.
10: the guys on the bench Kerr sees as equally important; team cohesion and depth define the Warriors.
20,000: the approximate number of roaring, euphoric fans in Oracle Arena each game night.
But then, suddenly, one April morning in that 2016 golden spring of Warriors fever, the numbers turned on me.
4: the stage of Emily’s breast cancer.
39: our age at the time.
1: the number of years the doctors said she had left to live.
OF ALL HER EXQUISITE QUALITIES, perhaps my favorite was Emily’s uncanny ability to see a bright light where others saw only darkness. “I’ve gotten everything I could have ever wanted in this life,” she said to me after sharing her news. “Anything I get from now on will be extra.”
Some people pray to a Christian God. Others call out to Vishnu. But I fell on my knees after I hung up the phone and begged the basketball gods to somehow, inexplicably, help her. Could the same divine grace that allowed human beings to consistently drain three-pointers from new depths also, in some way, save my friend?
From that point forward, what was initially a passion I shared with my kids became the way my best friend and I focused on joy and life, rather than the very real possibility of death. I flew to Atlanta two weeks later, on the day of her Gamma Knife radiation to attack the cancer in her brain. “Should I bring the kids?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “I want your kids to know mine.” At the San Francisco airport, I picked up blue Warriors hats and yellow bracelets for our five children, then ages 7 through 12.
Emily embraced the Warriors ferociously. Just as she did my husband, my children, and everything else I loved. Her affinity for the Dubs was remarkable given that she lived in Atlanta Hawks territory, but it was clear they personified her fierce optimism. And after I left Atlanta, it became the language of hope we spoke from coast to coast. “Which ones are cool but aren’t too expensive?” we asked, comparing notes about which Steph Curry high-tops to buy our sons. We shared screenshots of Steph holding a sign saying “Be the best version of yourself every single day.” Our younger selves would never have guessed that our 35 years of friendship would culminate in an intense, shared love of a professional basketball team.
Yes, there was chemo. There was more radiation, a battery of appointments, cold caps to save her hair. But when 7:30 p.m. rolled around, there was also the Warriors. It’s hard to say whether we spent more time watching the games or staring into the backlight of our smartphones, sending texts to shrink the 2,500-mile distance between us. We shared GIFs, memes, and other digital amusements that were as new to us as our love of basketball. When Steph nailed his signature warm-up shot, launching the ball from the tunnel that leads to the locker room— essentially an impossible trick shot that only he could make, with astonishing accuracy—it felt like everything was right in the universe.
We adored each player more than the next. Of course, we both had a soft spot for Steph Curry, the dreamy superstar point guard, but we loved him for different reasons. Emily, a faithful Christian, liked the way he tapped his chest after a successful shot, how he lifted his index finger to say thank you to the heavens. “He’s just such a good person,” she said. She bought her son his “I Can Do All Things” poster, a reference to Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I just found him straight-up sexy. Those eyes. That smile.
But when it came to Draymond Green, we were united in the way we adored him. We went bonkers over how he cared for his mother. “Did you know he bought her a house?” Emily asked. We loved his childhood nickname. “Day Day!” Emily would text me during the games whenever Draymond blocked a shot, stuck out his tongue, and flexed his biceps in his now infamous, look-at-these-muscles move.
Emily (left) and the author at age 13
GOING TO A GAME at Oracle Arena with my kids and her basketball-loving younger son was an easy decision. We selected the Oklahoma City Thunder game on a Thursday night in November. Our tickets cost more than my first semester of college. “You only live once?” Emily said, laughing. By the time game night arrived, Emily’s condition had worsened—more from the treatment than the disease itself, it seemed—but she still managed to fly to San Francisco. We drove to Oakland and stepped into Oracle Arena as the lights dimmed. The players huddled and danced like there was no tomorrow.
I remember Steph lobbing a three-pointer. A second later, it went in so perfectly that the net barely moved. Emily looked me in the eye, and as only the closest of friends can do, we knew what the other was thinking. For that one moment, the reality that our time together might be running out melted away. There was only joy. It was pure, cosmic—pristine.
Fourteen months later, on a cold January afternoon in Atlanta, Emily died. I was sitting on the front steps of her house when her husband came out to tell me. Two days earlier, I had held her hand and kissed her on the cheek a final time. “I don’t want you to leave,” she had said before I left, as usual taking the words right out of my mouth.
WE BURIED HER ON A THURSDAY. Friends made a slideshow for the crowd of 800 that came to her service. I included the photo of us with the kids at the Warriors game. In that image, my smile is genuine; I didn’t think she would die. The day after her funeral, I took my laminated United States dollar bill—the one with Steph Curry on it, as if he were president—out of my wallet. I tucked it away in a drawer in my closet.
What a fool I was to think we were immune from the cold, hard facts of mortality. But for that one brilliant basketball season, I believed in the impossible.
Tonight I am taking my son back to Oracle Arena to see the Warriors play the Los Angeles Lakers. Before we leave the house, I scroll through my old texts with Emily for the thousandth time. I remember how excited she was to watch the Warriors play, just weeks before she died. One text reads: “About to watch the Dubs! Are you?” followed by rows of yellow and blue heart emojis. But now I feel betrayed by my team. Like somehow it was their fault. I was duped; how could I have been so naive?
But I look at her words again, and it dawns on me.
It was never about whether the half-court buzzer-beater would fall in but instead what two old friends—unlikely basketball fanatics on opposite coasts—could share together when they believed it was possible.
I put my phone down to tell my son it’s time to leave for Oakland. I wish Emily and I could still communicate during the game like we used to.
But in a way, we just did.