Last year, I wrote this piece for my friend George Raveling’s website, coachgeorgeraveling.com, in honor of my dear friend and brother Jeffrey Mark Dingle. Today and every day, I miss him.
Our beloved game of basketball belongs to everybody, not just the legends and great players known around the world. It’s a game that celebrates excellence, cherishes effort and rewards determination. It also has the ability to heal, to soothe, comfort and uplift. Today, it’s the smiles, laughter and great memories, accompanied by the soundtrack of shrieking whistles, bouncing balls and trash-talk that keep me grounded as I wage a brief battle with sadness.
On this day, I’m more somber, reflective and heart-broken than on most others. This year was going to be different, I promised myself. I wouldn’t have to excuse myself in the midst of whatever I was doing to take a short walk, breathe some fresh air and fight back the tears that inevitably come.
But again, just like last year, and the year before and the year before, I was wrong. This year, just like every other since that dreadful, horrific day, my lip still momentarily quivers uncontrollably, my eyes fill and I mourn with the same sense of loss that I felt from the moment I heard the news.
Today, September 11th, is always one of my most difficult days. That’s because in 2001, I lost one of my best friends and a true brother from another mother, Jeffrey Mark Dingle, who was known to many simply as JD.
He was one of the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks on The World Trade Center while attending a breakfast conference at the Windows of the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors of the north tower.
JD was an All-American running back for West Hempstead High School in the mid 1980’s who averaged eight yards per carry as a senior, when he was voted the MVP of the Nassau County Senior All-Star Game. He weighed numerous scholarship offers and was tempted to play his college ball at the University of Virginia.
“They wanted to switch me to wide receiver, but I knew I wanted to play running back,” he once told me.
He became a standout tailback at Villanova University with speed to burn, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound blur who was a nightmare to contain in the open field. JD was also a sprinter for the Wildcats track team. But he was passionate about hoops in a way that drew us together and made us kindred spirits.
Jeff and I pledged the same fraternity in college and became quick friends through that experience. But it was after our college years, on the basketball courts of New York City, where our bond blossomed into something much stronger.
While working in the financial industry as his brilliant and beautiful wife Nichole attended medical school, JD settled in the Bronx. And despite his hectic work schedule and growing family, responsibilities that filled him with a beaming pride, he also became a fixture on the asphalt basketball courts of my Brooklyn neighborhood.
Sometimes, he’d call me bright and early on a Saturday morning, in the afternoon before leaving work or late in the evening when darkness had long since descended on the city, and say the same thing, “I’m coming to Brooklyn so be ready to play some ball when I get there.”
He was the type of guy that drove everywhere with a basketball, Fab Five-era Michigan shorts, tank tops, socks and a couple of pair of sneakers in his trunk , always in search of a good game to play in. Sometimes, he’d pull up with his infant son Jassiem, who we called Jazz, sitting happily in his car seat as Jeff played his favorite pre-game music, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers album.
And we were all more than willing to sit with Jassiem on the park bench to make sure he was cool while his dad was out there breaking a sweat.
I’ll never forget those late night half court, every-man-for-themselves Battle Royales of “21” on the rims behind P.S. 11, the full court games at P.S. 20 in Fort Greene, or at Emerson and Tillary Parks, where’d we walk through those chain link fences with a full contingent of five hungry players who all called out “We got next!”
I remember the games at Harlem’s hallowed Rucker Park on 155th Street with our buddy Big D who lived in the housing projects across the street in the Polo Grounds, and playing with our friends Harlan and Ryan who lived in The Bronx.
And I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of the defenders when I’d receive the outlet pass and quickly pass the ball up court to JD. With his sprinter’s speed, his job was to run like a bullet and make layups. Inevitably, he’d walk off the court after having made a new friend who would tell him, “Man, I’ve never played against anybody that fast before.”
Some of my favorites were the intense 3-on-3 or 1-on-1 games that lasted late into the city night on the courts behind Rothschild Junior High School. Those contests always organically happened after the good-natured trash talk that was the byproduct after another win in an organized tournament sponsored by the YMCA in downtown Brooklyn, where we played with a great mixture of my neighborhood, prep school and college buddies.
Jeff had a smile that could melt an iceberg, a passion for life and the rare ability to make others feel good about themselves. He quickly became a pseudo-celebrity in my own neighborhood, not because of the fancy cars he drove, but because of the way he related to people.
I can’t count how many times, whether it was the barbershop philosophers, the bodega owners, the wino’s on the corner, the hard-working and professional folks who owned their beautiful brownstones or the kids riding their bikes through the streets, who all greeted him with a warm, “Ayo JEFFDINGLE!” as if his name was one word.
He was an incredible father, a loving husband and friend who became my brother thanks to our experiences playing, watching and talking about basketball.
Today, Nichole Dingle is a wonderful mother and an amazingly caring pediatrician who has dedicated her career and talents to serving underprivileged kids. Jassiem and Nia Dingle were 9 and 3 years old respectively when those airplanes crashed into the towers.
Jazz is currently a student at the University of Southern California and Nia is in high school. They are magnificent kids who, like their dad, light up a room with their warm, gentle spirits and sparkling smiles.
Nia and Jassiem
So as today unfolds, let’s all take a pause for the cause and remember those who were lost in the terrible 9/11 tragedy, as well as their families.
As I remember my dear friend, who will always be with me in mind and spirit, every time I see something amazing on the court – I smile, saying to myself – “My man JD would have loved this!”
And I always whisper a few words to him when I feel the depth of his loss overwhelming me. Sometimes, it’s, “Hey JD, did you see what Melo did last night?” or “My man, you would’ve LOVED LeBron and Kevin Durant.”
More often than not, I’ll still talk a little trash, like, “Yo J, remember when I caught some serious hang time and laid you with the left hand, when my fingertips grazed the rim, while you were hacking to stop me from scoring the winning bucket at Emerson Park, when the whole crew leaped off the benches laughing and screaming ‘OOOHH!’? Do you remember that? I miss you, man.”