Chip Hooper lost his battle with cancer, but not before setting Max on a path toward basketball stardom
You hear that sports are silly and shallow and even pointless, and maybe once in a while you even think that yourself. And then you hear the story of Max and Chip Hooper.
In late February, Chip flew from California to Michigan to watch the last regular-season game of his son Max's senior year at Oakland University. Chip had planned to see a whole bunch of Max's games this season, even as he battled cancer, but then, right before the season started, he had a stroke. "The stroke was a whole new ballgame," Max says. "That was transformative."
So Chip missed the whole season until the very end, when he showed up for senior night on Feb. 26 and watched the Grizzlies beat Detroit from a bed in the stands.
Eight days later, on March 5, he died at the age of 53.
But that's not the story of Chip and Max Hooper. That's just the made-for-video moment, and the devastating ending.
This is their story.
Chip Hooper should have been the coolest dad in the world. Other parents perform boring tasks in drab offices, but Chip was a talent agent representing musical acts like Dave Matthews and Phish. You might expect that to buy him some street cred at his own kitchen table, but there was one problem.
"I hated music growing up," Max told me last week. "I didn't develop an appreciation for it until I had friends who liked Dave Matthews, or parents of friends. They'd say, 'Have you met Dave Matthews?' ... 'Met him? What do you mean? That's my friend.' I knew my dad had a great job, but I never thought, 'This is so amazing.' "
To Max, amazing was not a guitar riff or a drum solo. Amazing was an empty gym, a leather ball and nobody looking to kick you out.
Max Hooper was his family's only hoopster; nobody else played basketball or seemed especially interested in it. But Max loved it with the purity and completeness that only a child can feel. He would shoot in his driveway until the sun went down, then make his mom turn on the car headlights so he could shoot some more. He used a ball-gun machine to practice his shot "until I couldn't feel my arms. It was addictive for me. I just built my shot through extreme amounts of repetition."
Max's childhood bedroom is still filled with basketball posters, signed basketballs and sneakers. At meals, Max would quiz the rest of his family about basketball stats; eventually, they knew the answers because he asked so much.
Chip figured out what the best parents understand: You can choose to bond with your kids, but you can't choose how you do it. That's up to them. So Chip became a basketball fan.
"Basketball is Max's whole world," says Max's younger sister, Valerie, a Duke student who took classes in California this term to care for her dad. "It became a big part of my dad's life, too, because Max is a big part of his life."
Most of their conversations were about basketball. At night, Chip would tell Max, "I believe in you." And Max would say, "I believe in myself."
Chip would say: "I believe in your dreams." And Max would say: "I believe in my dreams."
And Chip would say, "You're going to make them all come true." And Max would say, "I'm going to make them all come true."
That's another made-for-video scene, but Max says Chip's example was "far more than words. It's his work ethic and his drive, the way he raised me."
Chip was diagnosed with cancer in November 2011. Max was a freshman at Harvard when he got the news. "I almost viewed my dad as invincible," he says, and he remembers sitting in his Harvard dorm, stunned.
A cancer diagnosis can strengthen a relationship. This relationship didn't need strengthening. Max and Chip kept talking almost every day, usually about basketball, the way they always did.
When Max picked up a ball, Chip's health challenges were a strange kind of liberating: "What worries can I have on the court?" he said. "Anything I have to deal with is completely minor." He transferred from Harvard to St. John's, where he barely played but never gave up. Gyms and circumstances changed, but the game never did.
Eventually, Max landed at Oakland, where he became both an integral player for a potential NCAA tournament team and a curiosity: Every one of his 229 field-goal attempts this season has been a three-pointer. Back in California, Chip watched on TV, often yelling at it—ignoring what was happening to his body, as engrossed by the game as Max always was. Valerie arranged for her father to fly to Michigan for that last home game, and when it ended and Oakland had won and earned the No. 2 seed in the Horizon League tournament and Max ran into the stands and barreled past his sister to get to his dad, Chip asked his son: "So we just clinched a two-seed? Who do we play?"
Said Max: "Since I first fell in love with the game at four years old, it's been him and me on the journey."
And that is the real story of Max and Chip Hooper, the story that Max will carry with him for the rest of his life.