Pops

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“Go to work.”

That was the message my dad would always text me before games. Of course, that was never a problem for me because I always went a little bit harder knowing he was probably watching me, whether it was in the stands or on TV.

My dad had two daughters that he loved very much, but I was his only boy. My mom and I have always been close, but my relationship with my father was something special. And because I was his only son, my dad gave me everything. He gave me a jump shot. He gave me love. And he gave me his name, Wayne.

But I liked to call him Pops.

He was the first person to put a basketball in my hands, and he guided me along as I learned how to use it.

You know how in youth leagues coaches can sometimes be a little harder on their kids to prove that they don’t play favorites?

Yeah, my dad wasn’t like that.

He was my coach at the YMCA in Philadelphia when I was little, and he pretty much just gave me the green light to do whatever I wanted. I was the biggest guy on the team, but he let me play point guard so I’d have the ball in my hands most of the game. And then he’d cheer like crazy when I balled out on those poor kids in that rec league. I’d be showing off handles, through the legs, behind the back, flash, sizzle — the type of stuff that a lot of coaches might bench you for — and my dad would be rooting me on louder than anyone else in the gym. That was his personality. He just loved watching me play basketball.

We used to watch games together all the time. As a Philly kid, I kept up with the 76ers. But Pops would always make sure that I also closely studied another Philly kid, Kobe Bryant. I loved sitting with my dad and watching Kobe play, admiring the rhythm and style to his game. For us, it was almost like looking at a beautiful painting in a museum. That’s Kobe’s game.

As I got more serious about basketball, my dad got more serious as well. But when I was just a kid all he wanted was for me to have fun. He knew there was plenty of time for critical coaching. What he wanted was for me to love the game of basketball first, and then to really learn it. That love of the game was one of his gifts to me.

He’d cheer like crazy when I balled out on those poor kids in that rec league.

Once I got older and colleges started calling, he gave me a lot of advice. But he never put any pressure on me. He treated it more like a celebration. Like, What a blessing that after all our hard work, I had these great schools that were interested in me.

The one university that everyone in my family completely agreed on was North Carolina. Whenever I was on campus with my parents, they were both so happy. In college, Pops would come to most of my games. I’d always look for him in crowd, and I could tell what he wanted to say to me just by making eye contact with him.

When he couldn’t make it to a game, he was still always present in my life. We’d communicate through text messages constantly. He’d give me advice, or just try to lift me up if he thought I needed it.

He was there in 2009 when I won a national championship. In fact, one of the things I remember most about that night was looking in the stands as the confetti was raining down and seeing him up there with my mom and my sisters just losing their minds. It looked like they were even happier than I was.

And of course, I’ll never forget the night I was drafted. That was a special thing for so many reasons, but it really felt like something my dad and I had earned together. What I didn’t think about until years later is that when I was picked, the commissioner was calling both of our names. And I just remember how proud he was. He lifted both his arms in the air and screamed. He was so happy for me.

When I started playing in the league, I would travel all over, but he’d still contact me before games with encouragement. It became part of my pregame routine, texting back and forth with him. No matter where I was, he was there.

When I joined the Lakers, well, he was over the moon. I mean, I was going to play with Kobe. Imagine that?

Last year I was in L.A. and we had a night game against Charlotte. I usually have a pretty set routine that I’ll follow on game days, but for one reason or another I decided to mix things up that day. Before my pregame nap, I decided to take a walk, which I never really do. I’m not sure what inspired me that day. It wasn’t particularly nice or sunny, it was just … calm. When I got back home, I took my nap and woke up to see that he’d texted me, as usual. We hadn’t won a game yet that season and he said: “Tonight’s going to be your first one.”

And then, “Go to work.”

We did. We ended up winning that game, and I remember how good that felt. In the locker room afterward, everyone was excited. I got out of the shower and was laughing with my teammates, and when I looked down at my phone I noticed that I had a bunch of missed calls. They were all from my sisters and my mom. I knew something was wrong because they would usually never call me during a game. As I was holding my phone a call came through and it was from my then fiancée. She was crying. I asked if everything was O.K., I thought maybe something happened to someone in her family. It was hard to understand her, but she just kept saying, “I just need to talk to you. Come out of the locker room.” That’s when I got really scared.

When I approached her outside the locker room, she was shaking.

“Somebody got shot.”

There were tears streaming down her face.

“Who? Who got shot? Who?”

She looked at me, barely able to get the words out.

“It’s your dad.”

I immediately felt sick.

“What do you mean? Where did he get shot?”

“His head.”

When she said that, I already knew what had happened.

If he was still alive, that would have been the first thing she told me. But he wasn’t. A man had approached him while he was sitting in his car and shot him twice in the head. No motive was ever given. Nothing about it made sense. When you get news like that, it kind of overloads your emotions. There are too many things going through your mind at once to process. I just collapsed to the ground.

Losing a parent suddenly like that makes you grow up quick. All at once you’re forced to view the world in a slightly different way. There’s one less person you can truly lean on and trust. You stop taking certain things for granted. You start reflecting on all the time you spent together. The good, the bad, you want to take it all in. Going through something like that makes you realize how precious your memories of your loved ones truly are.

The Lakers did everything they could to accommodate me after getting the news. They granted me an indefinite leave from the team so that I could go back to Philly for the funeral and be with my family. We were all there together to bury him. The funeral itself was kind of crazy; there were so many people there to support us. Even A.C. Green said something during the service. All of that meant a lot, but at the same time, it was almost a distraction. It isn’t until everyone leaves — and it’s just you and your close family — that things really start sinking in and the real mourning begins.

After a few days of sitting around kind of stunned, I realized that what I wanted was some normalcy. Being away from basketball only made things more difficult. The game is my sanctuary. When you’re on the court, shooting, everything else just kind of leaves you. I reached out to Mitch and Byron and told them that I wanted to get back to the team. They said they would support me if that was my wish.

My voice is starting to sound more like him. It shocks my sister sometimes when we get on the phone. But I kind of love that.

I know Pops would have wanted me back out there. I always felt like I was playing this game for both of us. I’m living both of our dreams. And to this day, I still feel closest to him when I’m on the court, because I know he’s watching me. He always was.

I still have really bad moments, when I feel so alone and just want to talk with him. And that’s usually when I’ll start scrolling through our text message chain, reading all those notes and bits of wisdom that made me the person I am today.

Over time, I’ve realized my father is still very much alive through me. I recognize these little parts of myself that are clearly inherited from him. It’s more than just my athleticism, although I do owe him that. But it’s also just the way I walk. We have the same stride. Or my posture when I sit. Little mannerisms like that. As you get older, that’s the stuff you notice. My voice is starting to sound more like him. It shocks my sister sometimes when we get on the phone. But I kind of love that. I really treasure the parts of myself that are clearly from him.

One of my main focuses now is making sure more families don’t suffer the same loss that mine did. That’s how I really want to honor Pops.

This past fall, I went to the Peace tournament in Chicago. The whole purpose of the event is to bring teenagers from neighborhoods that have a lot of gun violence together for a basketball tournament. The idea behind bringing these kids together in the same place is to show them exactly how similar they really are. They should be brothers, not enemies.

Honestly, I empathize with these kids. They have no idea how big the world is, or how much their actions can affect their future and the lives of others. They don’t understand that the bad situation they’re in now is temporary. They can get out.

I’m planning on bringing the Peace Games to Philadelphia this coming fall. My hope is that the kids there can start to see the bigger picture. I want to encourage them to have goals. My dad served as such an important mentor to me. He encouraged me to dream. He saw my potential even before I did, and gave me this belief in myself that made me feel invincible.

Maybe I can give that to another kid who needs it.

Maybe I can help a kid who just needs to be told that it’s not impossible to escape their situation — that their ambitions aren’t too big. Maybe that will save them from making a horrible mistake. That’s all I’m hoping for.

One day, I’m going to have kids, and I’m looking forward to telling them about Pops. I’m going to tell them about how he used to coach me at the Y. And how excited he would be to get them started in basketball, and to teach them how to shoot a fade like Kobe. And I’m going to tell them how much he would have loved them, and how his love now exists through me.

It took one senseless act to take my father away from me forever. One instant to cause me pain from which I’ll never fully heal. But whenever I’m really down, I remember that Pops wouldn’t want me to be sad or sulk. He’s up there, looking down on me, so proud. He wouldn’t want me to sit around and miss him. So to truly honor him, I’m going to try to make something positive come out of this terrible situation. I’m going to help be part of a change that needs to happen.

I’m gonna go to work.

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Follow Wayne Ellington on Instagram and Twitter for more information on the Power of W.E. campaign.

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