Some people need to see to believe, while others need to believe in order to see. My Uncle Bushy was a believer. As a grandson of a rabbi, Bushy was born into a faith that he applied not only to his spiritual life, but more resourcefully, toward his relationship with basketball; Bushy was a Cleveland Cavalier fan.
For 45 years, Neil “Bushy” Gabay lived in Akron, OH, where he and his wife, Puk Sug, raised a family in their cozy two-story Tudor on Kennebec Ave. His four kids all graduated from East Akron High School. Seemingly from a timeless era, his house, neighborhood and favorite basketball team certainly did not change all that much over four decades of wonderful familial memories and basketball heartbreaks.
Bushy was raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY, and moved to Akron in 1972 to become a radio news announcer and college English teacher. He was not an Ohio sports fan in sum; he was simply a Cavaliers fan. And he wasn’t particularly interested in any professional sports—save for basketball.
Akin to the many who know and love the game, Uncle Bushy appreciated the lyrical hardwood artistry of the world’s greatest athletes. A poem of his titled, “Free Ballet” opens with the line, “Plié members of the NBA.”
Though generally less rabid and more graceful in his approach toward basketball as a functioning member of society (who had a career, served his country’s military, wrote a book and lived a full family life) his Cavalier fandom consumed a real and legitimate space in his world. For instance, he frequently visited his daughter in Los Angeles because he couldn’t get Cavs games on TV out there.
Speaking with him on the day of his wife’s funeral earlier this year, he shared, “For the first time ever, I missed two Cavs games in a row.” Framing the loss and hurt in a way that made sense to him.
Although he attended only a handful of games and owned just a few Cavs t-shirts and hats, Bushy was faithful watching the Cavs on Fox Sports Ohio with Austin Carr and Allie Clifton on his 32-inch flat screen in his Akron living room. This was Bushy’s version of bliss.
In 2000, the hobby of being a basketball enthusiast in Akron became a full-time job when LeBron James, the West Akron sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s, began to emerge. Stories of the gifted man-child started to appear in the local print and TV news. Bushy read and tuned in and proudly spread word of the Akron prince soon-to-be king.
As the media coverage and LeBron’s legend grew, so did Bushy’s connection to the hope whom resided in the same 330 area code. Bushy followed every bounce of the Chosen One’s journey and on June 26, 2003, when LeBron was drafted No. 1 by the Cavs, Uncle Bushy, echoing Moses from the Bible, exclaimed, “If not now…when?” convinced that the city’s championship drought would soon end.
The when and now seemed to merge rapidly as Cleveland got to the 2007 Finals. Three years later, the Talmudic ordination of a Cleveland victory coronation was derailed when #23 fractioned off and transformed into No. 6 for Miami.
Bushy cheered for the Cavs, but was also a LeBron fan. He certainly never rooted for the Heat, but being a man of faith and fairness, made it a point to give LeBron the credit he was due. Regarding the decision, Bushy offered, “He raised a lot a money for charities that night.”
Using Bushy’s high-road teachings as antecedent, I did a piece in last year’s SLAM Throwback issue about the positive and sustainable educational opportunities which ESPN’s “The Decision” provided for the New Haven Boys and Girls clubs.
Uncle Bushy was a man of words, literature and language. Indeed, he was a gifted locution actor with a booming dulcet voice. But on July 11, 2014, the traditionalist communicator sent me the only text that I was ever to receive from him: “LeBron is back…Good luck with Melo!”
That summer Bushy worked as an usher at the University of Akron Stadium during the LeBron James Foundation “Welcome Back Celebration” where King James informed the community of his initiative to provide scholarships and tuition support toward his hometown university.
The next month I received an envelope in the mail. Inside was an article in the Sunday, August 17 Akron Beacon Journal about the “LeBron Effect” and how people who leave Northeast Ohio for greener pastures, eventually return. Along with the news clipping was a handwritten note saying, “57 days until the NBA season opens.”
On Bushy ‘s 80th birthday, two weeks into LeBron’s return, our family all gathered in Ohio to celebrate with him at a Cavs game. The homecoming year was more difficult than anticipated for both the Cavs and for Bushy. Later that season, Bushy’s wife, my aunt Puk Sug was diagnosed with Bile Duct Cancer.
Between doctor appointments, preparing a specialized diet, and taking care of her, Bushy welcomed the visual beauty and purposeful distraction of the repurposed Cavs as they began to build and find their identity. He also stayed fit by playing in a weekly 80 and over pick-up game at the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium.
Bushy was a dedicated Cavs fan, but when his life’s real purpose and passion—his wife—passed in late December 2015, midway through this season, Bushy was soon to follow. He died four months later of what was essentially a broken heart.
The last time I saw Uncle Bushy was at his home in Akron after his wife’s funeral, where he was optimistic regarding new head coach Tyronn Lue’s up-tempo system and use of the bench. He also continued with his ongoing rant assessing an unfair officiating bias against JR Smith whose contribution he felt was key in getting a Championship. He smiled confidently when I asked if he believed that Anderson Varejao would lose in the Finals two years in a row!
Throughout this year’s Playoffs, Bushy’s eldest son David, placed the US Flag that draped his coffin along with the LeBron Jersey we got him on his birthday upon the empty seat where Bushy would watch the games. The flag and jersey were present for every play of every playoff game.
These two items, rich with Bushy’s DNA and legacy of public service, got to see the Cavs reel off 10 wins in a row. They saw the three-point record rewritten as his favorite team drained 25 in Atlanta. They watched LeBron spread his wings and fly down from out of nowhere to block Andre Iguodala’s shot with 54 seconds left to secure a 93-89 victory. They took part in the singular most unfathomable and unprecedented Finals comeback ever. Like Moses wandering and waiting for 40 years, my Uncle Bushy had to believe to bear witness.
Uncle Bushy was a gifted writer and an even better teacher of writing. The best piece of advice he gave me was to make writing personal and very specific. The more individual it is, the more universal it becomes. Being a basketball fan is a uniquely private thing, played out in a very public form.
The prophesy of a Kingdom restored has been predicted, and a few times expected by many faithful Cavs fans since their 1970 inception. Sometimes words need to be spoken into existence. It seems fitting and probably no coincidence that it finally occurred inside The Oracle.