Fathers bear witness, even after they are gone: an appreciation for Xavier Tillman

A big part of a father’s job is to bear witness to what his children do.

Fathers come to your little league games. They observe your homework marks and your artwork. They watch you learn to ride a bike or shoot a basket. “Daddy, Daddy, watch me, watch me!”, the child shouts. The accomplishment becomes real, because it is witnessed.

When I became an adult, I made my own life, but it mattered what my father thought. I knew he was proud when I graduated college in three years and got an NSF fellowship at MIT. I knew it mattered when I got married, and then got married again to the right person. He noticed with approval how I treated her, and that validated it. He noticed when I got promoted to vice president and became an analyst and got quoted in the paper. “Heard you on NPR,” he said, and that meant that being heard on NPR was something worth noticing.

He noticed when my books were published (he and my mom called them their “grandbooks”). And of course, he noticed when my children were born and what they grew to become. He never judged. He just bore witness with pride. That mattered.

He’s gone now. But I still think of him when I do something worthy of notice, and that still matters.

About Xavier Tillman

Xavier Tillman was an all-state high-school basketball player in Michigan, and the Big Ten defensive player of the year at Michigan State. The Memphis Grizzlies picked him as the 35th player in the NBA draft in 2020. The rotations of NBA basketball teams are so tight that the 35th-best player in the draft rarely makes an impact.

In February, the Grizzlies traded him to the Boston Celtics. He was dejected to leave his team, but his dad pointed out that he’d have a chance to win a championship, and that made him feel a bit better. His father Roosevelt Tillman had nurtured his talent throughout his childhood and his life and had put in the time and practices to put a young talent on the path to become an NBA-caliber player.

Two things have happened to Xavier Tillman during the Celtics’ playoff run.

During the Celtics’ Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers, on May 19, Roosevelt Tillman unexpectedly died at age 58. Tillman missed a day of that series due to his father’s death. Tillman rarely got into games that mattered, so his absence wasn’t a big deal, but it was certainly a big deal to Tillman, given his father’s role in his life.

The second thing that happened was that Tillman ended up playing significant minutes in the third game of the NBA Championship Finals series between the Celtics and the Dallas Mavericks. Kristaps Porziņģis, Boston’s dominant seven-foot, two-inch center, was unable to play due to a foot injury. Thirty-eight-year-old Al Horford, who has backed up Porziņģis through many injuries this season, started in his place. In past games, when Horford needed a break, the third-string center, Luke Kornet, typically played. But for this series, Boston coach Joe Mazzula determined that Tillman, a more muscular player and a fierce defender, would be the best choice to spell Horford. So Tillman was on the court for 11 minutes in a fiercely fought basketball battle in Dallas.

Tillman drew the assignment to guard Luka Dončić, the nearly unstoppable best player on the Mavericks, and ended up blocking two shots. And in one sequence when the Celtics had the ball, Tillman ended up alone in the corner, ignored by the Mavericks. He figured to be little threat at that distance, having made only 8 three-point shots all season. (By contrast, Jayson Tatum made 609.) Celtics star Jaylen Brown drove towards the basket near the end of the third quarter, drawing multiple Maverick defenders, and then confidently dished the ball to Tillman near the sideline. And Tillman coolly and accurately canned the shot.

Compared to the Mavericks, whose offense is focused on Dončić and one other player, the Celtics’ offense is far more team oriented. On any given play, any player might be in a position to make an impact; the offense moves the ball rapidly until it ends up the hands of the player with the best shot to score. When Tillman’s rare three-point shot swished through the basket, his teammates in green at the far end of the court, including the all-star Tatum, leaped and shouted with glee. They knew Tillman had come up big in his moment, and it was a victory for all of them. And since Dallas ended up coming with a single point of Boston’s total in the fourth quarter, Tillman’s bucket mattered.

As sportswriter Adam Himmelsbach poignantly described in a piece in today’s Boston Globe that was the only sports story I can remember that brought a tear to my eye, Tillman writes notes to his late father about what’s going on in his day. “I just talk to him about whatever I’m feeling going throughout the day,” Tillman said, sitting alone in a quiet corner of the Dallas arena on Thursday. “I tell him how I’m feeling, how much I miss him, and other things like that. It’s just as if I’m having a conversation with him.”

“Look at me, Dad,” I’m sure Tillman was thinking on Wednesday night in Dallas. “Look what I did today.”

Our fathers bear witness, even when they are gone.

Happy Father’s Day.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

One Comment