It was a rainy September morning when I first met Joey Portman, and I will always remember how gentle the rain felt as it gracefully touched my face. It is permanently etched into my brain as one of those moments that move past nostalgia and become contentment. I remember how delicately the drops ran down the sides of my face to settle in separation on my jacket collar. How sweet the air smelled and how peaceful the world seemed to be. I remember these not because of the tranquil serenity they conjured up, but because I was greeted with the same gentle raindrops a little more than a year later. Only then, they were so much more. They were salvation.
* * *
My first impression of Joey Randolph, as I sat in the rain on an unusually chilly September morning, was that he was a lot stronger than he actually was. Joey was near six feet in height, and looked to be a little over one hundred and fifty pounds. He was not bulky by any means, but the way he held himself gave off a ‘strong’ presence. He never slouched, and he never let his shoulders sink. Why he was so disciplined in that stance, I’ll never know. My only guess is that it was years of childhood mockery that had made him so determined to present himself better. But that is just my opinion.
Back in the spring of ’03, I was a beat writer for a newspaper based in the biggest town in central Illinois, The Courier. There being a lot of colleges in the area, I was given an assignment to interview an incoming freshman basketball player. The wrap on Joey Randolph was that he was extremely skillful, but at times a handful to deal with. It was his ‘showboat’ antics that had kept him from a division one school. But after my first meeting with him, I was given the distinct notion that he didn’t care much about being at a bigger school. No, I’d say Joey preferred the anonymity of where he was at; constantly under the radar.
As I said before, it was unusually cold for a September morning, and so I clung to my jacket and constantly blew warm air into my hands to keep them warm. Joey was fifteen minutes late, and I was ready to turn for my car and leave, when his voice sounded from behind me.
“Great weather isn’t it?” he said. I could have responded with sarcasm or I could have tried to make him feel guilty for keeping me waiting for as long as he did, but Joey wore a grin that was so wide and comical, that he instantaneously became endearing to me. It’s a gift only few people in this world have, and it is a trait that once you have seen, you become acutely aware of how many lack it. It’s also a trait you wish upon yourself.
Still, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at him. “So the standards for ‘great’ really must have lowered since I was a student,” I replied.
Looking at me with this air of wisdom about him, he quickly retorted, “Maybe your standards have just gone up?” He said this, but with no pomposity or malice attached. It was for this reason perhaps, that I was so impressed with Joey.
He held out his hand, and offered it to me while introducing his self to me. Even his handshake was firm. I noticed during my tenure as a reporter for The Courier, that you could tell a lot about a person’s personality from the initial handshake. On a politics beat I was working, I shook hands with a state senator running for re-election in his district. The term ‘dead fish’ is denoted as being a handshake that is flimsy and not having any strength to it. The state senator’s policies and promises turned out to be just as flimsy as his handshake.
The interview started as we both headed for an inlet near one of the campus buildings. We conducted it on the steps of an English building. I remember the vines were starting to brown across the bricks it entwined. The scene was beautiful, and I can honestly say that all around, it was the best interview I’ve ever conducted.
I started with a bunch of small broad questions about the game, and how he practiced and trained. I asked the types of questions that you could read in any sports article, and so I got answers back that I was expecting. But it was when I asked the last of the stereotypical questions that I received an answer that I was not expecting.
“So who was your biggest influence?” It was a seemingly easy question to respond to. Most players cited that their biggest influence was a past coach, their parents or another family member, or a higher entity that they believed in. Not once had I ever heard a different response.
“I’d have to say that my biggest influence that helped me become who I am today was Elton John,” he responded. He laughed when he looked up to see my shocked expression. “Didn’t see that one coming did you?” he asked.
I earnestly shook my head. All I could think of to say was, “Why Elton John?”
Joey didn’t even need a moment to think about what he was going to say. “Well, Elton had to put up with a lot during his life about being gay, and yet it never really stopped him. He’s considered one of the best musicians of all-time, and he lives through adversity on a day-to-day basis, maybe not as much in his profession, but in his life. He gives me a model of how to go about handling diversity.”
If I hadn’t already been impressed by Joey physically, I was won over by him verbally. The interview had taken on a complete turn however, and I was beginning to become aware of the person I was talking to.
After a few more generic questions, the interview was over, and we both shook hands again, and we parted ways. As luck would have it, I’d be running into Joey a lot more after that interview. I was made chief reporter for his college’s basketball team in the winter. The next time we would meet, would be after one of the most exciting games I’ve ever witnessed.
* * *
Down at the half by thirty points, everyone in the gym figured the game to be over. Yet as the men took the court again, one looked different from the defeated. Joey Randolph didn’t seem beaten, nor did he consider his team. Over the course of the next two quarters, he would take his team on an unbelievable run. With five minutes left in the game, Joey had led his team on 23-0 run that left them two points shy of tying the game. With a minute left in the game, they were tied, and when that final buzzer went off, the ball was already well on its way through the net. Joey Randolph had not only led his team back in the game, but he had won it for them on a last second miracle shot from near the half-court line.
The cheering and applause coming from the stands were so deafening that I couldn’t even hear the final whistle from the referees. Joey’s team hoisted him up in the air, and carried him off the court on their shoulders.
I interviewed Joey after the game, after the locker room had cleared out. It was just the two of us. What amazed me most on this day, was the fact that after all that had just taken place out on the court, Joey wasn’t smiling. Even after all his heroics, he still believed he could have done better. “I shouldn’t have had to make a toss like that with no time left on the clock, Mac,” he told me.
I shook my head in disbelief, and for the first time, lost my reporter persona. “Joey, you won the game tonight! People are calling that last shot a ‘miracle’. You’re being called ‘the miracle man’ out there,” I responded, stupefied, and pointing at the door.
And it was at my reaction that Joey finally cracked a smile. He laughed, again at me, and nodded. “Is that right? ‘The Miracle Man’…guess Joey Randolph was too boring.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. The charm of Joey was too much for anyone to overcome.
During the course of that season, I had lots of post-game interviews with Joey and as the weeks progressed so did an impending friendship. I was only five years older than he was, and after high school ends, most people stop factoring in age as a restriction on who you talk to. As we became better friends, we began seeing each other outside of interviews and locker rooms.
It was after two months, when we were rapidly becoming close friends, that I was let on to something I never saw coming. Joey Randolph, ‘The Miracle Man’, had a secret that no one knew about.
* * *
It is a funny thing how ‘clarity’ works. You only see it once it becomes so obvious that it makes you feel stupid. It’s as if you’ve caught on to a joke that was told minutes earlier, and everyone else understood it right away. Except in this case, only one person realized it, and everyone else was left looking stupid.
I had received a phone call at my apartment, 15 miles south of the campus, from Joey. I almost didn’t recognize it was his voice.
“Mac? You busy?” asked a strangely sullen voice.
It was the first time I had ever heard Joey seem less than cheerful, and it sent shivers down my spine. I told him I wasn’t and he asked me to meet him at a spot on campus.
I arrived a few minutes later than he did. He was sitting on a stone bench near an oak tree with his head buried in his hands. The ground was layered by a brick pavement, and wet spots of melted snow made each crack in the separation of bricks a puddle. Sitting next to Joey, he lifted his head, and wiped his face. I could see his cheeks looked a deep shade of red, and there were tear lines down his face. It was uncanny that he was able to shock me so much.
“Thanks for coming,” he said to me. Not knowing how to respond, I merely just shook my head.
After minutes of passing cars creating the only noise around us, Joey asked me, “Why are people so intolerant of anything that is different?”
Not knowing how to properly respond again, I settled on, “Maybe because they are too afraid to see anything that isn’t what they are used to.”
“Fuck that!” he swore, and I was surprised that he had such anger in his voice. It was the first time that I had ever even heard him raise his voice. That night would be a first lot of things from Joey.
I sat there, not knowing what to say, or what to even ask. Joey bit his lip, and shook his head. “I just don’t understand it, Mac.”
Finally, a question came to me, and it was a painfully obvious one to ask. “What happened?”
Joey looked into my eyes, and sat there locked. It was as if he was sizing me up, and debating on whether I was close enough to be let in. My own self-worth was heightened that night, when he indeed let me in.
“I was out with the guys at a bar tonight. We came across this guy, and they kept making fun of him all night because he was…because he was gay.”
It was at this point that he diverted his eyes from me. Continuing on, he said, “I kept telling them to lie off of the guy…but they kept at it…and so I suggested we leave, but while we were, the guy must have been leaving too. They beat him up outside. I tried getting them to stop…but I couldn’t. When they finally left, I stayed and tried to help the guy.”
Joey paused, and his eyes distant. They were distant; they were back at that bar. “He was unconscious…his nose was broken, and his lips was busted. He was bleeding everywhere. I got scared…so I ran. I ran home, and I cried.”
I felt the hair on my arms rising, and I felt colder than I actually was. Yet, Joey wasn’t finished. “God damnit! I left him…because I was scared.”
“Why Joey? You didn’t hurt him. That wasn’t your fault,” I responded.
“I know…but…but it could have been…it could have been…”
“Could have been?”
“Me,” he said. A definite silence followed, and was only broken when he looked back into my eyes, and let me in on his secret. “Mac…I’m gay.”
Maybe it was the reaction I gave, eyes wide and mouth agape, or maybe it was his apparent shame over the truth, but he didn’t look into my eyes after that moment. “I just…I don’t understand it…why can’t people accept people for who they are? Why is different so wrong?”
I couldn’t answer, because I was in shock. After what seemed like forever, the silence was ended with us both parting ways for the night. Joey said he was tired, and wanted to go home to sleep.
I remember my drive home that night as being the longest fifteen miles of my life. I drove without the radio on, and the only noise that was made was that of the turn signal, consistently clicking, trying to con my mind back into normalcy.
* * *
I didn’t speak with Joey for a few weeks after that night, and had another writer cover my basketball games that I missed. I claimed to be sick, but the truth was that I didn’t know what to say to Joey any more. I didn’t know how to approach him. I had never thought of myself as a person that was prejudiced of people based off of their sexual preference, but there I was avoiding a friend because the truth about him being gay came out. As the weeks passed by, I began to ask myself a lot of questions. Was I homophobic?
Was I prejudiced?
The thoughts that I could be was sickening to my stomach. I felt ashamed of how I had avoided Joey, and eventually I found courage to try and apologize.
It was after the last game of the season, and Joey’s fifty points had ensured a playoff berth for his school. I waited till all of the other reporters had finished up before I approached him. The locker room was cleared, and he looked up at me with a frown.
I felt worse at that moment than I had ever felt previously in my life. All I could think of to say was, “I’m sorry…I really am.”
There was a moment of silence between the two of us, and a small smile broke through his features and he nodded. “Okay.”
I conducted the interview, and he was as humble as ever. “The team won it today, not just me. We played great defense.”
I smiled at that comment, and he laughed. “Don’t get all ‘Miracle Man’ stuff on me again, Mac.” I assured him I wouldn’t.
When the interview wrapped up and I stood up to leave, Joey grabbed my arm. I turned and looked at him with my eyebrows raised up.
“We’re cool right?”
I smiled and nodded.
“Okay well,” he said, “because I don’t want the fact that I’m gay to change anything. I don’t want you to have to act differently around me now just because you know.”
“I won’t,” I assured him again.
But at that very moment, something loud stirred, and moved quickly for the exit. We only would see a shadow moving out the door, but we both could tell that it wasn’t good. I never remember feeling sicker in my life.
* * *
It was disturbing how fast the word spread about Joey. In a mere week, it seemed everyone in the state knew, and the backlash was too much to fathom. His own teammates refused to use the same locker room as him, people constantly would make fun of him on his way to classes, and dozens of derogatory letters were sent to him. Faced with such adversity, he did as best he could to continue going to class, and he would act as if no one was speaking when people would yell insults or slurs at him across the quad.
But Joey wasn’t able to overcome all of it. He seemed to have lost a bit of his strength, and in practices he looked slow and out of sync with his game. I attended the playoff game, and he spent the entire first half out of rhythm from the rest of the team. They trailed at half by twelve points. Fans booed him off the court, and he headed for the locker room alone, his normal stature was lower. His shoulders sank, and he disappeared into the back.
He didn’t fare much better in the second half, scoring just ten points in the third quarter. Yet, ‘The Miracle Man’ found some resiliency. With a minute left, he rebounded and brought the team within two points. Joey began playing like he did so many times before giving him the moniker. And if by fate, he was given the ball with seconds left on the clock. He shot from the three-point line for the win as the buzzer sounded.
The ball rolled hit the backboard and held against the back of the rim for a second before falling left of the basket. The referees blew their whistles, and the game ended. Boos echoed rampant, and Joey walked off the court in defeat.
Perhaps what had hurt more than the loss for Joey was how the crowd had gone from praising him to booing him in a matter of days. Perhaps that was what finally broke him.
We’ll never know.
* * *
I received a call the next day from my editor. Joey had been found dead in his room early in the morning. The police ruled it a suicide by drug overdose, a bottle of sleeping pills to be exact. The body was going to be given an autopsy later that day, and the funeral was going to take place in a week.
I was one of the few who attended the funeral. Joey’s grieving mother and a few of his friends were there.
Other than that, it was just me. The service was quick, and the days after his burial were even quicker. When grieving, time moves incredibly slowly, but once that ends, time tends to move faster, like its trying to catch up to the seemingly long time that passed while you were still grieving.
Regardless, I did my best to move on. In the summer, I left my job at The Courier in favor of a job at a television station in Chicago. I worked on the evening newscast as a writer there. Time moved incredibly fast, and before I knew it, it was September again. As much as I tried to forget that first meeting with Joey, I couldn’t. To rid myself of this demon, and the returning guilt of how I had treated him near his death, I decided to return to the campus.
I was three days off of the day I met him, but when I got there, it all felt oddly familiar. I walked to the English Building’s steps where our first interview took place, and I sat down on them. To say I didn’t cry would be a lie.
In an attempt at asking for forgiveness, I began to talk out at the sky.
“Joey, it’s me. Well…I’m sure you know that. I just…I guess…I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how I acted when I found out, and I’m even sorrier that I didn’t defend you more after everyone found out,” I said, feeling less sheepish with each word.
“But I think I’m most sorry about not being there for you after that game. How alone you must have felt…like you didn’t have a friend left in the world. You did, Joey. You did.”
I wiped tears from my eyes, and continued. “I think I finally figured out your question though. People are afraid of what they don’t know, and of what they see as different. They didn’t know you…they just knew about you. But I knew you…and I’ll make sure everyone knows who you are, because this has to end. You were different, Joey. You were the most amazing person I ever met. I’ll make them know.”
I abandoned my attempts at wiping away my tears, and settled for just sitting there waiting for some divine answer. I didn’t expect anything, but to my surprise…I got my answer.
A gentle rain began to fall, and I stood up and stepped away from the steps. Letting the grace my being, I held my face up into the air, and I closed my eyes. With each drop that hit my cheeks, I felt taller…stronger.
* * *\
I suppose that is why I wrote this. I firmly believe that I am a better person for having known Joey and believe that because of his forgiveness that day, I am stronger. If I wasn’t, I couldn’t have written this down.
Joey Randolph wasn’t just another basketball player, and he surely wasn’t just another statistic. Joey Randolph was an influence. Joey Randolph was my hero.
He was a Miracle Man.