I sat at the kitchen table finishing my 5th grade homework when the telephone rang. My dad interrupted my academic thoughts and announced that someone wanted to talk to me. I stared at his grinning face and cautiously took the phone.
“Hello, Lori?” I heard on the other end. “This is Dan O’Leary! I just wanted to thank you for your letter!” I stared wide eyed at my dad, trying to absorb every word that my favorite basketball player had to say.
My family had season tickets for University of Tulsa basketball, and we rarely missed a game. We sat right behind the visiting team; our awesome seats offered a perfect view of all the action. Often I invited a friend to come, and we giggled and yelled mature things at the opponents like, “Sit down, Coach!” or “It’s all over (clap clap clapclapclap).” Basketball was one of my favorite sports, and every time we walked into the arena I felt like a celebrity with front row seats to an NBA game.
Of all the players on the Tulsa basketball team, my favorite player was #43 Dan O’Leary. I cheered extra loud for every basket and felt protective of him if he made a mistake. I noticed his assists more than the baskets that followed. He was my Michael Jordan. I loved the way he played, how hard he worked, and I thought he was really cute.
One day, I decided to send Dan O’Leary a letter. I remember choosing my best stationery, struggling to use my best handwriting, and trying to write something eloquent and cool about how I was his biggest fan and loved how well he had played in recent games against ORU or Wichita State.
I have no memory of anything else that I wrote and have no idea how I even knew where to mail the letter. I just know that about a week later, our phone rang, and Dan O’Leary was inviting me to shoot baskets with him one day after school.
My dad called the school principal, and she scheduled an afternoon when I could meet with Dan O’Leary in the school gym. It was like Christmas Eve all week as I counted the days until the big event. As soon as the school day ended, I ran to change and nervously paced inside the gym. I suddenly stopped when I saw my dad walking through the door next to the tallest man I had ever seen. I ran over and hugged my dad and then stared up at my basketball hero. We shook hands, with the firmest grip I could offer, and I told him that he looked a lot taller in person. We grabbed a couple basketballs and starting shooting some baskets. He asked me about my basketball team, about my friends, and if I had any questions for him. He gave me some secret tips on how to improve my free throws, and we both laughed as I made about five in a row. The afternoon ended, and I asked him for his autograph. He wrote, “To Lori. One day you will be signing one of these for me. –Dan O’Leary #43” After hugging that note for hours, I displayed it prominently in the middle of my bulletin board where it remained until I left for college.
Years later, I still find myself thinking about Dan O’Leary. (His name is one of those names where the first name just cannot be separated from the last name so he is never Dan but always Dan O’Leary!) He was most likely a junior in college when he took the time to come and visit me at my elementary school. I am sure he had a full schedule of academics and athletics, not to mention all of the other activities that fill the day of a college student. But he made time for me. He took time out from his busy schedule to come and shoot baskets with a wide-eyed eleven year old, and the hour he gave has impacted the rest of my life.
Years later, when I was in high school, I had the opportunity to hit tennis balls with a professional tennis player who will remain nameless. She was the resident pro at the location where my family was vacationing and somehow my dad arranged an hour hitting session for me. It was one of the worst hours of tennis I can remember. She never asked me my name, talked to someone on the sidelines the entire time, and acted annoyed that she had to hit tennis balls with some random high school girl.
Dan O’Leary was the first person who came to mind as I sheepishly left the tennis court. It is one thing to be gifted and talented in a sport or profession. It is another thing all together to humbly use your gifts to encourage and help other people. I am forever grateful to Dan O’Leary, not just for the fact that he made a 5th grader’s dream come true, but also for how much he taught me about character, kindness, and how much of a difference it can make to share your time and talent with someone else.