Two days before the 2011 NBA All-Star Game, I got the kind of call you never want to get. It was from a friend back home in Oklahoma.
“Hey Blake,” she said. “Things aren’t going good with Wilson.”
Wilson was my best friend. These calls were routine, but this time, something was different in her voice. I could tell it was bad. Wilson had been been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma for almost three years. Not that you’d ever know it by talking to him. He’d never let you know how he was feeling. He was always good, always smiling. I’d have to wait until my mom got the scoop from his mom to find out how he was really doing.
The last text I had from him was about basketball, like always. He was supposed to fly out to Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend, and we had been talking about it for weeks. It was all set up perfectly — it was going to be my first All-Star Game, and I was in the dunk contest, and it was at the Staples Center.
We had dreamed about this kind of moment ever since we became friends. Naturally, we met on a basketball court. One day when I was 13 years old, I was practicing with my AAU team when this huge kid came walking through the double-doors. He was the new kid, and he was a monster. He would’ve been intimidating as hell, except he came walking up to us with the biggest, goofiest smile imaginable.
We were instant friends, and I’m not talking about the kind of friends that just play ball together. We spent thousands of hours sitting around in the pre-YouTube era watching stuff like Harold and Kumar, Chappelle’s Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Just hanging out and laughing.
We were destined to be friends.
The guy was never in a bad mood. I have never seen a person more happy just to sit around with his friends and laugh.
I’ll never forget this one time, we were at some AAU travel tournament, staying in a tiny hotel, and we had to sleep four guys to a room. There were only two beds. Every night, Wilson always did this very precise moisturization routine where he would shower before he went to sleep, and when he came out of the shower, he would put on his cocoa butter.
But I’m talking a thick, thick lather.
He was legendary for the amount of cocoa butter he’d use. Like, it was a known thing.
So me and my two other friends are laying in bed, and Wilson comes out of the shower. Already we’re laughing, because we know it’s coming.
He gets out the cocoa butter, and he goes in.
Finally, once he’s satisfied with his moisturization, he goes to lay down on his side of the little bed, and it’s dead silent in the room … the lights are off …
… And you could hear him sliding all around in the sheets.
We all started cracking up. Every time it calmed down and got silent for a few seconds, you’d hear him shift in bed again like Ffffssshhhhtt.
Wilson would start laughing, then everybody would be laughing again.
Those are the stupid memories I think about now when I’m all alone. If you had told us back then that one of us would be playing in the All-Star Game some day, and we’d all get to experience it together, we would’ve been just so, so happy.
In February 2011, it was all happening for real. My buddies were all coming out, and it was going to be awesome. Wilson just had to pass a few tests so the doctors would let him fly from Oklahoma to L.A.
… Only he didn’t pass them.
I’ll never forget him calling me to break the news.
It was pretty devastating, but he had cancelled trips before for the same thing. He just kept on smiling and joking around. He didn’t let it get him down. Then, a few days later, we were on the road in Minnesota, getting ready to play the Wolves, I got the call from my friend back home. Her voice was different. She gave me the full story. Wilson was in the hospital again, and it was serious.
I went out onto the court that night, and basketball took over. I forgot about everything going on in the outside world. Then the game ended, and I was doing an on-court interview with a reporter, and as soon as I turned away to walk to the tunnel, it was like everything came rushing back in.
I remembered. And I got a really terrible feeling.
When I got to the locker room, I almost didn’t want to look at my phone, but finally I did. Three missed calls.
One from my mom. One from a friend. One from another friend.
I called them all back. No one answered. I wouldn’t wish that moment on my worst enemy. Because you already know … You’re just waiting …
After a minute or two, my mom called me back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I think I hung up. There were no words to even say. I broke down completely in the locker room.
Even when I heard the words “Hodgkin’s lymphoma” for the first time, I thought he’d beat it. He’s Wilson. It’s just not possible. He’s the happiest dude on the planet. The world doesn’t work like that.
Even when I knew his health was declining, it still didn’t feel real. He’s Wilson … It doesn’t work like that.
When he was really gone, it didn’t feel real.
The world shouldn’t work like that.
In the days and weeks after Wilson’s death, the outpouring of love for him from Oklahoma, where we grew up, and from the University of Tulsa, where he played football, was truly amazing. Wilson had pushed himself from an unknown redshirt freshman to the heart and soul of Tulsa’s winningest football team in school history. Yes, he really played football with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They even custom-made his shoulder pads to cover up the chemotherapy port in his chest. Nothing would stop him from doing what he loved and having fun every day, not even chemo.
There is no question in any of our minds why, out of 460,000 student athletes, Wilson received the 2009 NCAA National Courage Award.
A lot of people know about Wilson’s death, but I want you to know about how he lived. Because it’s a lesson for all of us.
In high school, I had this running joke where any time Wilson would do something goofy or hilarious, I’d write it down in a book. But I didn’t actually have a real book. It was all imaginary.
So, for example, if he was talking to a girl he had a crush on at the lunch table, and he said something awkward, I’d pretend to pull the book out from underneath the table, and I’d do a whole routine where I’d leaf through the book slowly, find the right page, and then thoughtfully jot down his latest entry.
The key was that it was just our thing. It had to be very low-key. I wanted him to see me out of the corner of his eye while he was still trying to talk to the girl.
Over the years of our friendship, the book got pretty thick. But I had completely forgotten about all of this until a few weeks ago when I was going through some old stuff in my closet.
I found this yellow and black notebook with a sticker of my face on the front cover. It was an extremely embarrassing photo, of course.
On the cover, there was some familiar handwriting. It just said, “The Book.”
200 Pages. Wide Ruled. The classic school notebook.
I opened it up, and on the first page, there was a message from my old friend:
So I thought you should have an actual hard copy of my great and idiotic moments that you are always writing me up for, instead of your invisible notebook. I thought I might get you started with some past ones.
It was a gift from Wilson from 2009, when he was going to school at Tulsa, and I was already in the NBA. I had sent him a laptop because his old one had crashed. It was nothing. He didn’t even have to thank me. But he took the time to do something that he knew would make me laugh, and make me remember the stupid things we used to do in high school.
Written inside the pages were inside jokes that only my friends and I would understand.
- The Sonic Drive-Thru crash
- Trying to date [name redacted]
- Fazoli’s Italian Fast Food crash
- “The Letter Opener”
- Trying to date [name redacted] after you, Justin and Tucker warned me not to …
After entry No. 13, there was full page of blank space. It was reserved for the future.
I sat with the notebook for a long time. Through all the dark times that he faced, Wilson just kept smiling. He kept laughing, even at himself. He was the best friend you could ever have.
One night, I called him up just to talk, and after a few minutes, he said, “Hey, do you mind if we text instead? I have these sores in my mouth from chemo, and it really hurts to talk.”
That was the only time he ever let me know about his pain. Five seconds later, he was texting me goofy stuff again, like nothing was happening.
With the holidays coming up, I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend lately. I could tell a million stories about the kind of person he was, but the only way you can understand is by really seeing him live his life. Over the past year, my friends and I have been working on a feature-length documentary about Wilson’s life that we hope will inspire people to think about their own lives.
The clip from the film below tells the story of Wilson’s comeback to the Tulsa football team after grueling chemotherapy treatments. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that he wasn’t content to just stand on the sidelines.