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Sad goodbye to Danny Roundfield, who died heroically saving his wife

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga -- Danny Roundfield lay in his casket in a room that smelled like roses while the people who loved him lined up to look at his face. It was late Thursday afternoon, 10 days since his death in a foreign country, two days since his body came home. From time to time, in the foyer and the lobby, you would hear his friends talking quietly about how he died. They seemed unsure about it. Most people knew he had drowned, but further details were scarce. The news reports from Aruba had left people wondering.

When the chapel was full, Danny's wife, Bernie, asked people to come up front and tell funny stories about the man in the casket. He would not have wanted people to be so somber. And so they told funny stories about Danny, stories that over time had taken on the quality of myth. They'd been telling these stories all afternoon. There was that time in high school in Detroit when a guy took a shot from the corner and Danny jumped from near the basket and plucked the ball out of the air at the peak of the shot. There was that time when he tried to dunk over Wilt Chamberlain and Wilt plucked him out of the air, flat-footed, and held him by a forearm like a fisherman holding a fish. There was that time he grabbed a rebound eight inches above the rim and would have dunked it except his teammate, Dominique Wilkins, snatched the ball away from above him and finished the job himself. At certain moments during these stories you could feel a shiver of recognition passing through the room, a collective murmur, as if 100 people were saying, all at once, Yes, that's the Danny I knew.

They seemed to agree that Danny had been one of the great NBA players of the last 35 years, and that he had been underappreciated in the media. This might be because he spent the best years of his 12-year career with the Atlanta Hawks, who could never get past the second round of the playoffs. Or maybe it was this: He didn't really care about fame, or even about basketball -- not in the way he cared about his wife of 37 years and his two sons, Corey and Christopher. He could be anonymous even in Atlanta. At Hawks games, people confused him with the famous center Tree Rollins so often that Danny got himself a T-shirt that said, "My Name Is Not Tree Rollins." But he was nice to those who called him Tree, because he liked Tree, and he knew the fans meant no harm.

"Bernie knows who I am," he told Phil Paxton, one of his many best friends. "Corey knows who I am. Christopher knows who I am. My friends know who I am. And that's all that matters."

He lay there in the open casket as light from a pale August afternoon came through the arch-shaped windows at the front of the funeral home. One by one, his friends looked at him, and they spoke to him quietly, and they wiped their eyes. There were a lot of tall men in the crowd, former NBA players you didn't quite recognize, and they lined up to hug Bernie and say nice things. She was strong through the whole thing, unwavering, accepting the flood of condolences with dignity and grace. And when it was over, when the crowd had dispersed, after the sky through the windows had gone from pale blue to the color of summer peaches to the color of ash, she stood in the aisle about 10 feet from the casket and said, quietly, "He died saving me."

It was something she had pledged not to talk about, but now she was talking anyway, saying just a few words on the topic that had so many people wondering.

"If I hadn't cried out to him," she said, deep in thought.

She was asked whether or not she'd spoken that night to the man in the casket, and she said there was not much left to say to him. She'd said it already, down in Aruba.

"Forgive me."

"Forgive me."

In a telephone conversation earlier that day, John Larmonie, a spokesman for the police in Aruba, had given a detailed account of the incident.

Danny and Bernie were on vacation in Aruba. In the early afternoon of Monday, Aug. 6, they were swimming on the southern tip of the island, at a place called Baby Beach. It's called Baby Beach because it's a safe place to swim, and you can bring babies there. The water is clear and the sand is white. The swimming is done in a sort of natural harbor created by reefs and rock formations that keep out the rough Caribbean Sea. But there is a gap in the wall, and the snorkeling is much better outside, although much more dangerous.

The local spearfishermen can tell from looking at the sea whether or not to go past the barrier. Some days the wind is too strong. According to Larmonie, this was one of those days. The wind was close to 35 knots.

Here the story could still use more detail, but it is clear that Danny and Bernie got in trouble in the rough sea. Another woman told the police what she had seen. Bernie needed help and Danny came to her aid. He pulled her in toward the rocks, toward safety, and in so doing he apparently exhausted himself. The woman managed to grab Bernie's hand and pull her in the rest of the way. She could help only one of them. All this time the waves were crashing. She saw Danny and he looked very tired, struggling in the water, and then a wave crashed over him. The woman looked again for Danny but he was gone.

His body might have been lost forever but for a team of local rescuers, professional and volunteer alike, who went out to find it. They searched in the water for close to 90 minutes, putting themselves at risk for the American tourist who had already died. Finally a local boy, a strong swimmer of 16 or 17, found Danny under water, beneath some rocks. They used ropes to help pull him out.

The body was stuck in a bureaucratic tangle for eight days. It was not delivered home until last Tuesday, and then, on Thursday, it was ready for the wake. Danny had been fixed up nicely in a black suit and a white shirt and a red tie so his friends could see him one last time.

It did not matter what they knew about his death, or what they were still wondering. He had left a trail behind him, 59 years of good life, and in that room on Thursday night it was a tangible thing, almost visible, like the incandescent path of a meteorite. Bernie sat there looking at the man who had lived for her, and died for her, the man who was only here tonight because strangers had risked their lives to pull him from the floor of the Caribbean Sea. And now another tall man stood at the front of the room, Ron Behagen, an old teammate from the Indiana Pacers, and he told another funny story about Danny. And then he leaned down toward the casket and kissed Danny Roundfield on the head, and he said, quietly, "Farewell, my brother."

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