“Goodbye D2. Mom.” I said, choking back emotion. “I LOVE YOU BOTH SO MUCH.”
I felt the tears stream down my eyes like an open faucet. I was leaving for good. The traces of Northern Michigan, of blue water, white sand, comfortable living, friendship, and peanut butter honey sandwiches for lunch were over now.
“We’ll miss you. We love you,” my mom said, her blonde hair sticking to her wet cheeks. “Forever and ever. Always and always.”
D2, my baby brother, was looking up at me wiping his small eyes with his pinky finger. I had felt like his father and older brother for the past six years, ever since we left our dad and moved up to start a new life in Petoskey. I was leaving him now, and it stung me on the inside.
“Don’t go yet, please, can we stay longer mom?” D2 said, his voice wavering.
Leaving them was the hardest part, but my time had come. I engulfed them one last time and stuffed D2’s head into my armpit. I smiled and gritted through the wave of tears.
“We will see each other soon. I promise. We have many more memories to make. I will make you guys proud. I promise.”
There is power in your why.
Show me a human’s why and I’ll bet money they can endure and do more than the average person.
There is power in travel because of the memories created by being and living in different places with different people.
Sometimes traveling stops, or slows, and for a while (or a lifetime), we are part of that place. We leave a trace of ourselves where we are, and we begin to know the people of that foreign place, just as they start to understand us.
Today, I am not traveling across the world.
I am not traveling across Africa on a safari. I am not riding a bike through Amsterdam. I am not drinking vodka in a dank corner bar in Warsaw. I am not enjoying Trappist beers in Gent. I am not sipping rose on the pebble beaches of the Cote D’Azur.
No, today, I’m going to one of those most influential places I’ve ever lived in and called home.
I’m traveling to a city where some of my most potent memories formed, where all my dreams, innocence, power, and self-belief gathered, culminated, and spawned.
No, this place isn’t a hot destination for tourists.
There is no Eiffel Tower here.
There are no white-capped Alps on the horizon or cobblestone streets lined with cafes and foreigners sipping their Cafe Au Lait.
There aren’t quaint Churrasco restaurants serving Port wine and Argentian beef in Porto overlooking the Atlantic.
And that’s just the cat’s meow of it all.
There are more than just things to collect and see as you slow travel though life. There are memories, feelings, experiences, epiphanies, teams, people, and stories you strive to create.
Kent, Ohio is more than a place, it is a culmination of memories.
As the turnpike toll bars flipped up, and I paid my fare, my mind raced forward to the memories I’ve kept hidden inside me as I rolled around the familiar corners of Stow, past Brubaker’s Pub, the Silver Lake Country Club, and the rows of apartment complexes, single-family homes, and strip malls lining Graham Road.
Ohio had a part of me that most other states and countries didn’t because there is always a part of you that you leave behind in the places you travel to and live in and these are where the strongest memories live.
In the days of old, in living your why.
My first day of college, my first day of independence and manhood started at Kent State (actually it was just Kent, then). I was 19 years old (and a naive 19), but I found my way and walked into the Memorial Athletic Convocation Center, an enormous orangish gymnasium that fit 8,000 people under its steel beams. As I walked past the rows of blue and gold benches and seats, I started daydreaming of being on the court, of winning games and reaching my life goal of playing basketball professionally.
I walked through the sets of double doors and towards the glass basketball offices and found my teammates talking to our head coach Gary Waters in the foyer.
“Hey guys,” I said nervously, walking forward.
“Traaaaaavoooooorrrrrr,” Coach Waters yelled. “Traaaaaaavorrrrrr HOOOFFFFMAN, COME ON DOWN!”
I felt a grin escape me and my cheeks burn.
“It’s Huffman, coach. HUFF-man.”
“Ah well, Traavor, don’t go all crazy now. Come meet your new brothers, your new teammates,” Coach said, his two front white teeth gaping. “This is John Whorton. Ed Norvell. JC. And Kyreem.”
I looked around and realized I had never met this many African Americans at one time. I wasn’t in Petoskey, Michigan (Kansas) anymore. I shook their hands firmly and looked them in the eyes.
“Hey fellas. Nice to meet you,” I said, trying to keep eye contact.
“Call me Pope,” the biggest black guy I had ever met said, streaking a smile at me. “Welcome to the family.”
“Hey Pope,” I said, secretly wondering if he was Catholic.
The four other guys shook my hand, but it was some form of handshake I had never seen. My hand was wrapped up and over and around and then they were snapping their fingers and shit, and I was left awkwardly in the middle of what I thought was a chest bump half-hug.
They all said their names to me, and I tried to remember who they were from when I had visited and watched tape on them this summer. Ed was the senior, the starting point guard, yes, I remembered watching him play with Tractor Traylor in the Breslin Center for a state championship in Michigan. He averaged about nine points and six assists.
JC was at about six points per game. Pope and Kyreem led the team in scoring and rebounds at around 12 and six. Ed and JC were my height, but not my size, their arms bulking out of their blue and gold Russell Athletic practice jerseys. I would be competing against them, and the tension hit me standing there. I kept hearing my dad’s words in the back of my head, “Division one basketball will chew you up and spit you out so be ready to compete every day. Every drill.”
Kyreem was last. He towered over me grinning. He shook my hand, his long fingers enveloped mine, and suddenly, he reminded me of the G.O.A.T., Michael Jordan, the way he chewed his gum confidently, the way he stared at me, his swagger oozing.
“You feeling good? Where you stayin’?” Kyreem asked.
“Who you rooming with — Drew, Shaw?”
“No, I wasn’t put with any players since I signed so late, some dude named Randy from Strongsville. I think he smokes cigarettes — but I don’t.”
They all chuckled.
“You better not!” Coach Waters said. “So you ready to make yourself at home here? These guys can play now young fella! Can’t have you being their dunk dummy now!*”
“I hope so, coach. I hope so. When is practice?”
Coach Waters leaned back and yelled for Coach D.
“Trevor, get in here young fella!” Coach D shouted from another office down the hall.
And so it began.
I walked forward, my new life starting in a small town with red-bricked streets called Kent. Who knew my travels to Kent would be so unique, so compelling, and who knew giving all of yourself to a game and city and team would give you so much back.
After four years, after the long bus rides and flights across the country playing the sport I loved, I still remember the memories with a team of brothers, teachers, mentors, and friends, of all different skin colors, religions, backgrounds, varieties, shapes, and sizes, all wanting to win.
Win together, lose together.
The foundation of my experience in Kent is what I would take with me as I traveled the world to play the sport I loved. The essence of creating, and accepting change and what is next. There were plenty of dreams coming together in this small city, but there was only one ball and one mission:
As we won, our memories piled up, our laughs, our titles, our rings, our NCAA tournaments, our brotherhood, even our crowd surged and our university prospered.
I was lucky to have traveled and make my home in Kent, Ohio.
But still, I not much has changed. The MACC still stands, and the lights still hum orange and money and resources still head to a football program that has never had the flagship tradition and foundation Kent State Basketball worked so hard to build.
As they say in France, c’est la vie.
But I’ll always remember my first memories of Kent, and regardless of how the business of sports is run, I look back in admiration and fond respect for the great people that have traveled to Kent to begin their lives, just like me.
Today, basketball is the medium for us to reunite and celebrate.
I’ll never forget where the foundation of my college memories started and with whom they started, whether it is playing 1v1 or 5v5 with Drew, Ed, Shaw, Nate, Ray, Al, Lehrke, Big Vaughn, JC, Kyreem, E.T., and Pope. I’ll never forget our long talks of philosophy, of our different childhoods, backgrounds, or cultures.
I never took my progress and friendships lightly. I lived for the competition and quiet space of that gym and as I plopped down in front of Coach D, I realized there was an interminable journey in front of me — to get court time, to succeed, to enjoy my life as a division one athlete, to reach my goals, to travel to a foreign place, and make friends with people from different backgrounds while making Kent my home.
These memories come rushing back to me now, and for that, I’m genuinely grateful to be alive.