Why do I love sports? Allow me to introduce you to ‘Free-Throw Tom’

We really miss sports. So much so that during the pandemic we've asked ourselves a question: What was *the* moment or reason that we fell in love with sports in the first place?

This story below is from USA TODAY Sports' Scott Gleeson.

But we also want to hear (and share) your stories as well. Don't miss a memory by signing up for our daily newsletter, where we'll be spotlighting our stories – and yours. 

Email us at [email protected] to share the moment or reason that you first felt *that* connection with sports. Send us pictures if you can. We want to publish your stories on USA TODAY Sports and share it with our community.

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I still remember hearing the sound of banging pots and pans from my neighbors outside. The Chicago Bulls had just won their fourth NBA championship, capping off a historic 72-win season. Everyone in the Chicagoland neighborhood was celebrating.

I don’t recall actually watching those games at age 6. But I remember realizing through that experience what some guy named Michael Jordan meant to my father, Tom. MJ was an athlete and icon whose willpower and “competition problem” felt synonymous with the way my dad lived his life: proving others, anyone who doubted him, wrong.

Scott Gleeson and his dad after Scott graduated from Illinois State University. (Photo: Scott Gleeson)

Once I grew old enough to go to basketball camps, my dad planned the family finances around me attending. At one camp when I was in 7th grade, I found myself in the same high school gym that my father played in back in the late 1960s. Having told me growing up that he was just an “average” player, I was astonished to see a photo in the high school’s trophy case of him being carried off the court.

My cousin and I pried the information out of my grandmother and it was revealed that he won a lot of games for his high school team at the free-throw line. I found out later my dad had made 108 free throws in a row back in his "prime."

The next day at the camp, I created “Free-Throw Tom” sweatbands out of old Nike socks for the camp’s free-throw contest. I shot 47-for-50 after rubbing the sweatband as part of my pre-shot routine. Ever since, I wore the superstitious sock throughout high school to keep the family free-throw legacy going.

When my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in 2010, and I was still finishing my senior year in college 12 hours away, I wanted to do something to let him know I was still with him in spirit. I shaved my head to show him chemotherapy wouldn’t be his battle alone. And I re-created two “Free-Throw Tom” sweatbands — one for him and one for me — to capture how we’re forever linked through sport. During that 18-month cancer fight, we both wore our sweatbands every day.

USA TODAY Sports' Scott Gleeson keeps his dad close. (Photo: Scott Gleeson)

When we buried my father in 2012, he was wearing his sweatband on his right leg in the casket. Every day, I wear my raggedy sweatband on my right leg to commemorate the fact that my best friend is still with me, helping me manage life’s struggles through the sport we both loved together.

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On the eighth episode of “The Last Dance,” I felt an overwhelming sense of déjà vu and serendipity when Jordan was shown gripping a basketball and sobbing following the Bulls’ fourth NBA title. He had won it on Father’s Day and it was his first ring without his dad by his side. Needless to say, I related to those emotions that were pouring out of Jordan — missing his best friend. That emptiness doesn’t go away. But the common thread of basketball helps fill some of the void.

We all have our story of how we fell in love with sports. One memory or moment. Mine was a confluence of moments related to basketball. When I coach grade-school hoops nowadays, I leave an empty chair for my assistant coaching father up in heaven. When I write about college basketball bracket-busters and underdogs, the teams that like to prove the world wrong just like my dad did, I think of the time in his hospital room six days before he passed. We were watching March Madness together — just the two of us — and he was already in heaven. He had his son and he had his sport.

There was no need to escape anything anymore. Those moments that sports give us can’t be put into words. When they come back for good, I know I’ll be banging my own pots and pans this time. 

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