The Kid with a Big Heart: Elegy for a Fallen Basketball Star

Thomas Lake is the finest young sportswriter in America.  Working for Sports Illustrated, he writes long-form journalism pieces that transcend reporting and cross firmly over into beautiful, profound prose. 

He recently published a piece entitled “The Legacy of Wes Leonard.”  The story (featured in an issue with Jeremy Lin on the cover) follows a young Michigan basketball player who led his team to victory after victory until, just minutes after an incredible come-from-behind win, he collapsed of heart trouble and died.  As with Lake’s story on Darrent Williams, deceased Broncos cornerback, this elegy is long, poetic, and informed by Christian theology (Lake is a graduate of Gordon College).

Here’s a snatch:

After the autopsy, when the doctor found white blossoms of scar tissue on Wes Leonard’s heart, he guessed they had been secretly building there for several months. That would mean Wes’s heart was slowly breaking throughout the Fennville Blackhawks’ 2010–11 regular season, when he led them in scoring and the team won 20 games without a loss.

It would mean his heart was already moving toward electrical meltdown in December, when he scored 26 on Decatur with that big left shoulder clearing a path to the hoop. It would mean his heart swelled and weakened all through January (25 against Hopkins, 33 against Martin) even as it pumped enough blood to fill at least 10 swimming pools.

This heart pounded two million times in February, probably more, heaving under its own weight, propelling Wes’s 6’2″, 230-pound frame along the glimmering hardwood with such precision and force that finally a kid from Hartford gave up on the rules and tackled him in the lane. By March 3, the night of Wes’s last and most glorious game, his heart weighed 21½ ounces, double the weight of a normal heart, and it gave him all he needed from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Then the wiring failed, the current going as jagged as a thunderbolt, and Wes fell to the floor with his big heart quivering.

Read the whole thing.  I cannot wait to read Lake’s first book, whenever it comes.  Those who grew up reading the work of various SI authors will know that the magazine features not merely great sportswriting but great writing, period.  Lake continues that tradition.

(Image:Grand Rapids Press)


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