“Hey, do you guys mind if my buddy Jonathan comes to join us?”
Doyle Rader, who wrote at the time for Mavs Moneyball and now writes for Forbes, asked Adam Mares, Kirk Henderson, Bram Kinchelo, Ryan Mourton and me as we were sitting down at a blackjack table if we could make room for one more. I heard the request but wasn’t really listening so didn’t really react.
“Tjarks? Hell yeah, it’d be great to see him,” Kirk replied.
“Oh nice I’d been hoping to meet him,” Adam said.
Again, I just kind of carried on without thinking about it. There was blackjack to be played and, well, we were in Vegas, so alcohol had been consumed. My mind was elsewhere.
Doyle must have called Tjarks back and said to head on over because about 15 minutes later (honestly could’ve been any amount of time — because Vegas) there appeared this tall soft-spoken dude with a hat on backwards awkwardly nerd hugging everyone at the table.
I introduced myself and barely got through my first name before my hand was being jovially shaken.
“I know who you are,” Tjarks said. “You’re my favorite Lakers fan.”
Now, this usually goes one of two ways. Either the person who says this means that I am obviously a homer but at least I’m entertaining in my homerism, or that this person likes me because I seem to hate the Lakers more than anyone else they read or listen to.
Neither came, though, and Tjarks laughed when I told him what that usually meant.
“No man I just find you generally entertaining. I love that you are wrong as often as you are.”
Tjarks sat down at the table near Kirk and Doyle and we continued to play. I leaned over to Adam to make a Baby Tjarks joke, he laughed, and Jonathan noticed. I repeated the joke and we all laughed about how big a moron I am.
Eventually, we broke away from the table and started wandering into the Vegas night. I gravitated towards Tjarks because, well, he was Tjarks. Everyone did. For whatever reason, he took an interest in me and we spent most of the rest of the night talking about basketball, about writing, about this weird-ass industry he has figured out and that I was drunkenly stumbling through.
I asked him what it was like working at The Ringer. What Bill Simmons was like. Was there a standing quota for how many nice things you had to say about the Celtics or what he wasn’t allowed to write about Danny Ainge.
(I am not allowed to repeat what he said but I will neither confirm nor deny those rumors)
The night ended and he hopped in a cab as we all climbed into our own Uber back to the house. We shared information but I looked at it much in the same way that most of those conversations at the end of a night go. We got each other’s numbers but I didn’t think he’d have any intention of contacting me again.
The next morning, I squinted through the lingering clouds you find in your head to see that I had a text from Jonathan Tjarks:
“Hey Anthony, had a blast last night. Go Lakers.”
I replied and from that night was born one of the most impactful friendships I’d make to date.
I’ve been debating whether or not to write about Tjarks. I’d only met him that one night a few years ago and haven’t been able to see him since. Yes, we’d text and while he was in the hospital we’d chat, but compared to those who’ve known him a lot closer, it didn’t feel right for me to add to the incredible remembrances of him.
But what I’ve learned over the last week since he’d gone on hospice and eventually passed on is my experience with Tjarks was more than enough to have him impact my life in a very real way. I can’t even try to say the number of people I’ve spoken to who’ve said what I’ve been thinking. How someone could come into your life and immediately improve you through a few conversations here and there.
But that’s what Tjarks did. He made me want to be a better person, father, writer, husband. All of it. He just made you better through this light you could feel in him.
He’d say it was because of his faith, and I’m no one to disagree, but it felt like more than that. We spoke about faith. I struggle with mine, but that didn’t matter to him. He wanted my thoughts on the matter, not to judge, but to learn. And again, he knew I was willing to be wrong about everything else. What made faith any different?
I always knew when Tjarks was getting ready to write about the Lakers. I’d get a text along the lines of, “They aren’t really going to start DeAndre, are they?” I’d reply, “I hate them.” And we’d go from there.
A few days later, there would be a column that explains the Lakers better than I could despite the fact that all I really think about all day is the Lakers.
When he announced that he was battling this rare sarcoma, I reached out to him. I had no idea what to say, obviously, what can you say in that spot? But I texted nonetheless. He asked if he could call and I said absolutely.
I still had no idea what to say but was quickly shot down on any attempt to fix this issue.
“Hey man, can we just talk about basketball? I know the instinct is to talk about this but I’d really much rather just think about something else,” he said.
We continued to have one of the weirdest, but most warmhearted conversations I’ve ever been a part of. From then on, if he was sitting in chemo and wanted someone to talk to, we’d talk. Again, just like that night in Vegas I had no idea why I was fortunate enough to be considered for these chats, but am forever thankful they happened.
One day, after talking about the Lakers trading Russell Westbrook for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, he asked me about my faith — and really wanted to talk about it.
“I don’t know...” I started...
“No, I’m really curious. Tell me about your relationship to God.”
So, here’s the thing. I was raised Catholic. I mostly believe in a higher power. I want to believe we all have a soul and there is a reward at the end of all of this for doing the right thing. But there are aspects of religion that I can’t quite square with how things should go, and in general, am not positive religion as a concept has been a net positive on society because of the things that have been done in the name of whichever higher power you want to point to.
When I told him that, I anticipated judgment. But I shouldn’t have. Instead, I got a long pause.
“Honestly, I get it. It sucks, but I get it. But you have to be able to separate the people — who are inherently flawed — from the concept.”
As usual, Tjarks summarized a nuanced, deep thought in a matter of, what, a few words? This was his gift.
I have battled most of my adult life with alcohol. My worst tendency is to use it as a crutch rather than square the things that are going on in my head, my heart. Tjarks, on the other hand, didn’t drink.
The day I found out he was in hospice care was maybe one of the worst in quite some time. I sat at my counter and sobbed into Jen’s arms. I honestly can’t remember the last time I cried like that, and I’m emotional by nature. It just isn’t fair that his son won’t get to be raised by one of the best people I know.
Fairness is itself, a juvenile notion, though. The first big lesson we learn in childhood in whatever way we do is that life isn’t fair. But it’s how we react to those injustices that defines us as people.
Still, this is just... wrong. Tjarks living to only 34 years old is just fucking wrong. Hell, I’m 35. I shouldn’t outlive that man. But here we are.
Anyway, the day I found out the end to his story, I looked across my kitchen at the decanter and the whiskey in it. Here was a perfect excuse to drink enough to numb my pain and no one would hold it against me.
Drinking like that would also have been the worst possible way to react to this news about someone who gave up alcohol to be the best person he could.
And in that clarity is how I’ll choose to honor his memory. Doing the right thing, no matter how difficult, is how I’ll remember him.
Tjarks was somehow able, through a few conversations over the years, to make me want to be the best person I can, even at the darkest times. Isn’t that what religion tries to get out of people? Isn’t that the point of faith?
Jonathan would argue it is. And he’d be right.
Rest in peace, Tjarks. I can’t wait to laugh with you about the Lakers again.