Swish. That's a basketball word for a shot that drops right through the hoop without hitting the rim - nice, clean, graceful. I haven't always known or cared much about professional sports, but after 20 years of marriage to a die-hard NBA fan, I've learned a few things. And after raising two children in a sports-mad world, I've come to care about how - or whether - professional athletes translate their athletic finesse into equally refined personal behavior.
It's not basketball season yet, but I was thinking about this because the fall sports season starts soon in schools and living rooms everywhere. So consider this a preemptive shot - an image of a star athlete behaving well, acting honorably and unselfishly, and all this without a network crew standing by to get it on the evening news.
Eighteen years ago, my 10-month-old daughter and I were returning to L.A. from a family trip to Detroit. As we struggled off the plane into the terminal, I realized I had too many bags - my daughter in her plastic carrier, her diaper bag, my flight bag, and a shopping bag. We tottered toward the escalator and just made it.
As I stepped on, I realized my child was precariously close to taking her first solo ride down the escalator. As I struggled to steady her on my arm, I heard a calm voice behind me say, "Would you like some help?"
I looked up and saw a tall, nicely dressed businessman with a gentle grip on the carrier and his other hand stretched out to relieve me of my shopping bag. Gratefully, I released the bag into his hand with a "thank you."
We rode in silence for a brief moment. He was the first to speak. "I just had a baby daughter, and I have to travel a lot," he said. "I really miss her. I guess I'm sort of hoping someone, somewhere, might do the same for her and her mom when I can't be there."
"What sort of business are you in?" I asked him, noticing that, unlike most of the people on the plane, he was not in vacation garb but in full executive attire, from a crisp white shirt and dark tie to pressed pants and polished shoes.
He hesitated before answering with a large friendly smile, "Athletics."
We arrived at the bottom of the first escalator, and he easily swung my daughter under his arm for the brief walk to the next escalator.
"What kind?" I asked.
This time he stopped, looked at me, and said, "Basketball."
"Do you play or are you in management?"
"Oh, I play sometimes."
Then I nodded and asked if he enjoyed it.
"Mostly," he said.
Then as we stepped onto the next escalator, he turned the conversation to me: Why was I coming to Los Angeles? Did I have family? Was I on vacation? Did I like having a baby daughter? It was the friendly banter parents use to connect with strangers everywhere.
By this time we had reached the baggage claim area, and it was hard to talk as he commandeered a porter and corralled all our bags. Only after we had navigated the final press of people to reach the exit did I realize he'd shepherded my daughter the entire time, and it was time to relieve him of the precious cargo.
I reached for her and started to say thank you when another thought occurred to me.
"Unlike me, my husband knows a lot about basketball and might know your name," I said. "Who do you work for?"
As he handed my daughter back to me, he said, "I work for the Detroit Pistons." He added with another big smile: "Ask him if he knows Isiah Thomas."
I nodded and said that I would. After we cleared the final baggage inspection, handing over our tags, the outside doors of the terminal opened.
A crowd of young women and security guards pressed in toward Isiah Thomas. He turned and asked me one more question as he was engulfed by his fans: "How are you getting home?"
I told him I would grab a shuttle and not to worry. As he was being tugged away, he made a face at me and shook his head. Then he called to a driver at the nearby curb and pointed to me. The driver leaped to grab my luggage and to install me and my daughter inside the backseat of a limousine. Isiah reached over the heads of several fans to pay the man.
As we pulled away from the curb, I looked back and saw his large, muscular hand lift above the crowd to wave us on our way.
No doubt it was just goodbye. But it looked remarkably like the graceful follow-through of a ballplayer who's just landed the perfect net shot.
Swish, Isiah Thomas.