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Alex Trebek and Sabreena Merchant during her appearance on Jeopardy! this year.

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Alex Trebek was one of us

I will always be grateful to Alex Trebek, who pushed us all to be better.

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I had my first cavity the other day, and thus my first filling, so the dentist gave me a special mouthwash to use for the first few days. The instructions say to rinse for 30 seconds, and that’s my cue to start humming the Jeopardy! theme.

Every time I see directions to do something for 30 seconds, that means it’s the full length Final Jeopardy! music. If it’s 15 seconds, the first verse is good enough. Throughout the pandemic, that’s been my go to for how long to wash my hands. I’m always carrying around a piece of that show with me in some way or another.

For my entire life, Jeopardy! has been synonymous with Alex Trebek, the star of show even though he made it clear he only wanted to be known as the host. Tuning into the program each night isn’t just about playing the game, it’s about spending time with Trebek and his acerbic humor and his occasionally too-French pronunciations, but most of all, his undying love for knowledge and the joy he got being around contestants who felt the same way.

When I learned that Trebek had passed after his nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer over the weekend, it felt like I’d lost a member of my family. He had even embraced the teams of his adopted city, becoming a die-hard Lakers and Dodgers fan; there’s nothing like extolling the virtues of Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell during the Lakers rebuild to make someone immediately feel like one of your own.

Truly, I have spent more time with Trebek — at least as an observer — than just about anyone other than my parents and my brother. He was in my home and everyone else’s for 36 years. No matter how many choices there are on television, there was something about Jeopardy! that makes everyone come back. My guess is Trebek was the key ingredient, and unfortunately, we’ll be able to test that theory in the coming months now that he is no longer around to host the show.

I spent about half of my life trying to get on Jeopardy! It should come as little surprise that I, a rabid sports fan, would have a strong competitive streak. I’ve probably taken the online test at least 10 times, and auditioned in person four times before the finally getting the call to appear on the show this summer. It was a bittersweet moment to earn that opportunity after all these years; obviously, it’s been a lifelong dream, and something I’ve worked towards for a very long time, but under these circumstances, it almost didn’t feel real.

If you’ve watched Jeopardy! this season, you may have noticed that there’s no studio audience anymore. The contestants are a little further apart, and Trebek doesn’t even leave his lectern during the interviews. There are number of other details that have changed because of COVID-19 protocols, and my main concern for much of the taping day was how to drink enough water when I wasn’t allowed to remove my mask indoors. The on-site staff may have thinned down, but there are still eyes on you at all times.

But all of that minutiae sort of faded away the minute Trebek walked on the stage. I always wanted to share by Jeopardy! experience with my brother and the rest of my family and friends, but the most important person was Trebek. So long as he was reading the clues, nothing else really mattered.

My goal was first and foremost to win, but as that possibility went out of reach, my priorities changed. I’ve spent as much time as anyone watching contestant flubs and reveling in Trebek’s condescension when people miss easy clues, but I wasn’t really worried about ending up as the butt of a viral joke. I just didn’t want to let Trebek down. He an arbiter of right and wrong, an authority figure to millions of Americans and other people around the world. He’s our collective television dad. Disappointing him would have been the worst possible outcome.

It would be disingenuous to say that Trebek was as sharp as ever when I got to tape in August, even if it still felt like a superhero had walked into the room. He had friendly banter with all of the contestants, despite the inherent awkwardness of the short interviews. He looked like he was enjoying himself as much as ever, but he also wasn’t as full of energy as he had been in years past. Even still, it remained an absolute delight to hear him recite modern pop culture terminology as only Trebek could.

The highlight of my time on Jeopardy! had to have been after the game ended when he spoke with us three contestants. I was a little miserable, trying to come to terms with the fact that though I had accomplished a life-long goal, the experience was over. I would never again appear on that stage or have the chance to call myself a Jeopardy! champion. But Trebek was so much more upbeat about the outcome. He said that he was happy that each of the three of us had a chance to shine during the game. When I along with the third-place finisher continued to grimace, Trebek doubled down, saying that we each had a moment when we showed why were on that stage.

I truly never expected to be complimented by Alex Trebek, especially not in a game that I lost in a runaway. But the reason Trebek hosted that show, the reason why he was so good at making people fall for a game with such a simple premise, was that he loved learning and being able to share that with not just the contestants, but everyone watching. He wanted the contestants to do well to show that he wasn’t alone in this continued pursuit of knowledge. I got to be a part of his mission, and I’ll always be grateful.

I found ways to carry Jeopardy! with me even before I made my way onto the show, but having spent time in Trebek’s orbit, maybe a more fitting memory would be to continue to live out that spirit: To continuously seek knowledge, to root for the success of others, and to have a genuinely good time while doing it. Even though he’s gone, I still don’t want to let Alex Trebek down.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Sabreena on Twitter at @sabreenajm.

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